In the war’s biggest operation, Westmoreland won his ‘big unit’ campaign but lost confidence that the war could be won
U.S. General William Westmoreland and North Vietnamese Senior General Nguyen Chi Thanh had a lot in common in early 1967. Both born in 1914, they were in their professional prime at age 53. Three years earlier, each had come into command of large armies and were now standing boldly at the center stage of the unfolding drama that was the Vietnam War—and each of them was intent on killing or capturing as many of the other’s forces as possible in big-unit, toe-to-toe battle.
Thanh and Westmoreland also had stark differences. Westmoreland had worked his way up the chain, commanding ground forces in World War II and the Korean War. He had a reputation as an energetic, can-do, motivational commander with an uncanny knack for remembering faces and names. Thanh was a peasant farmer turned revolutionary, first arrested for anti-French activities in the 1930s and elevated to the Vietnam Communist Party Politburo in 1951. He was the Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN) political czar and answered to the party rather than the military, led by North Vietnam’s legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap. Thanh was a potent, contentious critic of Giap, who in 1966 was pushing for a reversion to guerrilla warfare and the abandonment of Thanh’s big-unit war strategy—or what Giap saw as “suicidal” stand-up battle with the Americans. Supported by top party leaders Le Duan and Le Duc Tho, Thanh’s argument prevailed.
Westmoreland and Thanh both welcomed a war of big-unit battles, but for different reasons. Thanh, a fiery, pro-Chinese ideologue, believed head-on fights with the Americans would—like those against the French a decade earlier—greatly boost his soldiers’ morale. He also believed Westmoreland’s high-casualty “attrition” strategy would ultimately cause the United States to quit the war. Westmoreland, on the other hand, after having seen the South Vietnamese village pacification program almost wiped out in battles with main force Viet Cong (VC) units in 1964-1965, firmly held that U.S. victory hinged on destroying those main forces, or at a minimum keeping them away from the population.
Now, in the late winter of 1967, these two generals were preparing to direct their subordinate commanders to go head- to-head near the Cambodian border in northern Tay Ninh and Binh Long provinces, where they would further ratchet up the intensity of a war that was already costing serious losses, especially among Communist forces.
During 1966, the Communists’ battle deaths throughout the country had risen to some 5,000 a month. General Thanh, who as the chief of the Central Office of South Vietnam (COSVN) commanded both PAVN and Viet Cong units, had a significant part of his forces still recovering from earlier battles in the southern half of South Vietnam. Regiments of one of his divisions, the VC 9th, were widely separated and pulling in replacements to restore heavy losses they had suffered in November 1966, during Operation Attleboro. Thanh’s 5th VC Division was inactive, still being constituted. His 7th North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Division had two regiments in Phouc Long Province and one other, the 101st Regiment, was in Cambodia, just north of Tay Ninh Province, also recovering from recent combat.
From Westmoreland’s perspective, the time was right for a major push. He had far more resources than Thanh to put into a large battle and he intended to use them. Westmoreland directed the Second Field Force Vietnam (IIFFV) commander, Lt. Gen. Jonathan Seaman, to plan an operation in War Zone C and told him “to think big.” The objectives of the operation were to “engage the 9th Viet Cong Division and the 101st North Vietnamese Army Regiment; to destroy COSVN headquarters; and to destroy enemy base camps and installations in the area of operation.” The plans included a first in Vietnam—an American battalion-size parachute assault, that had been lobbied for by Airborne officers to a sympathetic Westmoreland, who had himself been a parachutist.
Although the exact locations of the targeted Communist units and Thanh’s headquarters were not known, Seaman believed the optimal area to attack was an approximately 300-square-mile patch of flat, semiforested terrain just south of the Cambodian border between two north-south highways, Routes 22 and 4.
The operation was to be massive, involving nine battalions in three brigades swooping in by air to create an east-west blocking position on the northern boundary along Route 246. At the same time, two more brigades would move north, either on land or by helicopter, along Routes 22 and 4 to form blocking positions to the west and east. Then, the opening to the south along Route 247 would be sealed by an infantry brigade side by side with an armored cavalry regiment, which on the next day would both sweep north, searching for General Thanh’s COSVN headquarters. All told, there would be 22 ground-combat battalions participating in Operation Junction City, named for a town just outside the 1st Infantry home base at Fort Riley, Kan. Seaman’s Second Field Force headquarters subordinated the northern and northeastern units to the 1st Infantry Division; the northwestern and western units would be under the operational direction of the 25th Infantry Division. Both divisions would report to IIFFV headquarters. Fire support for the operation was to be provided by 17 field artillery battalions and some 4,000 Air Force sorties.
Near dawn on Feb. 22, 1967, a surprise B-52 airstrike pounded suspected Communist positions in the objective area, and a battalion of 1st Division troops began climbing aboard 70 helicopters for a 7:20 a.m. air assault near Katum. After delivering the first flight of troops, the helicopters turned around and sped off to pick up more. At about the same time, to the west, a battalion of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade was being landed by another large fleet of helicopters near the intersection of Routes 22 and 246, while infantrymen in trucks and armored personnel carriers began coming north on Routes 22 and 4 to link up with the air assault troops.
To the north, at 9 a.m., 845 men of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade, and paratroopers of an attached artillery battery began jumping from C-130s. The descending paratroopers took sporadic enemy fire from the ground, but the shooters were quickly silenced or driven away by helicopter gunships. At 9:15, more C-130s appeared and the first cargo parachutes blossomed and drifted down with ammunition, artillery pieces and trucks, all under the watchful eyes of Chief Warrant Officer Howard Melvin, who had just added Vietnam to his four other combat jumps in Sicily, Italy, France and Holland. Melvin was responsible for rigging all the cargo for air delivery, which turned out to be nearly perfect. Within an hour, the paratroopers were in their assigned blocking positions; only one of them had been wounded by ground fire. By late afternoon, all units had established a horseshoe-shaped blocking formation of about 40 miles. And from the south, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment and a brigade of the 25th Infantry Division were beginning to barrel their way north to begin their attack inside the horseshoe.
Operation Junction City had been launched without a hitch, and expectations for success were high. But for the next five days, disappointment reigned among the Americans as well as in the ranks of a two-battalion South Vietnamese Marine task force that had joined the operation. General Thanh and the COSVN headquarters were simply nowhere to be found. There had been some fighting, which had left 54 Communists and 28 U.S. soldiers dead, and a number of recently occupied base camps, bunkers and supply dumps had been discovered, including a hastily abandoned COSVN photo lab. The facility yielded hundreds of pictures—some identified southerners working for North Vietnam. But the allies’ main quarry had simply gotten away. Nearly four decades later, in a book published in Hanoi in 2006 by Dinh Thi Van, it was suggested that a North Vietnamese spy working in Saigon had compromised the operation.
After about a week, on February 28, the first substantial contact, about seven miles south of Katum, jarred the allies and signaled that Thanh’s forces were ready to fight. A 1st Division infantry company was ambushed by elements of the 101st NVA Regiment. The Americans repulsed several assaults during the four-hour attack, but U.S. casualties were heavy, with 25 dead. Even so, the battle proved costlier for the northerners, who left behind 167 killed and 40 weapons. Days later, on March 3, a similar contact was made when a company of paratroopers encountered a contingent from the 70th Guard Regiment, COSVN’s security force. In an intense 30 minutes, the Americans lost 20 men killed, and the 70th left behind 39 bodies. A week later, on the night of March 10, U.S. forces near Prek Klok detected a sizable enemy movement. At 10 p.m., 150 mortar rounds and a flurry of 120mm rocket warheads hit the base as a prelude to a battalion-size attack of the 272nd VC Regiment. American artillery from several U.S. firebases poured high-explosive munitions on the attackers. Within an hour, the Viet Cong withdrew, leaving behind 200 dead and 5 wounded. Three U.S. soldiers were killed. The next day, about six miles east of Prek Klok, the 173rd Airborne was attacked by 101st NVA troops. Although the NVA quickly broke contact, the paratroopers pursued them for three days, killing more than 50 at the cost of 14 wounded.
Though the action had picked up, Seaman was still disappointed with the results thus far, so he moved most of his forces east to an area loosely bordered by Route 4 in the west, Route 246 to the north and Highway 13 in the east. On March 20, the 25th Infantry Division established Firebase Gold, near Suoi Tre, about nine miles southeast of Katum. An infantry and an artillery battalion totaling about 450 U.S. soldiers manned Gold. That night, their listening posts reported hearing troop movement around the perimeter.
At 6:30 a.m. the next morning, Gold was hit by a mortar attack, followed five minutes later by a two-battalion assault by the Viet Cong 272nd Regiment, which penetrated the firebase perimeter. Artillery at two nearby U.S. firebases began firing a protective barrage around Gold. At 7 a.m., an airstrike by F-5 fighters initially gave the defenders some breathing room—before the Viet Cong managed to shoot down the forward air controller’s plane. Without the air support, the VC were able to break through the perimeter and race for the artillery battalion. Facing the overwhelming onslaught, the 25th Division artillerymen loaded beehive rounds, each round containing several thousand nail-like flechettes that were ejected from the shell in flight by a time fuze, and lowered their barrels—shredding the attackers at point-blank range. While this halted the initial penetration in its tracks, another enemy assault immediately followed, forcing the defenders to begin giving ground. After another air controller entered the area, a flight of USAF F-100s was directed in. An Air Force coordinator who was inside Gold later described what happened next: “There must have been 500 of them [VC] coming at me, and this guy laid napalm right on the top of ’em.” The second Viet Cong penetration was incinerated. But immediately, a serious third threat developed at another part of the perimeter as Viet Cong soldiers reached a quad .50-caliber mount and turned it on the Americans. This peril was ended when a howitzer crew fired a 105mm high-explosive round and destroyed the mount.
After two hours of intense violence, at 8:40, the restored perimeter was still holding, but the defenders were running low on ammunition. Just then, a battalion of the U.S. 12th Infantry reached Gold after a difficult trek through a patch of thick bamboo. Under fire, the infantrymen fought their way into the firebase and took up a portion of the perimeter defense.
Shortly after 9 a.m., a tank-supported column from the 2nd Battalion, 22nd Mechanized Infantry, broke out of the jungle and into the flank of the surviving Viet Cong troops, who were now beginning to withdraw. They were decimated by a fusillade of 90mm canister munitions from the tanks. Many of the fleeing Communist soldiers were crushed beneath the tracks of the tanks and armored personnel carriers. The Battle of Firebase Gold, also known as the Battle of Suoi Tre, was over.
Sweeps of the terrain around Gold found 647 VC bodies, 159 weapons, 600 RPG rounds and 1,900 grenades and took seven prisoners. It was one of the largest one-day body counts of the entire war. U.S. casualties included 31 killed and 109 wounded.
Firebase Gold wasn’t the only bloody venue in War Zone C on March 20. Just after midnight, the VC 273rd Regiment attacked a U.S. 9th Infantry Division firebase at Bau Bang, 35 miles southeast of Gold on Route 13. A battery of 105mm howitzers and a cavalry troop with 20 armored personnel carriers, three mortar carriers and six tanks was engaged in securing that vital artery when the VC launched a battalion-size attack in the dark. With the scene illuminated by flares and vehicle headlights, U.S. artillery, tank canister fire and machine guns turned back the initial attackers. At 5 a.m., the VC threw in another battalion, which was pummeled with more of the same, plus a dose of napalm and cluster bombs delivered by F-100s and F-4s. As daylight came, a sweep of the battlefield turned up 227 bodies and three captives. U.S. losses totaled 3 killed and 63 wounded.
The next significant clash in Junction City was an April 1 action with some of the only VC forces still in War Zone C that were close to full strength. The 271st VC Regiment and a battalion of the 70th Guard Regiment were ordered to attack two 1st Infantry Division battalions at Landing Zone George, about 12 miles southeast of Katum near Route 246. The main VC effort began at 5 a.m. with a strong mortar preparation followed by a full-throated ground assault at dawn. Despite heavy artillery support from several firebases, the Americans initially gave ground in close combat, but they reestablished a defense about the time a devastating and accurate Air Force close-air support flight arrived, firing rockets and dropping bombs and napalm. This action from above broke the back of the Viet Cong attack. When a sweep of the deserted battlefield was made that same day, about 600 enemy dead and five wounded were found. The American losses were 17 killed and 102 wounded. Within two weeks of the battle at LZ George, the Viet Cong had stopped their costly and unsuccessful attempts to destroy allied forces by overrunning their firebases. They even avoided defending their own bases against battalion-size attacks. They had gone to ground, only resorting to stand-off actions by rocket, mortar and sniper fire and planting mines and booby traps. American and ARVN forces now found themselves on seemingly endless and uneventful jungle treks. Thanh’s COSVN headquarters and some of its badly depleted units had moved into Cambodia.
On April 15, largely because of the abrupt disappearance of company-size or larger Communist forces, Junction City—the biggest operation of the war thus far—was brought to an end. Allied forces departed War Zone C, leaving behind five Special Forces bases that would monitor the area.
Operation Junction City should have been proof positive of the futility of General Thanh’s theory of big-unit battle against American forces, which possessed an enormous advantage in firepower. The toll on the Communist forces was reckoned at 2,728 dead, not counting losses from other causes. Later, a COSVN document was captured that claimed that from February 21 until April 15, its forces had killed 13,500 Americans—a number that may have actually been reported to Hanoi. The real tally of U.S. killed during the operation was 282. A better indication of General Thanh’s true impression of his forces’ plight was revealed in his directive that there be no regiment-size attacks for six months. As much as he still might favor the big-unit battle, he simply could not afford such actions until he replenished his losses. Through captured documents and defectors, the allied leadership learned that within COSVN, the operation was considered a major setback.
If American estimates were reasonably accurate, some of Hanoi’s leaders may have concluded that General Thanh’s tactics were playing into General Westmoreland’s overall plans. In Hanoi, many believed Westmoreland favored a strategy of attrition—killing more VC and NVA soldiers than could be replaced. Based on Junction City results, it appeared to be so. During the first six months of 1967, Communist losses from all causes—defections, disease, wounded, desertion, plus battle deaths—were believed to exceed 15,000 a month. That was considerably more than they could replace, an estimated 10,500 a month.
The large number of Communist losses during Operation Junction City, together with combat operations in the highlands and the northern part of South Vietnam, had a serious effect on the course of the war. A stalemate had been achieved. That fact, in turn, contributed to a change in strategic thinking in Hanoi where, in mid-1967, the dramatic decision was made to seize the cities of the Republic of Vietnam and stage a “general uprising” of the South Vietnamese people against their own government. Thus, the North Vietnamese plans for the Tet Offensive of January 1968 were undoubtedly influenced by the American actions in early 1967. On the allied side, after the battles in War Zone C, large-unit operations in the southern half of South Vietnam were de-emphasized in favor of rural security actions; battalion-size or larger operations there in 1967 were reduced 40 percent from the previous year and small-unit operations aimed at securing the countryside increased by 25 percent, based on the assumption that the VC was a spent force and perhaps government control of the once-disputed areas could be restored through the pacification program.
On its face, it would seem that Westmoreland’s big-unit warfare had succeeded. But Westmoreland didn’t think so. In Operation Junction City, almost all of the large clashes of battalions, brigades and regiments had been enemy-initiated, as had often happened in countless other operations. And, as before, almost all of the large-scale American and South Vietnamese sweeps of forested terrain were fruitless. With such a poor record of finding the enemy, Westmoreland knew any time his opponent wanted to rest its forces, avoid combat or replenish supplies, he could do so either in Laos or Cambodia, or even in some of the heavily wooded terrain of South Vietnam itself. Although Hanoi could and did use Laos and Cambodia to shelter some of its major units, headquarters and most of its logistical lifeline, the United States limited its ground presence in those countries to small, brief Special Forces reconnaissance patrols and an air interdiction campaign, which was only partially successful. The North Vietnamese were still able to move essential supplies and replacements through to the south. Westmoreland also realized that the American public’s patience with the growing U.S. casualty numbers was limited, while his opponent’s toleration of losses appeared almost limitless. Even while Junction City successes mounted, Westmoreland was not optimistic about achieving U.S. goals in Southeast Asia.
On the very day of the massive bloodlettings at Firebase Gold and Bau Bang, March 20, Westmoreland spoke directly and frankly to the highest authorities about his view of the course of the war. The occasion was a meeting on Guam, primarily about the pacification program and rural development. Attending were President Lyndon B. Johnson and his national security team, and South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu with his advisers. When Westmoreland rose to report on the military situation in South Vietnam, he sensed the audience was clearly anticipating an upbeat report about the recent Junction City successes.
But the bottom line of Westmorland’s presentation ended with a starkly grim assessment. He said he did not believe the VC organization could be completely destroyed, and that if the allies were unable to halt North Vietnamese infiltration of manpower and supplies the war could go on indefinitely. He recalled later that when he sat down, his audience was “painfully silent.”
Those in the room knew that Johnson had nixed a 1965 plan supported by the Joint Chiefs to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos by ground intervention. And now Westmoreland was urging it yet again. By choosing this venue he was, in effect, saying the allies might suppress the Viet Cong in South Vietnam through an enhanced pacification and rural development program, but if they did not attack Hanoi’s forces in Laos and Cambodia and destroy its line of communications through those countries, the North Vietnamese leadership would simply wait it out and then use its main forces to conquer the south. President Johnson would not agree to a ground operation in Laos, but he did approve an expanded rural pacification program.
In the early weeks of Junction City, Westmoreland had likely realized that letting the enemy forces use sanctuaries would probably destroy American hopes to win the war. Believing that the present course must be changed, he concluded that only by removing the tether on allied ground forces could they deprive the NVA of sanctuaries and supplies and force them to defend their line of communications. That would open an opportunity to destroy Hanoi’s main forces and bring the war to a satisfactory end.
On April 28, Westmoreland addressed a joint session of Congress and cited an encouraging list of allied accomplishments in Vietnam. He did not, of course, reveal the somber advice he had given to his commander in chief a month earlier.
Although Generals Thanh and Westmoreland were destined to pass from the scene of the war before its conclusion, they will forever be regarded as key figures in the story. Thanh was reckless in throwing his forces in the teeth of allied firepower, and the heavy losses contributed to the subsequent stalemate and Hanoi’s change in strategy. In some uncertain measure, his ideas and clout in Hanoi’s power circles was probably diminished, but that will never be known for certain, because he died about three months after Operation Junction City ended, on July 6, 1967.
Thanh was clearly proven to be right in one of his beliefs, however. His conclusion that the American public would eventually grow intolerant of the loss of its youths’ lives in Vietnam was validated. Westmoreland was well aware of Thanh’s belief and clearly referenced it in his April speech to lawmakers, saying that the enemy “believes our Achilles heel is our resolve.”
A year later, in June 1968, following the shock of the Tet Offensive, Westmoreland too left the stage and returned to the United States. Unlike Thanh, who by dying young, never had to endure criticism for his decisions, Westmoreland lived to a ripe old age of 91 and, for the rest of his days and beyond, provided a convenient target for those who seek someone to blame for the war’s outcome. H
An editor-at-large for MHQ, Rod Paschall was a company commander and staff officer in Vietnam from 1966 to 1968. A Special Forces detachment commander in Vietnam in 1962-63, he also served in Laos in 1964 and in Cambodia in 1974-75.