In the summer of 1966, General Nguyen Chi Thanh, Viet Cong commander of the Central Office of South Vietnam (COSVN), won a bitter argument. In Hanoi, Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap had been criticizing Thanh for ordering near suicidal, stand-up battles with American combat forces in the South during the past year instead of choosing less costly hit and run guerrilla tactics. In July, Thanh, an ideological zealot famous for motivating his soldiers with class hatred, convinced the Politburo that success in the South would only come with the loss of so many American lives that the growing U.S. antiwar movement would force Washington to abandon the war.
Confusion was rampant on the U.S. side of the ferocious collision of forces
Immediately after prevailing over Giap, Thanh gave his most reliable and experienced division orders for a November offensive. The chosen ground was the sparsely populated region of Tay Ninh Province, just south of the Cambodian border, about 60 kilometers northwest of Saigon. Many considered it as the gateway corridor to the Saigon region and the locus of the majority of country’s population, most of its industry and agriculture and its political capital. Among other tasks, the 9th Viet Cong (VC) Division was to protect the hidden VC storage and supply facilities in Tay Ninh Province, disrupt South Vietnam’s growing effort to win over the rural population and destroy “a vital element” of the enemy forces in the III Corps area.
Senior Colonel Hoang Cam, the 9th VC Division commander, picked the newly arrived U.S. Army 196th Light Infantry Brigade (LIB) based at Tay Ninh West as the “vital element” to be destroyed. The well-experienced and battle-savvy Cam would employ a local force battalion, two of his division’s regiments and the 101st North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Regiment in the offensive. He assigned his 271st Regiment, 1,500 men strong, to attack the American brigade’s base while two battalions of the 272nd Regiment and the local force unit targeted the South Vietnamese home guard unit at Soui Cao, 30 kilometers southeast of Tay Ninh. At the same time, the 3rd Battalion of the 272nd Regiment and the 101st NVA Regiment would attack a U.S. Special Forces unit and indigenous forces at Suoi Da, northeast of Tay Ninh.
Cam’s counterpart, the 196th LIB commander, Brig. Gen. Edward H. de Saussure, an artilleryman in World War II and guided missile expert thereafter, was in his first infantry command. De Saussure had little reason to expect what was coming. While American intelligence was reporting that elements of the 9th VC Division were becoming active in War Zone C, there was no knowledge of COSVN and Colonel Cam’s actual intentions. In September, de Saussure, still supervising two of his battalions in building the brigade’s base camp, launched Operation Attleboro (named for the Massachusetts town). The operation, a battalion-size series of probes into the sparsely populated region surrounding Tay Ninh, was a familiarization and combat training effort focused on searching for VC supply caches and getting the brigade’s feet wet.
Colonel Cam and General de Saussure were about to embark on a bloody encounter that would begin on November 3 and conclude 22 days later. It would ultimately involve skirmishes and battles over several thousand square kilometers with 22,000 Allied troops fighting 5,000 to 6,000 NVA and VC soldiers. But, this wide-ranging struggle would be triggered, driven and shaped not by well-laid plans of either Colonel Cam or General de Saussure, but rather by the ferocious action in a bloody three-day battle that exploded unexpectedly in a thickly wooded four-square-kilometer patch 14 kilometers northwest of Dau Tieng. In those 72 hours, a decisive victory was won by a few American soldiers whose units suffered almost 40 percent of the U.S. battle deaths during the entire three-week operation. Unfortunately for the American survivors of that fight, most did not know what they had achieved at the battle’s end, and it is likely many of those men still do not know the results today.
In late October, de Saussure’s training and familiarization foray began paying big dividends by finding and substantially diminishing COSVN’s secret logistical stocks and discovering valuable intelligence. The search took place in densely forested areas among large, open expanses of savanna and elephant grass, the latter ranging from waist high to even higher. Many of these caches were hidden in sheds under camouflaged roofs. One such storage facility contained some 843 tons of rice—enough to support several of General Thanh’s campaigns. The 196th began gathering, bagging and transporting the rice out to be given back to the peasants from whom it had been seized by VC authorities. Among the weapons, ammunition, food and medical supplies were documents, one of which drew de Saussure’s attention. It described a substantial concealed depot complex where a stream, the Suoi Ba Hao, flows into the Saigon River, about seven kilometers northwest of a 196th Brigade forward command post at Dau Tieng, six kilometers southeast of the Suoi Da Special Forces camp.
The three-day ordeal began on November 3, when General de Saussure laid out an overly complex plan to exploit the intelligence. The operation involved elements of four battalions: 1st Battalion 27th Infantry Regiment (on loan from the 25th Infantry Division), commanded by Major Guy “Sandy” Meloy, and three 196th Brigade battalions: the 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry, commanded by Lt. Col. Charles Weddle; 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry, under Lt. Col. Hugh Lynch; and 3rd Battalion of the 21st Infantry, commanded by Lt. Col. Charles Nulsen.
Meloy, a short, intense 36-year-old infantryman, argued vigorously against the plan—to no avail. De Saussure wanted the dense wooded area to be attacked from the south by four widely separated elements, all of which were to be flanked on both sides by two elements from Meloy’s battalion. His battalion, separated in two parts by a distance of about four to five kilometers, would lose its cohesion. Years later, Meloy described the plan as “ludicrous,” because, “command and control of the separate attacks was impossible.” He told de Saussure that there would be no mutual support and extreme difficulty in maintaining control of the several columns once they entered the forest. Not surprisingly, the general’s views prevailed.
The American plan was launched at 0900 as the four columns of Weddle and Lynch’s battalions entered the tree line. Twenty-two minutes later, Meloy’s B Company landed to the east of the attacking columns. At 0950, Meloy’s C Company landed to the west, moved to the tree line and sent a point patrol ahead into the woods. After moving a few hundred meters, the patrol ran into the 9th VC Division’s Reconnaissance Company guarding a well-camouflaged camp. Fierce fighting erupted and in a short time, the C Company commander, his first sergeant and four others were killed. Six more men were wounded. Meloy quickly made his way to the beleaguered unit, called for reinforcements and began evacuating wounded. By 1245, Meloy’s A Company made its way to the growing fight, joining C Company. Flying overhead, General de Saussure ordered the commitment of a reserve company from Nulsen’s battalion, which was back at Tay Ninh. It began landing in Meloy’s rear at 1445. De Saussure also ordered up two companies from Weddle’s battalion. They arrived at dusk, 1800 hours.
As darkness fell and the fighting began to wane, the realization of the character of this ferocious collision between two equally determined forces emerged. On the U.S. side, confusion was rampant. For instance, Meloy did not realize he had been given two of Weddle’s infantry companies until they reported to him during the night. De Saussure had not forewarned him. Meloy now had five companies under his command, three of which he had never worked with. The vegetation was so thick that units easily became separated, losing their own unity and contact with sister units. The American ace-in-the-hole, firepower, was largely nullified by fear of hitting friendly forces whose exact location could not be determined. American casualties were mounting, chiefly because of a skillful defense by Colonel Cam’s troops.
The camp Meloy’s men had discovered was protected by camouflaged bunkers, some of them made of concrete and manned by machine gun crews. Well-concealed snipers were high off the ground in many of the larger trees, and had easily picked off individual Americans. Elsewhere, however, Meloy’s B Company, which had landed at 0920 in the morning about four kilometers east and to the right of the four columns, had gotten underway to a blocking position, made good progress and had uncovered a fortified, deserted VC position. Realizing the unexpected strength of the Communist forces, de Saussure discarded his original scheme and ordered his remaining five companies to circle up several kilometers to the northeast under the command of Lt. Col. Lynch.
The Americans were not alone in making changes to their plans. Colonel Cam radically revised his whole offensive. The assault on the 196th Brigade’s headquarters at Tay Ninh West was downgraded to a standoff mortar attack. The raid on South Vietnamese forces at Suoi Cao was to be lightened to a mere feint. (But when executed the next day, the 272nd VC Regiment made an all-out frontal attack, leaving 53 bodies behind in its retreat.) The assault on Suoi Da was canceled. Instead, Cam was intent on the utter destruction of American forces along the Suoi Ba Hao. The 9th VC Division commander began funneling troops of the 101st NVA Regiment into the fight—aimed right at Meloy.
On November 4, after a relatively quiet night, Meloy launched a two-company flanking movement to the east. An hour later, hoping he had flanked the enemy, he began an advance through the heavy vegetation to the northeast and promptly ran into a battalion of North Vietnamese regulars manning bunkers. Defenders and attackers’ fire was deafening and intense. In many spots the two forces were slugging it out only 10 to 20 meters apart. Meloy called in artillery fire and directed two company-size flanking attacks. Both failed. Rifle and machine gun fire was so constant that merely standing up invited a quick death.
Suddenly, the North Vietnamese began attacking in waves. The Americans were forced to defend and could neither attack nor withdraw without prohibitive casualties. Except for one enlisted man, everyone in Meloy’s command party including himself was wounded. With air or artillery support either ineffective or unwise because of the uncertain proximity of friendly forces, the only remaining option was to bring in more forces to get at the enemy flank, rear—or both.
The rescue force had already been selected. Late in the day, just after the third unsuccessful NVA wave attack, C Company from the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry, was landed about 400 meters behind what was believed to be the enemy right flank. Almost immediately, the newcomers drew heavy fire from tree snipers and a new deadly hazard: “fire tunnels.” The wily defenders had chopped narrow firing lanes into tall elephant grass whose tops had leaned over, obscuring the open lanes below waist level. At the beginning of each “tunnel” was a bunker with a machine gun crew peering through the length of the tunnel and cutting down anyone unknowingly stepping into the firing lane. The 2nd Battalion’s C Company commander was an early victim, and a half-hour later, the 2nd Battalion commander, who had accompanied the unit, was also killed. As with Meloy’s stymied forces, their “rescuers” found themselves on the defensive, partly because they did not have enough able men to evacuate their many wounded.
That night, Meloy, who, with the newly arrived elements, now controlled eight infantry companies, made an attempt to reach the beleaguered 2nd Battalion company. At the cost of five dead and eight wounded, the assault failed. During the night, Meloy kept up artillery support well forward of where he believed friendly forces were located. (Throughout the three-day battle, his fire support included 14,000 artillery rounds and 40 airstrikes.)
At first light on November 5, Meloy ordered the recently arrived A Company of the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry, to resume the effort to reach and recover C Company. A Company, under the command of Captain Robert Foley, a tall, 25-year-old level-headed and fearless infantryman from Newton, Mass., was told what little was known of C Company’s plight and began his attack. After advancing only 30 meters, the company ran into withering fire. Foley organized a base of supporting fire and personally led an attack that overran three bunkers, but he could not carry the other NVA positions. Foley’s actions and those of one of his courageous privates, John Baker, who single-handedly attacked and knocked out one of the bunkers, earned Medals of Honor that bloody morning. This rescue attempt cost the lives of eight A Company soldiers.
Nevertheless, C Company would soon be saved. To the northeast, Meloy’s B Company commander, Captain Robert Garrett, was in a blocking position with two 196th Brigade companies under the control of Lt. Col. Lynch. Garrett, no longer willing to remain stationary listening to the roar of battle to the southwest, simply decided to “go to the sound of the guns.” Convincing a reluctant Lynch, Garrett led his own and the two 196th Brigade companies in a three-pronged attack to the southeast in the morning of November 5. Moving against surprisingly light resistance, Garrett radioed Meloy and announced his ad hoc battalion was within 1,000-1,250 meters of the fight. Strangely, enemy firing had become sporadic. By 1200 hours, Garrett’s force reached the remnants of C Company and helped evacuate its six dead and 19 wounded.
The North Vietnamese Army had all but vanished. The mysterious reason for their disappearance would not be known until several months later.
While Meloy was still in a deadly toe-to-toe struggle with the NVA and VC regulars, U.S. higher headquarters were in the midst of changing battle leadership and expanding the scope and strength of the response to General Thanh’s forces. The likelihood of at least one change emerged during the afternoon of November 5 when Maj. Gen. William DePuy, commander of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, suddenly appeared at Meloy’s command post. Meloy later described the conversation:
“He asked if I really had eight companies. I told him that since I had been given three more, I was now up to 11. He was rather astonished and he asked when I had last talked with de Saussure on the radio, and I told him it had been at least 48 hours. He then asked when was the last time I actually had physical contact with de Saussure and I told him it had been on the evening of November 2 at Dau Tieng.”
With the standard of a combat commander’s span of control being only three to five subordinate elements, and General de Sausseur’s lack of contact with his most engaged subordinate, it was obvious that de Sausseur’s tenure as a brigade commander was going to be considerably shortened. But first, DePuy, who had been given command of the entire operation, ordered all of the U.S. units out of the woods, assembled and returned to their original battalion. When all men were accounted for, they were to be flown back to their home bases.
Mysteriously, the North Vietnamese Army had all but vanished
A dark and gloomy mood prevailed among exhausted officers and troops of the 196th LIB and the two 27th Infantry battalions as they withdrew. Talking about what they had been through, many of the soldiers claimed they were “ambushed,” inferring the enemy had gotten the best of them. Telling these dejected soldiers that they had in fact, been the force that had located an enemy camp and attacked it and that it was the Communists who had been forced to defend themselves was not a satisfying explanation. Most had never experienced such large losses. On returning to their bases, they would learn the depressing numbers: 60 U.S. killed in action and 159 wounded.
Contributing to the low morale was that they had been pulled from the battlefield before they had an opportunity to see the death and destruction they had brought on their adversaries, losses that included about 200 dead. Another reason for the dismal mood was General de Sausseur’s performance. It was best summed up by one of his battalion commanders, Lt. Col. Charles Nulsen: “One battalion commander was commanding 11 companies while another battalion commander was left to command only his headquarters elements.”
Operation Attleboro was going into a new phase even before the withdrawal of the 196th LIB. Brigades of the 1st Infantry Division—and later the 25th Infantry Division, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the 173rd Airborne Brigade and three South Vietnamese infantry battalions, began arriving at several locations in Tay Ninh Province. The next morning, November 6, a massive hunt for all elements of the VC 9th Division began. DePuy, a highly intelligent officer with a superb record as an infantry battalion commander in World War II and a stern intolerance of incompetence, shaped the next 19-day phase of Attleboro with a simple dictum: “Find the enemy with the least number of men and destroy them with the maximum amount of firepower.”
His forces produced what the general demanded from the very start. On the evening of November 6, a 1st Division ambush squad spotted a column of enemy troops moving along a trail. The men fired their claymore mines into the column and quickly called in artillery. Soon, 70 enemy bodies lay along the trail. Throughout this first day of Attleboro’s new phase, 1st Division losses were one killed and 23 wounded while enemy losses included 170 killed.
Two days later, under incessant attacks from several U.S. brigades, Colonel Cam began losing control of his 9th Division. Sending orders to the battered 101st NVA Regiment to protect ammunition stores being moved by a COSVN rear service group, he discovered the NVA unit was in a panicky retreat that spooked the logisticians, who abandoned the ammunition stores and joined the rout to save their own skins.
During the next two weeks, U.S. forces found huge amounts of rice, clothing, communications equipment and ammunition abandoned by General Thanh’s forces. On November 25, when Operation Attleboro concluded, American leaders reported a total 1,016 VC/NVA killed. There were 155 U.S. KIA. While an agent reported Communist losses at twice the U.S. estimate, captured documents, found many months after the operation ended, pegged VC/NVA losses at about half of what the American leaders claimed. These documents also reported the 9th Division’s 101st NVA Regiment suffering heavy losses while the two VC regiments, the 272nd and 271st, experienced moderate and slight losses respectively.
Few members of the two 27th Infantry battalions, soldiers who had borne the lion’s share of the losses and had done most of the heavy fighting during Operation Attleboro, would learn of their actual accomplishments before they left Vietnam. Most had arrived there early in 1966 and had completed their tours long before the enemy side of the story surfaced. A carefully researched unclassified study of the battle was not published until 32 years later, in 1998. It is now clear that General Nguyen Chi Thanh’s Dry Season Offensive came to an early and ignoble end within hours after the first contact with Meloy’s battalion on November 3. Almost immediately, Colonel Cam changed his Dry Season Offensive plan to concentrate his forces on the destruction of the 196th Brigade. In the next three days, this battle went so badly for him that Cam never resumed the original effort.
The captured documents also unraveled the mystery of the sudden lack of enemy resistance on November 5, soon after Foley’s violent attack and during Garrett’s sweep to reach Meloy’s position. The documents revealed that the 3rd Battalion of the 101st NVA Regiment that was facing Meloy’s men was so ravaged by the American attacks and firepower that—without withdrawal orders—its troops simply fled the battlefield. The report went on to describe how the North Vietnamese were so shaken that it took six days to locate the survivors.
The Operation Attleboro story ended with most elements of the 9th VC Division having either been run out of the country or desperately evading the forces they had been sent to destroy. The heroic performance of these two U.S. battalions in early November ensured there would be no Communist offensive in the Saigon Corridor during the dry season of 1966.
General Nguyen Chi Thanh was posthumously promoted to the rank of senior general after reportedly being killed in a 1967 B-52 bombing attack. Brigadier General Edward H. de Saussure was relieved of command of the 196th LIB shortly after Attleboro ended. To the dismay of many who were there during those costly three days, de Saussure was later promoted to major general. He died in 2002. Major General Sandy Meloy retired in 1982. Robert Foley retired as a lieutenant general in 2000. Master Sergeant John Baker retired in 1989 and serves as vice president of America’s most prestigious veteran’s group, the Medal of Honor Society. In April 1975, a little over nine years after Operation Attleboro, Maj. Gen. Hoang Cam commanded the North Vietnamese IV Corps in the defeat of the South Vietnamese army at the last clash of arms of the Vietnam War, the Battle of Xuan Loc.
Rod Paschall was a Special Forces detachment commander in Vietnam in 1962-63, served in Laos in 1964 before returning to Vietnam as a company commander and staff officer in 1966-68, and finished his service in Southeast Asia in Cambodia in 1974-75. Currently, he is editor-at-large for MHQ.