from Professional Knowledge Gained from Operational Experience in Vietnam, 1967
1. ONCE IS ENOUGH
Since March 1965 when Marine tactical units first landed in the Republic of Vietnam, hundreds of lessons have been learned concerning the method of operating in a counterinsurgency environment. Many of them have been learned at a high cost in Marine lives and material. Such a price is too high, particularly if it has to be paid twice. If a lesson is learned once, there should be no need to pay the price the second time.
The majority of lessons learned as a result of operations in Vietnam are published in various documents that are distributed throughout the Marine Corps. These include FMFPAC's "Tactical Trends and Training Tips" and this publication. It is the duty of all commands to make certain that this information is made available to all personnel, particularly those destined for duty with the III Marine Amphibious Force.
Let's not pay a double price for lessons learned. The price is too high already.
2. SAME WORDS, NEW INTERPRETATION
In analyzing an operation area in counterguerrilla warfare, the military considerations of terrain still offer the most logical method of solving the problem. There is a difference, however, in the interpretation of military phrases such as"key terrain." For example, if a guerrilla force is known to have a shortage of medical supplies and there is a civilian hospital or dispensary located in a battalion's zone of responsibility, that hospital ought to be considered key terrain. Certainly, its seizure and control by the guerrilla force will give them a marked advantage. Even a raid or subtle pilferage of its medical supplies will offer advantage to the enemy. A province or district town should be considered key terrain for its political or psychological importance.
The guerrilla must swim in the sea of the local populace not only for camouflage but often for his food supply. This makes the rice field and the granary key terrain features in a land where rice is the staple food. During harvest seasons, the fields take on added significance. The control of the rice fields offers a distinct advantage to those who protect them. Without this protection the grain might never be harvested and much of it could find its way into Viet Cong stomachs.
One item that has become a common sight in field operations is a large burlap or cotton cloth bag in which captured rice can be collected. When a unit discovers hidden food stores, these bags are then filled, moved to a common collecting point and evacuated by helo or truck. Captured foods usually are moved to the district or provincial headquarters for storage and redistribution. Evacuation of captured food caches can serve two important purposes. First, it denies the Viet Cong a much needed staple and second, it increases the food available to the local populace. Be sure to maintain a supply of rice bags on hand in the LSA readily available to the ground units for rice evacuation.
a. Attention to Detail
Sounds hardly heard or not noticed at all during the day may become extremely obvious during the still of the night. An example is that of the patrol member who departed on patrol wearing a pair of jungle boots he had not worn previously on night patrol. Within the patrol base with its normal activity or within the neighboring hamlet with its barking dogs, no detrimental clothing or equipment noises were noticed. However, in the night silence of a jungle trail the creaking leather was clearly audible from meters away.
Prior to each night patrol, it is a good idea to have each member walk a short distance wearing the clothing and equipment he will wear while on patrol in order to detect undesired sounds. It may save your life.
b. An Old Trick
On one occasion a Marine night combat patrol halted to conduct a count of patrol members and discovered that there were six men too many. The patrol lost no time in separating the VC from the rest of the patrol. Two VC were killed in the process.
c. Rear Area Patrols
Rear area patrolling is an essential part of counterinsurgency operations. In addition to providing immediate security, patrols can uncover evidence of VC activity. Patrols can determine changes in the attitude of local villagers which are caused by VC terrorism and harassment, Hard evidence, such as directional arrows or mine markers may also be uncovered. The success of a patrol depends on the alertness and keenness of observation of every member of the patrol.
d. Pursue and Then Some
On several occasions when patrols have been in close pursuit of fleeing VC, Marines have been distracted by the packs dropped by the VC along the trail. While the pursuers stopped to examine the pack contents, the Viet Cong have made good their escape. You can always come back and pick up the pack, so keep your pursuit a "hot one" and don't forget security measures as you pursue.
e. Just Like Hunting Deer
While on a patrol at night or in heavily vegetated areas, STOP briefly every 10 or 15 minutes to LISTEN, SMELL the air, and take a careful LOOK AROUND. People make noise and create distinctive smells. Camp sites can be located by the smells of old camp fires or refuse. Try not to smoke for at least two hours before going on patrol; smoking tobacco tends temporarily to deaden the sense of smell. When you use spiced or medicated shaving creams, hair tonics or after-shave lotion, you tend to saturate your own sense of smell, so try a little less. Remember, a little dab will do you.
f. Detailed Search
The Importance of developing detailed search techniques is illustrated by the experience of one friendly waterborne patrol.
The patrol encountered an unlighted passenger junk with forty persons aboard. As the patrol craft came alongside the junk, they observed packages being dropped over the side and passengers furtively slipping vials into the bilges and under baggage.
A partial search of the junk and its occupants revealed over two hundred vials of 500,000 units of penicillin, 33,655 piasters and twenty-four new batteries. Most of the penicillin was hidden in the underclothing of two women who were feigning illness.
g. Patrol Accessory Packs
Combat patrols must be prepared for a multitude of eventualities, especially in Vietnam. Certain items of equipment should be available to each patrol leader or ambush team commander. These include demolitions for destroying enemy positions and facilities, pyrotechnics for signalling location, targets, or loss of contact, illumination grenades, flashlights and a signal mirror. A pack can be developed incorporating these and other items which can then be issued to a patrol leader.
a. Ambush Insertion
Covert insertion of ambush elements can best be accomplished by moving them into the ambushed area as part of a regular patrol. The ambush elements should be dispersed throughout the patrol formation with their radio antennas detached. Upon completion of the ambush, another patrol can be used to pick up the original ambush force and drop off another, if desired. In this manner the patrol size is kept constant making it difficult for the enemy to notice that an element has been dropped off.
Another technique is to have the pickup patrol attempt to flush the enemy toward the ambush so artillery and mortar fire can be called.
b. "L" Type Ambush
The following account, received from a U.S. Army unit in Vietnam, is a good example of a typical VC "L" shaped ambush action. The success attained by friendly forces can be attributed to rapid and aggressive reaction, and the use of the reserve against the enemy's weak flank."Company A was moving down from the high ground to the open field in a two up and one back formation, and they ran into a classic 'L' type ambush. From description, this must have included at least two different VC companies, because they had two different uniforms. The VC to the front along the base of the 'L' wore fatigues, steel helmets and packs on their backs. Along the stem of the 'L' to the left flank of A Company, they wore khakis with blue bandannas on their heads. Now actually A Company discovered the VC first. The left front platoon man crossed a small trail and noticed that the brush was bent down recently across the trail, so he got down on his hands and knees and crawled across the trail. When he got up he saw a VC in khakis moving away. The point man jumped up and shot the VC, and this triggered the VC on the base of the 'L' to fire. These VC were not dug in; they were lying on the ground. However, they had placed mines out in front of them, and grenades were put up in trees where they could be pulled to go off in the air, so the position was well protected. The right front platoon got into the fight, and deployed to conduct an assault to the front. Just as the platoon started to get ready to assault, the VC along the stem of the 'L' to the left opened up, and the platoon got caught in a crossfire. There were at least two automatic weapons across the front, and another opened up near the rear of the stem. The assault failed, as it was pinned before it got started. The commander of the rear platoon, was told to move around to the left and assault the stem of the 'L.' which he did successfully. He moved out, deployed, assaulted, and forced the VC, along with the heavy machinegun, out of their prepared positions."
c. Immediate Action
Friendly ambushes sprung along jungle trails usually do not have all of the enemy in the killing zone because of the limited fields of fire. Unless a very unusual ambush site is found, part of the enemy element will escape. Experience has shown that the VC almost always return to the area of the engagement within a relatively short time to retrieve bodies and weapons.
As soon as a patrol springs an ambush, a team, or larger unit, should move in the direction of the enemy withdrawal, approximately 200 meters, and reestablish another ambush.
Recently, this technique was employed three times by one company patrol with the second ambush making contact within thirty minutes on each occasion.
d. Comments on Ambushes
Important points to remember about ambushes are contained in these comments by a battalion commander in Vietnam.
"Ambushes are one of the most effective measures for inflicting personnel casualties on the enemy. The imaginative and skillful use of ambushes can also have a detrimental psychological impact. Aside from normal local security, ambushes should be at least 500-1000 meters distant from unit night defensive positions. The tendency to make ambushes too large should be avoided; five to eight men is a good size. Occasionally, daylight ambushes should be left in a unit position occupied during the night in order to take advantage of the tendency of local Viet Cong to search positions for materiel that might have been left behind."
a. Stand To
Units serving in Vietnam report that sniper and harassing fire is often received at dusk or at dawn when Marines are either engaged in preparation for night defense or for the day's offensive operations. Even with 25% or 50% alert, the majority of the troops are up and about with last minute preparations. In the half light, a sniper is extremely hard to see, while the friendly troops make a very good target.
There are a number of ways of countering this enemy technique. One is the British Army's"Stand To." Under this system, the period from one-half hour before to one-half hour after dawn and dusk finds all hands in their defensive positions with all weapons manned. No one is exposed to fire and any attempts to snipe or harass can be met with full force return fire.
b. Anti-Sniper Techniques
One of the most common type of contact with the VC is a sniping incident. The VC sniper force ranges in size from a single rifleman up to a squad. Usually the snipers are well concealed at a range of about 250-300 meters. Their fire is seldom effective at that range. A common tendency of individuals who are exposed to sniper fire for the first time is to reply with rifle fire alone, or to withhold fire because the target cannot be exactly located. This gives the sniper a chance to fire again. If there is no danger of involving other friendly forces or civilians, the unit should immediately deliver a heavy volume of fire into likely sniper positions in the general area from which the sniper fired. Rifle grenades, mortars, M-72s, M-79s and 3.5 inch rockets can all be used. As soon as you start returning fire, look for the VC attempting to escape. A sniper doesn't want to fight, so look for him to move early, and when he does, you will have your best chance to get him.
a. Reconnaissance Operations
Most Marine unit commanders in RVN will agree that acquiring a target, that is, finding and fixing the Viet Cong, is a difficult job. Both reconnaissance and infantry units have emphasized the need for additional training in patrolling and observing/reporting.
The large tactical areas over which ground units must maintain observation mean that infantry units must be prepared to conduct reconnaissance operations at any time. Units up to battalion size have been assigned missions of reconnoitering-in- force in areas as large as 50 square miles. Areas suspected of being used by the Viet Cong for bases and training are usually placed under observation by a series of reconnaissance posts. Both Infantry and reconnaissance units contribute teams to these operations. It has been consistently demonstrated that unless a reconnaissance team is positioned in one helicopter lift, the delay resulting from multiple lifts alerts the Viet Cong. Plan these reconnaissance insertions so all patrol elements can be lifted at one time.
One particularly successful reconnaissance operation was conducted in the same general area for about three months. The method of operations included positioning an OP force at various locations overlooking a river valley known to be an important VC supply route and line of communication. The OP itself did not remain in the same position for an extended period but occasionally shifted to another location. One team was composed of a squad from the reconnaissance battalion, a FAC, a FO team, a 106mm recoilless rifle squad, and a caliber .50 machine gun squad. These latter two elements provided added range for local security. Two BC scopes were employed and proved to be invaluable in locating targets and adjusting supporting fires. A Marine heavy artillery battery was located in a relatively secure area within range of the OP. Each fire mission was cleared through the appropriate South Vietnamese commander. As an example of one day's operations, the OP team made 166 separate sightings (1100 VC). Fifty-seven Viet Cong casualties were confirmed as a result of artillery fires directed from the OP. There has been a marked reduction in VC river traffic and freedom of movement in the valley area since this type of reconnaissance operation has been in effect.
The increased employment of this type reconnaissance operation means that each officer and NCO should learn how to call for and adjust supporting fires.
b. Reconnaissance Training
A report on reconnaissance training for operations in RVN emphasized the need for combat patrolling. Contact with the Viet Cong during reconnaissance operations is common and all patrols, even the smaller teams, must be prepared to engage the VC and not rely solely on stealth. Training should emphasize actions to be taken when contact is first made, and counter ambush techniques. The report noted that during a period of about two months almost 60% of the reconnaissance units' patrols came in contact with the Viet Cong. In this case, the most effective tactic was an aggressive ambush or assault of the enemy. Teams should learn to break contact as a unit rather than as individuals, thus affording the VC little chance of regaining contact. The use of all organic infantry weapons was emphasized. Consideration should be given to increasing the firepower of reconnaissance teams with additional M-14, M-79 and M-60 weapons.
Since the heart of any reconnaissance operation is timely and accurate reporting, communications are a vital factor. Procedures should include a standard system for reporting - SALUTE (Strength, Activity, Location, Unit, Time, and Equipment). Spot Reports, and a fixed time schedule. For example, send a SITREP each hour or whenever a sighting is made. If no communications are made for four hours, move to a position where communication contact was last established. If there is no contact for six hours, move to the nearest friendly unit. Distances which reconnaissance teams operate from base areas may be several miles and the intervening terrain usually is rugged. This means that the time to move an attack force to a likely target can be reduced if teams REPORT RIGHT NOW. Don't sit on your report; learn to pass information as it becomes available. In order to minimize transmission time, use correct voice procedures.
Reconnaissance patrols have often been assigned a secondary mission of capturing a prisoner. This calls for careful preparation and special training.
Many patrols are from four to five days' duration with about the same period between patrols. This can be a drain on patrol effectiveness if such a routine is maintained for any length of time. A rigorous physical conditioning program and a progressive training schedule can help overcome fatigue and loss of effectiveness.
Occasionally, specialists are attached for a particular mission. These men must be alerted as soon as possible and train with their prospective patrols. Additional training in basic reconnaissance is invaluable, and specialists (corpsmen, snipers, demolitionists) must maintain a high state of physical condition for reconnaissance operations.
Force Reconnaissance Companies should not spend an excessive amount of time on specialized entry techniques. Underwater swimming, buoyant ascents and parachuting are valid reconnaissance techniques, but they should not be practiced to the detriment of the basic reconnaissance qualifications that spell the difference between success and failure in Vietnam.
Reports from reconnaissance units in Vietnam emphasize the importance of the following training:
- Scouting and patrolling (emphasis should be placed on route selection, immediate action in danger areas and reporting techniques).
- Map and aerial photograph reading.
- Use of the compass.
- Ambush and counter-ambush techniques.
- Establishment of patrol bases.
- Land navigation.
- Patrol orders and reports.
- Observation and recording.
- Personal hygiene in the jungle.
- First aid.
- River and stream crossing.
- Small arms and hand grenades.
- FO procedures.
- Communication techniques.
c. Use of the Claymore Mine by Reconnaissance Elements
Normally, a reconnaissance element selects a night harbor site prior to the hours of darkness, and occupies it immediately before or just after dark. The first task upon entering the harbor site is to establish security positions. Simultaneously, warning devices and booby traps are emplaced, when necessary, as additional security measures. Rigging a booby trap during daylight hours is extremely hazardous, and during periods of reduced visibility, the inherent risk is even greater. Deactivating the device upon departure is also hazardous.
To avoid the risk in rigging and deactivating
booby traps, one unit in Vietnam has gone exclusively to the use of Claymore
mines as warning devices and as a means of improving defensive
positions. The mine is more effective than a boobytrapped grenade and its emplacement
can be more safely and rapidly accomplished without risk of
improper rigging or premature tripping by a patrol
member. It is important to note, that the Claymore
mine can be armed and employed effectively by
Marines with only a minimum of training.