1967: The Era of Big Battles in Vietnam

Vietnam ’67. Historians, veterans and journalists recall 1967 in Vietnam, a year that changed the war and changed America.

By the beginning of 1967, there were 490,000 American troops in South Vietnam — along with some 850,000 from South Vietnam, South Korea and other allies — and America’s civilian and military leaders were starting to think big. This, they believed, would be the year to crush both the southerners fighting as the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies, who had infiltrated the south.

Doing so, though, would require enormous multidivisional operations involving all branches of the military. Already by the end of 1966, they had begun planning for the “era of big battles,” and specifically for operations designed to eradicate the enemy from around the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon. In the months to follow, those plans would involve hundreds of thousands of soldiers, lead to the deaths of thousands on both sides, and bring simmering doubts about the war effort to a boil.

Overview Map Source: United States Army By Joe Burgess/The New York Times
Overview Map. Source: United States Army. By Joe Burgess/The New York Times

In December 1966, intelligence reports indicated that large units of both Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops were garrisoned in an area about 12 miles northwest of Saigon known as the “Iron Triangle,” bordered by the Saigon River on the southwest leg, the Thi Tinh River to the east and a line between the villages of Ben Suc and Ben Cat to the north. Gen. Jonathan O. Seaman, who commanded the 100,000-man II Field Force, described the Iron Triangle as a “dagger” aimed at the South Vietnamese capital. The very existence of the Republic of South Vietnam was at risk. But if the Iron Triangle could be destroyed by a major operation, the Americans and their allies could gain the offensive initiative and begin to drive the Communists out of the country.

That operation, Junction City, was set to begin in early January 1967. But there was significant concern among the military leadership that such a large effort required considerably more planning than could be done in a few weeks, and that a better option would be to first unleash a more regional operation — still large in scope, but aimed at specific, vulnerable Viet Cong regiments, as well as the headquarters of the Viet Cong’s Military Region IV, which intelligence reports indicated were located within the Iron Triangle.

This relatively smaller, more focused operation, called Cedar Falls, began on Jan. 8. It followed a so-called hammer and anvil plan: American and South Vietnamese units would be inserted to the north as “hammers” that would drive the enemy into an “anvil” created by elements of the First and 25th Infantry Divisions.

At 8 a.m. on Jan. 8, 60 UH-1 “Huey” helicopters, flying in a V formation, approached Ben Suc, a Viet Cong-controlled village. It was to be the first target for the “hammer.” Small-arms fire erupted against the invading infantry soldiers, but within a few hours, Ben Suc was under American control, and South Vietnamese troops were brought in to interrogate all men between the ages of 15 and 45. At the end of the first day, 106 had been screened; 28 were determined to be Viet Cong. Soldiers also discovered, beneath the village, a network of Viet Cong tunnels.

Bamboo huts in flames in Ben Suc, a Viet Cong-controlled village, in January 1967. Bettmann, via Getty Images
Bamboo huts in flames in Ben Suc, a Viet Cong-controlled village, in January 1967. Bettmann, via Getty Images

The bigger challenge, though, was what to do about the remaining villagers — because the American commanders had decided to raze Ben Suc, rather than let it return to enemy hands (an effort the journalist Jonathan Schell later described in his book “The Village of Ben Suc”). In the end, 582 men, 1,651 women and 3,754 children were relocated, along with 247 water buffalo, 225 cows and 60 tons of rice. When they were gone, the commanders ordered a large hole dug in the center of the village, and 10,000 pounds of explosives were detonated to destroy both the village and the tunnels beneath it.

In an instant, Ben Suc no longer existed. This sort of search-and-destroy mission, and the subsequent relocation of noncombatants, would become routine in 1967, as America and its South Vietnamese allies sought to control the hamlets and villages of South Vietnam.

Subsequent operations over the next 20 days resulted in a “body count” of 750 Viet Cong and 280 prisoners (out of 30,000 American and South Vietnamese soldiers in the operation, 72 Americans and 11 South Vietnamese were killed). But the most significant achievement, according to military sources, was the confirmation of the existence of a huge labyrinth of tunnels northwest of Saigon that would become the elusive target of allied forces for the next six years. In future operations, legs of this tunnel complex would even be discovered directly under the 25th Infantry Division’s huge base camp at Cu Chi. These tunnels would also become the headquarters for the planning of the Tet offensive, which would be launched in January 1968, just 12 months later.

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Still, these results, especially the body counts, weren’t enough for Allied commanders, who expected that search-and-destroy missions like the one at Ben Suc would kill or capture enough enemy troops to blunt the Iron Triangle. Thus another huge operation had to follow almost immediately, this one carrying the original name of Operation Junction City.

If Operation Cedar Falls was a hammer and anvil, Operation Junction City was more of a “horseshoe.” More than 25,000 friendly troops would engage the enemy forces by creating a huge inverted U-shape position in the area north of the Iron Triangle known as War Zone C, with the open end of the horseshoe facing south. The plan was to drive the enemy against the opposite legs of the horseshoe in such a way as to destroy the opposing forces through attrition — to destroy units, rather than just drive them from villages. Allied commanders believed that Cedar Falls had deteriorated into too many small-unit skirmishes with minimal enemy casualties, and they believed the use of larger American units would result in more.

On the first day of the operation, 845 men from the 173rd Airborne Brigade jumped from C-130 Hercules aircraft, which also dropped artillery and other military equipment. This was the first, and would remain the only, major parachute assault of the Vietnam War. It was designed to rapidly place soldiers in the center of the legs of the horseshoe and, from there, to search for the elusive Communist Central Office of South Vietnam, or Cosvn, the enemy’s main headquarters, supposedly located near the Cambodian border.

The airborne assault was necessary, but it also made for great optics back home: Images of American paratroopers jumping into combat reminded people of World War II operations in Europe. President Lyndon B. Johnson hoped that seeing such pictures in major news stories would give Americans confidence that victory could soon be declared.

But Operation Junction City failed to find and destroy Cosvn — because such headquarters didn’t exist, at least as a permanent garrison. The Viet Cong were operating from mobile facilities because of the constant threat of aerial bombardment, infantry maneuvers and logistical considerations. Such mobility enabled them to better coordinate their actions with North Vietnamese planners and to retreat across the border into Cambodia when necessary. After 82 days of combat, Junction City ended with 282 Americans killed and a reported 2,728 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese casualties.

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Cedar Falls/Junction City had collectively resulted in approximately 3,500 of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese killed at an American cost of 350 lives. This 10 to 1 ratio would continue through most of the war, but the “era of big battles,” for all its size and power, failed to change the war’s dynamics.

By never allowing their large units to engage American large units, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese units could remain organizationally intact and live to fight another day. The “era of big battles” was supposed to put the Americans on an offensive footing, but 70 percent of all contacts were initiated by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. The Communists were fighting the war on their own terms and chose when, where and how long to fight, which ultimately would result in victory.

Ron Milam is an associate professor of history at Texas Tech. The author of Not a Gentleman’s War: An Inside View of Junior Officers in the Vietnam War, he is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

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