7 Battles That Changed Public Perception Of The Vietnam War

7 Battles That Changed Public Perception Of The Vietnam War

Michelle Powell-Smith - December 20, 2016

The Vietnam War, or, as it’s called in Vietnam, the Resistance War against America, was a cold war-era proxy war, officially fought between North and South Vietnam. The players in this war were the South Vietnamese army, or the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the Viet Cong, guerrilla fighters allied with North Vietnam, and the Communist People’s Army of Vietnam, the official army of North Vietnam, as well as American forces.

Battle of Ấp Bắc, January 2, 1963

On January 2, 1963, army and Civil Guard forces from South Vietnam engaged Viet Cong forces from North Vietnam at the village of Ap Bac, 35 miles southwest of Saigon. The South Vietnamese army was well-supplied, with armor, artillery and air support, as well as American military advisors. The South also had a clear numerical advantage, outnumbering the Viet Cong four to one.

7 Battles That Changed Public Perception Of The Vietnam War

According to early reports from the United States Army Command in the Pacific, the United States Army Command in the Pacific reported the battle to the Joint Chiefs of Staff as “one of the bloodiest and costliest battles of S. Vietnam war” and noted that the battle “will provide enemy with morale-building victory”. The Viet Cong did, indeed, find this victory to be quite important.

The Battle of Ap Bac was a clear win for the Viet Cong for several reasons. Captured Viet Cong documents claimed preparation, motivation and discipline as the cause for their victory. American officials attributed the loss, in part, to South Vietnamese military strategy. The South Vietnamese acted courageously, but without the needed organization. They failed to make effective use of American resources. The Battle of Ap Bac illustrated the challenge for larger armies against small, highly mobile forces like the Viet Cong. By the end of the battle, the South Vietnamese lost 80 men, with another hundred wounded.

The Battle of Ap Bac played a key role in engendering American condemnations of military activities in Vietnam. The press presented the battle as a clear loss, which it was, but exaggerated the importance of the battle, and framed it in the worst possible light. Newspapers claimed multiple American casualties, and accused South Vietnamese troops of cowardice. The U.S. government expressed concerns about how the battle was presented; these concerns would continue for the remainder of the war.

7 Battles That Changed Public Perception Of The Vietnam War

Attack on Camp Holloway, February 7, 1965

The attack on Camp Holloway took place on February 7, 1965. Camp Holloway was a U.S.-constructed helicopter base located near the town of Pleiku, built in 1962. Prior to extensive U.S. involvement in Vietnam, helicopters at Camp Holloway provided a range of support services to the South Vietnamese. The attack on Camp Holloway was the result of a number of different political events, and led to additional political alliances after the attack and retribution for it.

In August 1964, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson initiated a full-scale military action in Vietnam in retaliation for North Vietnamese attacks on U.S. Navy vessels. In February 1965, the Soviet Union increased and reinforced its ties with North Vietnam, leading to increased action on the part of the North Vietnamese, particularly a spring campaign.

The Viet Cong began their spring offensive with an attack on Camp Holloway. Camp Holloway was well-protected with extensive fencing and South Vietnamese troops. In total, around 400 Americans were stationed at Camp Holloway.

The Viet Cong divided their forces, with one group attacking the airfield, and the other directly attacking troops stationed at Camp Holloway to more easily penetrate the camp’s defenses. The attack required far more planning than it did time, ending within just a few minutes. The Viet Cong, numbering around 300, regrouped and retreated relatively quickly, leaving eight dead and 126 wounded at Camp Holloway. Ten aircraft were destroyed and an additional 15 damaged by mortar fire.

The attack on Camp Holloway directly led to Operation Flaming Dart. Operation Flaming Dart bombed a range of North Vietnamese targets, particularly military barracks. While the South Vietnamese celebrated this increase in American involvement, it brought with it a much stronger relationship between North Vietnam and the Soviet Union. An April 1965 missile treaty between North Vietnam and the Soviet Union further reinforced the strength and abilities of the North Vietnamese.

7 Battles That Changed Public Perception Of The Vietnam War

Battle of Van Tuong, August 18, 1965

The Battle of Van Tuong, or Operation Starlite, was the first significant engagement of U.S. Marines in Vietnam. The operation was originally named Operation Satellite, but during a power outage, it was transcribed incorrectly as Operation Starlite. The Battle of Van Tuong was a search-and-destroy mission against the North Vietnamese in Van Tuong, South Vietnam.

The United States’ Marine forces were under the command of U.S. Lieutenant General Lewis Walt and Major General Oscar Peatross. In total, there were between 5,000 and 6,000 marines involved in Operation Starlite. Viet Cong forces in the area numbered between 1,500, so the United States had a clear operational advantage.

The Marines landed in Da Nang in March 1965. Initially, U.S. operations were purely defensive; however, that approach lasted only the first few months. ­On August 15, 1965, the South Vietnamese reported intelligence received from a young defector from the North; the first Viet Cong regiment was in Van Tuong, near the U.S. base at Chu Lai.

This was the first combined amphibious and helicopter assault by the U.S. Marines. Helicopters were used in Korea, but not in this fashion. The assault was planned quickly. It would begin at daybreak only three days after the intelligence was received by the U.S. The Viet Cong had predicted a U.S. attack, but had not been able to predict the speed of the attack.

The first of the landings of the amphibious vehicles went relatively well; landing zone red and landing zone white were not heavily guarded or in close sight of the Viet Cong; however, landing zone blue was and those troops immediately came under fire. The assault soon began in earnest, with more resistance than expected by the Americans. The fighting was most intense in LZBlue; however, by that night, the Americans had secured the site.

Under cover of darkness, the Viet Cong retreated. In total, approximately 600 Viet Cong were killed. The United States had lost 52 Marines, a corpsman and an Army major. Many others were wounded, but this battle provided key insights into war in the jungles of Vietnam.

7 Battles That Changed Public Perception Of The Vietnam War

Battle of Ia Drang, November 14-18, 1965

The Battle of Ia Drang was the first major battle between regular U.S. and North Vietnamese forces; it includes two major engagements, one between North Vietnamese forces and the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry and the other between North Vietnamese forces and the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry and 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry. These were the communist North Vietnamese, the Communist People’s Army of Vietnam or PAVN, rather than the Viet Cong. The first took place on November 14 and 15, and the second of these somewhat further north on November 17, 1965.

On the morning of November 14, 1965, the U.S. conducted a helicopter-led assault in an area near the Chu Pong hills, called Landing Zone X-Ray. North Vietnamese troops, the 33rd Regiment, responded later that day, with the fight continuing through the night and into the following day.

Thanks to air strikes and artillery support, the U.S. forces, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Harold G. Moore, held their ground, even as additional North Vietnamese forces joined the fight. Around noon on the 15th of November, additional U.S. troops, including the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry arrived to support the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry who had been at Ia Drang since the battle began. By November 16, American troops had secured LZ X-Ray; North Vietnamese troops had lost hundreds, and the U.S. 79 men, with many more wounded.

On November 17, many of the troops at LZ X-Ray began a tactical march to another landing zone. The 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry was ambushed on the march, receiving aid and support from the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry after the fight began. The fighting was intense, and American losses were relatively high. In total, 234 men were killed between November 14 and November 18, and 242 men wounded. This early in the war, the army was not yet well-prepared with notifications. Telegrams were delivered by cab drivers, and the wives of the commanding officers provided support to grieving families.

7 Battles That Changed Public Perception Of The Vietnam War
20 Feb 1968, Khe Sanh, South Vietnam — U.S. Marines lie prone on the ground in sandbagged trench as they take cover from Communist mortar fire. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Tet Offensive, January 31, 1968

On January 31, 1968, a combined force of the Communist People’s Army of Vietnam troops and Viet Cong forces launched an offensive on more than 100 different cities and towns in South Vietnam. The goal of the offensive was twofold. First, the North Vietnamese hoped to gain support from the South Vietnamese and encourage rebellion. Second, they hoped to dissuade U.S. forces and reduce U.S. involvement in the conflict in Vietnam. The attacks were timed to coincide with the celebration of the Lunar New Year.

Only days before the Tet Offensive, PAVN forces began a massive artillery assault at Khe Sahn, a Marine garrison located on a key road to Laos. This focused both attention and troops on Khe Sahn, and distracted from the real intent; the oncoming offensive throughout South Vietnam. Early in the morning of January 30, the PAVN and Viet Cong attacked 13 South Vietnamese cities. The widespread offensive began the following morning, and included cities and towns, U.S. military facilities and South Vietnamese military facilities. One target, in particular, was the U.S. embassy in Saigon; Viet Cong forces breached the defenses of the embassy before being stopped.

The Tet Offensive distributed North Vietnamese forces relatively thinly; they suffered quite heavy losses. For the South Vietnamese, the most atrocious losses were in the Battle of Hue. The North Vietnamese went house-to-house, arresting and executing anyone thought to support the U.S. Some 2,800 bodies were found after the Battle of Hue, and 3,000 people were missing. All were civilians; in addition, nearly 150 U.S. Marines and 400 South Vietnamese troops died in the fighting at Hue. North Vietnamese losses numbered near 5,000.

While the costs of the Tet Offensive were high for the North Vietnamese, it achieved one of their key objectives. The Tet Offensive was one of the factors that led to the progressive withdrawal of the U.S. from the conflict in Vietnam.

7 Battles That Changed Public Perception Of The Vietnam War

Battle of Hamburger Hill, May 11-20, 1969

The Battle of Hamburger Hill, or the Battle of Ap Bia Mountain, was one of the key battles marking the end of American involvement in the conflict in Vietnam. By the Battle of Hamburger Hill, the American public had lost support for the continuing effort in Vietnam; it was no longer worth the sacrifices in lives and resources.

The Battle of Hamburger Hill was part of Operation Apache Snow. The goal of Operation Apache Snow was to eliminate incursions from Laos and protect several key towns. The capture of Hamburger Hill took some nine days of heavy fighting, including multiple air strikes, barrages of artillery and some 10 different infantry attacks. Finally, on May 20, 1969, U.S. and South Vietnamese troops reached the summit of Hamburger Hill.

Americans had drastically underestimated enemy forces at Hamburger Hill. The North Vietnamese had access to reinforcements from Laos, and the assault at Hamburger Hill required more troops than originally allotted.

The U.S. lost 56 men, and had 420 wounded in the fighting; the North Vietnamese lost nearly 600 men, and perhaps a large number more. After a long and difficult battle, the U.S. and South Vietnamese were victorious, but less than a month after the battle, orders were given to abandon Hamburger Hill. The sacrifices at Hamburger Hill had provided no advantage.

By the Battle of Hamburger Hill, the U.S. opposition to the war was growing; only 39 percent of Americans still supported the war. The loss of life, cost in resources and number of wounded at Hamburger Hill made it a key moment in the political arguments that eventually led to the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. The media, already largely opposed to the war, also seized upon the Battle of Hamburger Hill and the withdrawal from Hamburger Hill as a clear failure of military strategy.

7 Battles That Changed Public Perception Of The Vietnam War

Fall of Saigon, April 30, 1975

The city of Saigon fell on April 30, 1975; this ended the Vietnam War and reunified Vietnam under communist rule. The fall of the city, the capitol of South Vietnam, was chaotic, violent and frightening; it was also the occasion of a massive and widespread evacuation to remove the remaining Americans in the city, as well as a number of South Vietnamese.

On January 27, 1973, the U.S. agreed to a ceasefire and withdrawal of troops from Vietnam; this was largely complete by the end of 1973. The conflict continued throughout 1974, with the U.S. cutting all American military aid in August 1974. When the U.S. withdrew, it was under ceasefire terms. North Vietnam violated that cease fire in the two years following the U.S. withdrawal and the eventual fall of the city of Saigon. The cease fire meant little, as it had been negotiated by President Nixon.

The airport at Saigon had been bombed. Planes, which would have offered a more efficient means of evacuation, were not an option. The evacuation used military helicopters. Armed Forces Radio played Bing Crosby’s White Christmas as a signal, and Americans, and those Vietnamese chosen by the Americans assembled at designated locations. Operation Frequent Wind had begun.

Helicopter pilots flew mission after mission that day, removing people; many lined up desperately hoping to leave. Choppers flew with a single pilot, and took on as many passengers as possible each trip. They picked people up from the embassy and building rooftops, many pilots flying without rest for 18 hours that day, delivering load after load to waiting aircraft carriers. A final mission the following morning picked up the 11 U.S. Marines forgotten at the U.S. Embassy the day before.

Only three hours later, the North Vietnamese took the presidential palace; Saigon was now Ho Chi Minh City.