The U.S. presence in Vietnam began as early as 1944. By 1947, U.S. advisors were assisting the French colonial government in maintaining Indochine (as Vietnam was then known) as a colony.
At the same time, Soviet-supported rebel forces increasingly sought independence. For the U.S., the mandate was clear: limit Soviet power in Southeast Asia and halt the spread of communism. The first American death was in 1945. Direct U.S. involvement in Vietnam grew following surrender of the French and partition of North and South Vietnam in 1954. At that time, North Vietnam sought to develop a communist state, while South Vietnam aligned with the West.
Over the course of the Vietnam War, U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard units trained and assisted South Vietnamese forces; located and destroyed North Vietnamese troops and supply routes; conducted ground operations against the Việt Cộng; patrolled rivers and canals; mined North Vietnamese ports; participated in air and surface bombardment of targets in South and North Vietnam; flew reconnaissance and supply missions; and provided aeromedical flights, pararescue and air sea rescue. Meanwhile, medical teams worked tirelessly to aid sick, injured, and wounded service members. Helicopter ambulances brought casualties to hospitals within minutes of leaving the battlefield so that 97.4% of wounded service members admitted to military hospitals survived. Medical personnel participated in countless MEDCAP (Medical Civil Action Program) missions that provided medical care to Vietnamese civilians. At the close of the war, Air Force transports evacuated thousands of civilians and hundreds of former POWs.
Featured image: Men of the 503rd Infantry Regiment in Combat Near Đắk Tô, South Vietnam, Unidentified photographer, November 1967, Gift of Philip Harrison Enslow Jr., 2011
A Fire Support Base (FSB) or Firebase (FB) is a temporary site providing artillery support to infantry units when they maneuver beyond artillery range of their base camps.
The 105mm howitzer was often used to support helicopter, attack planes, and light infantry operations. Frank Cox, U.S. Marine Corps, 1966-1967 remembers, “… The first squad got almost all the way across the field. …And that’s when automatic weapons and VC [Việt Cộng] fire opened up on us. … It was quite an earth-shaking moment for me because I’d never been shot at before. … What happens is, you get so much adrenalin – … I mean you’re not being heroic or anything, you’re just doing your job. And the adrenalin takes a long time to wear off. When it wears off you’re just totally tired.”
I mean you’re not being heroic or anything, you’re just doing your job.
On August 2, 1964, North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the USS Maddox, a destroyer participating in intelligence gathering activities.
The exchange resulted in the U.S. Congress’ Tonkin Gulf Resolution, authorizing “the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” U.S. Navy forces served in a variety of roles during the Vietnam War, including delivering supplies, providing naval bombardment, facilitating U.S. Marine amphibious landings, sweeping coastal waters for mines, patrolling rivers, and evacuating U.S. citizens and Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Clint Johnson, U.S. Navy, 1965-1966 remembers, “For a naval aviator, combat was medium risk – landing on a carrier at night in bad weather was high risk. … I enjoyed night landings; I even enjoyed bad weather landings. I did not enjoy rough sea landings. … If the sea is relatively calm, most of the guys get their airplanes aboard. But a rough sea puts you in a situation that you can’t control, nor can the landing signal officer, nor can the captain of the ship. They just do their best.”
Hill 875 was an engagement in the Battle of Đắk Tô.
Troops from the 2nd and 4th battalions of the 503rd found themselves facing overwhelming North Vietnamese forces that nearly overran them. They successfully held the hill until reinforcements arrived. Speaking about his own experiences in combat, Jim King, U.S. Army, 1969-1970 recalls, “… Two North Vietnamese tripped a flare. … I grabbed my rifle and opened up on them. And that was the first time I had killed anybody and knew for a fact that I had killed anyone. In a firefight, things are going 90 to nuthin’. … You don’t know if you’re the one who hit them – when you go in and you find enemy bodies, you don’t know who did it, but I was the only one shooting this time. … I was almost sick to my stomach, to be honest with you. But I realized I’ve got 30 guys here and I’m in control.”
In late 1965, the U.S. Navy began using Patrol Craft Fast (PCF) vessels, better known as Swift Boats.
These 50-foot long, shallow-draft aluminum vessels patrolled interior waterways to prevent Việt Cộng movement of arms and supplies. Called the “Brown Water Navy,” these boats also transported Vietnamese forces and inserted U.S. Special Forces teams into the interior for counterinsurgency operations.
Oliver Halle, U.S. Navy, 1969-1970 remembers, “We had inserted these two Army Green Berets. There were several of them… but these two … were black guys. … They had a little boat that we carried and they were going up this canal and they were setting up to ambush any Việt Cộng that might come down. … All of a sudden, all hell breaks loose. We hear automatic weapons fire, grenades going off. … And then the gunfire stopped. … Finally, they came puttering down in their little boat and we pulled them up. … It turned out … one or two Việt Cộng sampans [small boats] had come down and they killed everybody. … I remember one of them said to the other … “You think we’ve earned the right now to vote in Alabama?”
The 57th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) arrived in Vietnam in 1962 with five UH-1 Huey helicopters.
The commanding officer of the detachment chose the term “Dustoff” as his unit radio call sign and the term became universal for all medical evacuation or medevac missions for the duration of the war. The use of helicopters to evacuate wounded from the battlefield directly to hospitals began during the Korean War. The practice was so successful that in many cases a wounded soldier could be receiving hospital care within 35 minutes of being wounded.
Craig Honaman, U.S. Army Medical Corps, 1967-1968, recalls, “The medics were very, very well trained and that certainly contributed to much of the survival rate of casualties we picked up. … It was amazing when we were zig-zagging and trying to avoid enemy fire and jumping all over the sky and those folks would be throwing IVs into an arm or a leg – to be able to get that IV going to counteract shock.”
The medics were very, very well trained and that certainly contributed to much of the survival rate of casualties we picked up.
The photograph, possibly of brothers, was found on the body of one of the two men after they were both killed by South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) soldiers.
An ARVN soldier offered Joe Bruckner the photograph, which he carried with him for the duration of his service in Vietnam.
Bruckner, U.S. Army, 1970-1971 explained, “It [the photograph] reminded me that they were putting their lives on the line every day to defend their country, or at least what they said was their country. They were someone’s sons just like we were.”
When under attack, hospital staff placed patients under the hospital beds and used mattresses for extra protection.
Ginny Dornheggen, U.S. Army Nurses Corps, 1970-1971 remembers, “I was so scared – I hid under the metal desk in the recovery room, thinking, oh my God, we are being overrun. … And then I heard the yelling of the two nurses who were in the recovery room and I realized I couldn’t stay there. … One of the fellows had a trach[eostomy] and this one nurse and I would crawl on our hands and knees and we were suctioning him.”
MEDCAP (Medical Civic Action Program) became the best known of many programs developed to assist Vietnamese civilians during the war.
It began as a joint proposal by the American Embassy in Saigon and the United States Military Assistance Command (MACV) in 1962. The primary objective of MEDCAP was to provide outpatient care for Vietnamese civilians living in rural areas in the hope that mutual respect and co-operation between military forces and the civilian population would increase.
Ginny Dornheggen, U.S. Army Nurses Corps, 1970-1971 recalls, “On my days off, to relieve stress, I would go on … MEDCAP missions and we would go over to the leprosarium. … You took your life in your hands going to the MEDCAPs cause we had no guards. … You were on your own. …. And then if we wanted to go swimming, it was a beautiful, beautiful South China Sea beach. Clean and wonderful. The nuns always fixed us the most fabulous meal and so that was one of the reasons why you always wanted to go. … But that was a very meaningful way of helping someone else besides our soldiers. And it gave us kind of a respite from seeing the war wounds.”
That was a very meaningful way of helping someone else besides our soldiers.
Nurses and physicians serving in Vietnam followed a priority of care protocol, treating U.S. military personnel first, followed by allied forces, then Vietnamese civilians, and, finally, Vietnamese prisoners of war.
Dornheggen recalls, “There were other children that we took care of. Some of the Montagnards, which were wonderful, wonderful people … that would fight along with us, but in a nonconventional way. They didn’t have arms or weapons other than their own made crossbows and arrows. … But when their children were hurt, they brought them in and they were the most loving people with their children. But we did see some Vietnamese children that were used. … Soldiers always love to give the candy to the kids and then behind the kid’s back would be a grenade.”
The North Vietnamese Army and the Việt Cộng made a formidable team. Some veterans who served closely with South Vietnamese forces believe they were effective and dependable allies, while others recall they lacked discipline and often refused to fight.