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The infantry at combat in the Vietnam War

Written by Sakhal

As in any conventional war, in the Vietnam War the bulk of the confrontations was carried by the infantry. This article showcases some of the warlike activities carried by the armies of United States and South Vietnam, through a detailed description of a typical infantry battle sustained by a battalion, the generic techniques of evacuation of the wounded from the battlefield and the several combatants which took part in the conflict.

Claymore mine

The Claymore anti-personnel mine was tested in combat for the first time during the Vietnam War. Unvaluable for ambushes, it was exploded through remote control. Often several of these mines were placed in such a way that their lethal areas overlapped. They exploded covering with shrapnel an area of about 1.80 meters in vertical and 54 meters in horizontal (the lethal radius of action).



The teams equipped with loudspeakers carried an important role in the actions of psychologic warfare to support the own combatants by demotivating the enemy, specially when resorting to the transmission of messages from war prisoners who had just surrendered, and who had to promise to their fellows a good treatment from their captors if they decided to surrender. Some units transmitted these messages from flying helicopters to quickly send their message accross a large area.



Dogs were used in considerable numbers for exploring the surroundings, tracking trails and guarding. The handler and his dog were inseparable during combat. These dogs could effectively detect triggering cables, mines, tunnels, provisions or personnel during good weather conditions. The bad weather, as the thick vegetation and the fatigue, affected their abilities. The fighters of the Viet Cong were terrified by these dogs until they discovered a simple trick to fool them: to wash themselves with American-made toilet soap.


The battle scenario

The action taken as example took place near Phong Cao, in the Phu Yen province, from the 6th to the 11th November 1966. The soaked hills of barely consistent terrain difficulted the movement whilst the thick jungle imposed conditions of low visibility and created problems for aerial navigation.

Initial situation

The 5th Battalion from the 95th Infantry Regiment of the North Vietnamese Army (5/95 NVA) comprising only 214 men, was restricted, while waiting for reinforcements, to encounters with small enemy patrols, avoiding to face superior forces. Its base camp was located in a mound between the hills 450 and 350; these prominences, nearby to each other, were of elongated shape and parallely aligned. The 2nd Airborne Battalion from the 502nd Infantry Regiment of the United States Army (2/502 USA) knew that an enemy camp was installed near Hill 450. Once proved that the enemy avoided encounters with superior forces, the commanders planned to place, by means of helicopters, a detachment west of Hill 450, leaving it in false direction to later turn against the target.

The American battle plan

The commanders determined that the 2/502 USA had to surround and annihilate the enemy in Hill 450. The A company was transferred by helicopter to a blocking position in the north-east sector. The B company had to provide two detachments, one for attacking from the west and another to cut the path towards the south. The C company had to arrive, by forced march, to the south-east sector. By last, a reconnaissance commando platoon (RECONDO) had to block the north.

Phase 1, 6th-8th November

The A, B and C companies along with the RECONDO with 50 men moved through a calculated course to avoid warning the 5/95 NVA. After a few contacts in which some casualties were inflicted to the enemy (five dead the 6th November and brief gunfires the 7th November) the entire battalion turned towards the east in the night of the 8th November. In the twilight the explorers of the RECONDO observed, without being discovered, the enemy stationed in the top of Hill 450.

Phase 2, 9th November

At 10:00 o'clock the 9th November, the A section of the RECONDO stumbled with an enemy platoon in the western slope of Hill 450 and communicated its position. The second platoon from the B company soon joined the firefight. The third platoon from the B company moved toward the north to the supposed point of the encounter, but eventually its commander realized that the gunfire was behind them. This group entered action about the noon. The commanders sent a reconnaissance helicopter to solve the confusion, finding that the gunfire was not taking place in Hill 450, but in Hill 350. They requested an air strike, but the fragments of the bombs fell within their own platoons; then they requested an attack from helicopters followed by an artillery strike. When this one ended, the second and third platoons from the B company charged toward the top of Hill 350, cleaning it from enemies and entrenching themselves there.

Phase 3, 10th November

The rest of the 2/502 USA remained in position during the last lights of the day. The siege of the 5/95 NVA was completed during the night with the help of flares launched firstly from mortars and later from a C-47 aircraft. The 10th November, the 5/95 NVA attempted to break the siege, losing twelve men in this action. In the evening the Americans used their loudspeakers without apparent effect. At the arrival of the night, the sieged area had been narrowed to the point of having little more than 500 meters in diameter.

Phase 4, 11th November

During the night five attacks from the 5/95 NVA were easily repelled. In the morning of the 11th November, the B and C companies marched towards the southern slope of Hill 450 with a team of loudspeakers. A North Vietnamese soldier surrendered to the American troops and was prompted to use the loudspeakers to try to convince his comrades to follow his example; a group of them did so. When the B and C companies reached the top of Hill 450, the A company tracked the terrain from east to west, annihilating the remaining enemies. Thirty-six North Vietnamese soldiers were captured and thirty-nine corpses were found. The Americans had five dead and fifteen wounded.


Evacuation of casualties from the battlefield

Helicopters greatly contributed to the evacuation of casualties in Southeast Asia. Almost entirely, American and South Vietnamese casualties were carried by these means to the rearguard zones. The fixed-wing aircraft of the United States Air Force (USAF) were used for the evacuation of patients who required prioritary medical assistance, either in Southeast Asia or in the United States. The Military Airlift Command of the USAF transferred a total of 406,832 patients, among whom are included the 168,832 combat casualties registered between 1965 and 1973.

Emergency landing zone

A Bell UH-1Hs "Dust-Off" helicopter - nicknamed after the call sign of Major Commander Charles Kelly, famous pilot killed in action in 1964 - lands in a clear field in the jungle opened by means of explosives and chainsaws. The operation was difficult, since the place was not clean of trunk stumps and other remains which could perforate the vulnerable lower fuselage and, moreover, the enemy often watched in the surroundings. Helicopters like these were manned by two pilots, a flight attendant and a nurse who effectuated emergency cures to the wounded while in flight. In the first combats, the casualties which had to be evacuated from remote places faced a distressing travel in a stretcher, in which the chances of dying because of the injuries or the shock were very high. Between 1965 and 1969 they were evacuated by means of helicopters 372,947 wounded, number that includes personnel of the American, South Vietnamese and other troops of the allied nations of the "free world", as well as civilians.


Helicopter with davit

When landing was not possible, ambulance helicopters released a davit fitted with a "foliage penetrator" to prevent it from getting stuck in the thick vegetation. Suspended in the air while the operation went on, the helicopter was an easy target for the enemy, and in such conditions thirty-five helicopters were shot down in 1968 and another thirty-nine in 1969. By these means they were rescued several thousands of men who otherwise would have to be carried to a suitable place for landing, losing so a precious time for medical assistance.

Causes of casualties

The proportion of deaths caused by light weapons in the Vietnam War denoted a notable increment upon the same statistics taken during the Second World War (32 percent) and the Korean War (33 percent); this was mainly due to the introduction of firearms which shoot lighter projectiles of greater muzzle speed, such as the Soviet AK-47 and the M16 captured from the American. The new bullets produced large entry and exit holes and severe damage to organic tissues while affecting the blood vessels beyond the direct impact area. And, of course, these fast-firing weapons increased the possibilities of multiple wounds. Injuries caused by mines and "booby traps" were often large and dirty because the victim was usually very close to the artifact when this one exploded. The following numbers were taken in the time span from 1965 to 1970; proportions varied from year to year.

Small arms: 51 percent of dead and 16 percent of wounded

Shrapnel: 36 percent of dead and 65 percent of wounded

Booby traps and mines: 11 percent of dead and 15 percent of wounded

"Punji" stakes: 0 percent of dead and 2 percent of wounded

Other causes: 2 percent of dead and 2 percent of wounded

Location of the wounds

The circular diagrams divided in sectors - whose colors correspond to those of small circles placed on the figure of the soldier - depict the location of fatal (A) and not fatal (B) injuries among the casualties that received hospital treatment. A high proportion of the deaths was caused by wounds in the head and the neck. According to medical authorities, this was due to soldiers neglecting to wear their ordnance helmets during combat actions.


Ambulance helicopters

Any helicopter could assist in the transport of wounded from the battlefield to the aid stations. However, in Vietnam they were formed as well units specially dedicated to this task. They were composed to a large extent of Bell UH-1 helicopters (116 units), airborne ambulances which had space for six patients accommodated in berths. Each of the divisions of the United States Armed Forces had a medical battalion assigned to it, which in most cases was equipped with ambulance helicopters, whose purpose, at least theoretically, was limited to transferring the wounded from the battlefield to the aid stations. From there, also theoretically, helicopters not belonging to the division carried the wounded to the field hospitals. In practice, the helicopters were used in accordance to what the emergency of the moment demanded, according to a practical principle: every wounded should be transferred to the medical facilities in the lesser time possible. The below graphic shows the location of United States Army hospitals in South Vietnam and the number of beds available on each of them the 23rd April 1969.


Severe casualties among the Allied forces

The below diagram depicts the casualties with severe injuries suffered between 1966 and 1971 by the American (red), the South Vietnamese (green) and the troops from allied countries (orange). The mortality among the casualties that were delivered to hospitals was of 2.6 percent, which constitutes a notable progress in comparison with the 4.5 percent from the Second World War. The proportion would be even more favorable considering that helicopters transported to the hospitals soldiers with fatal wounds who in former times, when means for their prompt evacuation did not exist, would have died in the battlefield. From those who survived their wounds, the 83 percent were apt to retake active military service, either in Vietnam or in United States.


The combatants of the Vietnam War

In the long war held in Vietnam, the human factor was not less important than the armament deployed, even if the most sophisticated - and also the most primitive - weapons were used. This article briefly describes the different infantry forces deployed in the conflict.

The anti-Communist forces operating in Vietnam included the Army of the Republic of Vietnam - or South Vietnamese Army - and the American, French and Australian forces. Of all the fighting forces, the American endured the harshest part in the Second Vietnam War. They had deployed more than 500,000 men in Southeast Asia in 1968-69. Between 1964 and 1973, 45,790 were killed.

The South Vietnamese soldier

This soldier of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam is equipped with American weapons, uniform, bags and transmitter-receiver radio. He carries a M16 A1 Armalite assault rifle, which the Vietnamese, being people of low stature, considered very suitable for their needs. While their allies made the war to later leave, the soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam had to remain there with their victories and their defeats. When having good commanders they were a match for their enemies. For example, during the Tet Offensive launched by the Communists in 1968, despite having been taken by surprise in a badly unbalanced situation, these men resisted firmly and eventually defeated the Viet Cong.


The American soldier

This soldier of the US Marine Corps, operating during the Battle of Hue in February 1968, wears a combat uniform of green olive color with anti-bullet vest. A bayonet is attached to his M16 assault rifle of caliber 5.56 millimeters, in prevision of melee combat. A belt of ammunition of caliber 7.62 millimeters for the M60 light machine gun surrounds his torso while in the backpack he carries spare clothing and equipment.


The French soldier

This corporal from a French line regiment carries the compact and reliable MAT-49 submachine gun of caliber 9 millimeters. He wears a uniform of jungle green color with camouflage pattern and boots manufactured from canvas and rubber like those previously used by the British soldiers in the Malaysian jungle. His backpack of French model is manufactured from canvas and leather. Both the harness and the steel helmet are of American manufacture.


The Communist forces comprised troops of the Viet Cong, which was the local liberation movement of South Vietnam, and the People's Army of Vietnam - or North Vietnamese Army -, which was nominally independent. There were regular units of the Viet Cong organized in regiments and smaller units of partial dedication in the villages under Communist control. The Communist victory in 1975 was the result of a conventional invasion carried out by the North Vietnamese Army with armored forces and infantry.

The North Vietnamese soldier

This soldier of the People's Army of Vietnam wears a uniform of green olive color and a fresh and lightweight helmet whose design reminds that of the salacot used by the first European colonizers. His basic personal weapon was the AK-47 assault rifle, but this soldier holds an RPG-7 anti-tank rocket launcher, supplied by the Soviets as well. His tube-like bag stored enough dry provisions and rice to feed him during seven days.

The soldier of the Viet Cong

This soldier of the Viet Cong wears the "black pyjamas" which characterized these guerilla fighters and is armed with the Soviet assault rifle Kalashnikov AK-47. He wears a soft hat and a set of pouches of khaki color, manufactured in workshops in the jungle. His lightweight sandals were probably made of pieces of rubber taken from discarded truck tyres.


The "Carrier of the People"

This Communist carrier could load up to 25 kilograms per day, in flat terrain and along 25 kilometers. In mountainous terrain that distance could be reduced to 14.5 kilometers. With the modified bike shown in the illustration he could transport loads of up to 68 kilograms. The bamboo canes firmly attached to the handlebar and to the column of the saddle allowed him to control the movement of the bike in the roughest terrains.


Categories: Infantry - Statistics - Logistics - Cold War - 20th Century


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2015-01-19

Article updated: 2019-01-01

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