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The infantry at combat in the Vietnam War

By Sakhal

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

Claymore mine

The anti-personnel mine Claymore was tested in combat for the first time during the Vietnam War. Unvaluable for ambushes, it was exploded by remote control. Frequently several of these mines were placed in such a way to have their lethal areas overlapped. The mines exploded covering an area of about 1.80 meters in vertical and 54 meters in horizontal.


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 by resorting to the transmission of messages from war prisoners that 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 detect triggering cables, mines, tunnels, provisions or personnel effectively during good weather conditions. The bad weather, like 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.

Scene of the battle

The action used 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 and the thick jungle imposed conditions of low visibility and created problems for air navigation.

Initial situation

The 5th Battalion from the 95th Infantry Regiment of the North Vietnamese Army (5/95 NVA) with only 214 men, was restricted, while waiting for reinforcements, to encounters with small enemy patrols, avoiding to face superior forces. Their base camp was located in a mound between the hills 450 and 350; these prominences were of elongated shape and placed parallely, nearby to each other. 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 the hill 450. Proved that the enemy avoided encounters with superior forces, the commanders planned to place, by means of helicopters, a detachment west of the hill 450, leaving them 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 the hill 450. The company A was displaced by helicopter to a blocking position in the north-east sector. The company B had to provide two detachments, one for attacking from the west and other to cut the path towards the south. The company C had to arrive, in forced march, to the south-east sector. A reconnaissance commando platoon (RECONDO) had to block the north.

Phase 1, 6th-8th November

The companies A, B and C along with the RECONDO with 50 men moved in a calculated direction to not warn the 5/95 NVA. After a few contacts in which were inflicted some casualties 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 in the top of the hill 450.

Phase 2, 9th November

At 10:00 o'clock the 9th November, the section A of the RECONDO stumbled with an enemy platoon in the western slope of the hill 450 and communicated its position. The second platoon from the company B soon joined the firefight. The third platoon from the company B moved towards the north to the supposed point of the encounter, but when its chief was aware the fire 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 set in the hill 450, but in the 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 company B charged towards the top of the hill 350, cleaning it from enemies and entrenching themselves there.

Phase 3, 10th November

The rest of the 2/502 USA was 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 from mortars and later from an aircraft C-47. The 10th November, the 5/95 NVA attempted to break the siege, losing in this action 12 men. In the evening the Americans used their loudspeakers without apparent effect. At the arrival of the night, the siege had been narrowed until reaching little more than 500 meters in diameter.

Phase 4, 11th November

During the night were easily repulsed five attacks from the 5/95 NVA. In the morning of the 11th November, the companies B and C marched towards the southern slope on the 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 companies B and C reached the top of the hill 450, the company A tracked the terrain from east to west, annihilating the remaining enemies. They were captured 36 North Vietnamese soldiers and found 39 corpses. The Americans had five dead and 15 wounded.

Evacuation of casualties from the battlefield

Helicopters contributed greatly in 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 that required higher 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 who are included the 168832 combat casualties been between 1965 and 1973.

Emergency landing zone

A helicopter "Dust-Off" Bell UH-1Hs - so called 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 that could perforate the vulnerable lower fuselage and, moreover, the enemy frequently watched in the surroundings. Helicopters like these were manned by two pilots, a flight attendant and a nurse that effectuated emergency cures to the wounded in flight. In the first combats, the casualties that had to be evacuated from land 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 were evacuated by means of helicopters 372947 wounded, number which includes personnel of the American, South Vietnamese and other troops of the allied nations of the "free world", as well as civilians.

The infantry at combat in the Vietnam War

Helicopter with davit

When landing was not possible, ambulance helicopters released a davit fitted with a "penetrator of foliage" to avoid it to get stuck in the thick vegetation. Suspended in the air while the operation elapsed, the helicopter offered an easy target for the enemy, and in such conditions 35 helicopters were shot down in 1968 and another 39 in 1969. By these means were rescued several thousands of men that 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 statistical during the Second World War (32 percent) and the Korean War (33 percent); this was mainly due to the introduction of firearms shooting lighter projectiles of greater muzzle speed, such as the Soviet AK-47 and the M16 captured from the Americans. The new bullets produced large entry and exit holes and severe damage to organic tissues while affecting the blood vessels beyond the direct impact. And, of course, these fast-firing weapons incremented the possibilities of multiple wounds. Injuries caused by mines and "booby traps" were frequently 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

Localization of the wounds

The circular diagrams divided in sectors whose colors correspond with the small circles placed on the figure of the soldier represent the localization of fatal injuries (A) and not fatal ones (B) 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 the neglect from soldiers to wear their regulatory helmets during combat actions.

The infantry at combat in the Vietnam War

Ambulance helicopters

Any helicopter could assist in the transport of wounded from the battlefield to the aid stations. However, in Vietnam were formed as well units specially dedicated to this task. Composed in great part of helicopters 116 Bell UH-1, these airborne ambulances had space for six patients accommodated in berths. Each one of the divisions of the United States Armed Forces had assigned a medical battalion that, in most cases, possessed ambulance helicopters, whose task, theoretically, was reduced 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, helicopters were used according 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 graphic below shows the localization of United States Army hospitals in South Vietnam and the number of beds available on each one the 23rd April 1969.

The infantry at combat in the Vietnam War

Severe casualties among the Allied forces

The diagram below shows the casualties with severe injuries suffered between 1966 and 1971 by the Americans (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, which in former times would have died in the battlefield, not existing means for their prompt evacuation. Among those that survived their wounds, the 83 percent were apt to retake active military service, either in Vietnam or United States.

The infantry at combat in the Vietnam War

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


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2015-01-19

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