Counterinsurgency Operations

The 1965-1966 Armor Officer Advanced Course assembled 200 students from a diverse combat arms and combat support background and experience from across the U.S. Army. The course was designed to prepare company-grade officers for company command and battalion staff positions by offering a broad study of leadership, mission command, and doctrinal operations. Included in the student population were approximately 20 officers who had recently returned from Vietnam. Most of them had served as advisors or in a variety of special operations positions. Most of the remaining students knew that their next assignment would be somewhere in Vietnam. I was among that cohort.

Knowing this, prior to my deployment, we moved our family from Fort Knox, Kentucky to Fort Hamilton, New York, an army installation in New York City that was the home of the U.S. Army Chaplain’s School. It was also near Edna’s home in Woodhaven, New York, where she and the two children would be close to family.

By the end of 1965, the U.S. buildup of conventional forces in South Vietnam was well underway. This included two of the Army’s best combat divisions, the 1st Cavalry Division, “Airmobile,” and the 1st Infantry Division, “The Big Red One.”  This is where most of us were hoping to be assigned. However, there was a large demand for U.S. advisors within the Military Assistance Command – Vietnam (MACV) at the corps and division level, as well as at the regimental, battalion, province, and district level. Since I had already successfully commanded two rifle companies and had been an infantry battalion S3, I believed that I was best qualified to lead American conventional soldiers in combat. The Army personnel policy at the time did not see it that way. Instead, captains without company command experience were sent to U.S. conventional forces to command a company and become branch-qualified. Except for qualified special operations forces officers, all other officers were sent to MACV as U.S. advisors. At the time, I felt that American soldiers were being used as training aids for the professional development of the Army’s combat arms officers. In my opinion, this was a bad policy.

As expected, I was assigned to MACV and further detailed to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN)’s 21st Division Tactical Area (DTA) in the Mekong Delta located in the most southern part of South Vietnam, with its headquarters in the Bac Lieu Province of IV Corps. After a two-week orientation at MACV Headquarters in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), I traveled to Bac Lieu for further in-processing. Then, I was sent to Soc Trang, which was the sector headquarters for Soc Trang Province. Finally, I was assigned to the small, isolated Hamlet of My Tan. My Tan was the sub-sector headquarters for Thuan Hoa District. This is where I would spend the next 12 months.

Johnson in Vietnam
Base Camp, Thuan-Hoa Subsector, US Military Assistance Command-Vietnam, September 1966

To put things into perspective, My Tan was a small hamlet of approximately 250 Indigenous people, mostly peasants, the majority of whom were of Cambodian descent. The district headquarters was located at the intersection of two canals and could only be reached safely by helicopter. Travel by sampan, using existing canals, was a dangerous situation unless the canals were secured in advance by the local militia. As a result, we seldom had any visitors. The advisory team’s food was obtained from the local market in My Tan. We ate a lot of rice and vegetables. Water was collected during the rainy season in a large cistern at the district headquarters. Communications with higher headquarters were maintained by tactical FM radio. Mail was dropped off periodically from a fixed-wing aircraft. Needless to say, we were completely isolated.

The U.S. Advisory Team was authorized a sub-sector advisor (major), an assistant sub-sector advisor (captain), an operations sergeant (sergeant first class), a medical sergeant (staff sergeant), an RTO – radio/telephone operator (specialist), and a Vietnamese interpreter. The district headquarters was in a one-story concrete building shared with the U.S. advisory team. In the front yard, there was a flagpole flying a South Vietnamese flag, a fortified personnel bunker, and a large 81mm motor firing position. This was the district’s primary organic indirect fire weapon.

The security forces available to the district chief included two Regional Force (RF) Companies. There was also a Popular Force (PF) Platoon, used primarily for the district chief’s personal security. Finally, there were 17 armed outposts located throughout the district in the pacified areas. The pacified areas represented 66% of the total district population, dispersed in 30 hamlets. The Viet Cong (VC) controlled 11% of the population, spread out in 10 hamlets. The contested areas represented 23% of the population, located in 16 hamlets. The RF companies were both positioned at the district headquarters (the 566th RF and the 567th RF Companies). They had a combined strength of 206 troops assigned and 173 present for duty. At least once every quarter, I accompanied the district chief by sampan, as he paid his troops at the 17 outposts. This was also a valuable opportunity for the district chief to visit with his trusted village chiefs and to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the district.