During the lead up to Memorial Day here at SpecialOperations.com we’re looking at some of the more interesting tidbits of our history. Some you may not have heard of before and others may be familiar to you.
While the US had sent Special Forces advisors to South East Asia during the 1950s to Vietnam and to Laos in 1959 with the White Star mission, the build-up of American involvement really began in 1961.
In that year, the United States had a new President and he had some issues facing him right off the bat. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev pledged support for “wars of national liberation” throughout the world. His covert support greatly encouraged Communists in North Vietnam to escalate their armed struggle to unify Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh.
Outgoing President Eisenhower told Kennedy privately that he’d probably have to send troops to Southeast Asia. During his inauguration speech, Kennedy stated that “…we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to insure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Ho Chi Minh was the leader of North Vietnam and the US following the end of WWII lost a prime opportunity to avoid bloodshed in the region. The OSS parachuted Aaron Bank (later the founder of the 10th SFG) into Indo-China (later Vietnam) in the attempt to search for Japanese POW camps.
Despite his Communist leanings and schooling, Ho Chi Minh was greatly impressed with the United States and asked Bank for a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. Bank was likewise impressed with Ho and tried to get the US to support him. But the US backed the French who tried to re-install a colonial regime in Indochina which started the war that ultimately the United States would be dragged into.
Vietnam was divided into North and South after the French were defeated in 1954. Ho Chi Minh controlled North Vietnam and they actively tried to create guerrilla movements in the South by lending arms, ammunition, and troops.
Kennedy’s fledgling administration was out of its element in SE Asia and the president sends VP Lyndon Johnson, and others to size up the situation. LBJ calls President Diem, the “Winston Churchill” of Asia. The die was cast, the US would become embroiled in the war.
In May 1961, 56 years ago, the President sent 400 Green Beret “Special Advisors” to Vietnam to train the South Vietnamese in counter-insurgency warfare. Up until this time, the South Vietnamese and the US had placed the onus of their activity in countering the insurgency by beefing up and training the conventional South Vietnamese forces. However, this excluded large numbers of the ethnic and religious minorities of the country.
Both the early SF advisors and the CIA believed a paramilitary force of minorities would greatly expand South Vietnam’s counterinsurgency efforts into remote areas. The largest of these minorities, the Montagnards, a French word meaning “Mountain Man” had always been treated with contempt by the government and lowland Vietnamese which made them prime targets for Communist propaganda and recruiting.
These Mountain tribes people controlled vast areas of the countryside and could have easily been swayed or coerced to the Communist side of the conflict. The initial SF foray into the counter-insurgency realm with the Montagnards took place with the Rhade (pronounced Rah-day) tribesmen in a small village called Buon Enao.
After initial meetings with reps from the US Embassy and an SF medical sergeant, the village elders decided to come on board with the government. The program quickly spread out to the other villages in the area and within a few months, the SF advisors had built the Village Defense program into an area that comprised 40 Rhade villages within 15 kilometers of Buon Enao. They had 1,000-man village defense militia and 300 full-time strikers. The program changed its name to the Civilian Irregular Defense Group or CIDG.
Special Forces was here to stay in Vietnam and the CIDG quickly became a thorn in the side of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. The typical modus operandi (MO) for SF was to have a Special Forces “A” Detachment assigned to a hamlet or a village. There the “A-Team” would then raise a strike force. The Company sized camp strike forces were quick reaction forces to counter problems in the village area. These strike forces also conducted patrols to disrupt the VC from their bases. They were the more highly trained civilians than the village defense militias. And with the training by the SF troops were a good match for the Viet Cong guerrillas that they would face.
From these humble beginnings, the CIDG program which was turned over to the 5th Special Forces Group would grow to 84 A-camps with over 42,000 CIDG strikers under its command at its peak. The area development (as it was called) around the A-camps became a primary focus of the CIDG as Special Forces troops trained the Montagnards in village defense, small arms, and mortars. The tactics were for mainly platoon size elements and below, with the squad being the most common maneuver element.
In two short years, the 5th SFG(A) CIDG program went from one medical sergeant at Buon Enao to over 1200 personnel scattered across South Vietnam. Coordination with the South Vietnamese allies was a dicey situation. Though technically onboard with the CIDG program, the South Vietnamese were unable or unwilling to do any of the training with the “Yards” as they were called by the SF troops. That would prove to be a problem throughout the war as the South Vietnamese eventually would take over the program under the “Vietnamization Program”.
Soon the North Vietnamese would send thousands of troops down the Ho Chi Minh trail to bolster the Viet Cong forces. The US would begin sending thousands of their own combat troops to Vietnam as well and the war would escalate.
But that small move by President Kennedy to send the 400 SF advisors to Vietnam in the spring of 1961 would open the floodgates to a much larger conflict. The Green Berets would carve out a much larger combat role as time wound on and would be one of the most highly decorated units of the Vietnam war.
Photo courtesy of Life Magazine