Assessment of 5th Infantry Division
[From Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 5, 1970]
LAI KHE, VIETNAM- When the Vietnamese battalion commander at Fire Base Mahone was killed in action, his battalion was quickly pulled off the line.
In the American Army, the battalion would have fought on. But the loss of a key man was a major blow to the Vietnamese battalion and raised real questions as to whether the battalion could continue in combat.
In almost any Vietnamese Army division, the loss of a senior officer in an important position has impact. This is particularly true in the Vietnamese 5th, which now is just venturing out into difficult action after years as a garrison-hugging “coup division”.
President Thieu formerly commanded the 5th, and it was his power base as he began his rise to sovereignty. Under later commanders, the 5th, stationed near Lam Son north of Saigon, was available should there be a need to save the palace from insurrection.
It was not until this fall that the disgruntled American command was able to prevail upon the Vietnamese to remove the politically safe and militarily cautious commander of the 5th and replace him with another Vietnamese officer, Major Gen. Nguyen Van Hieu. While not considered brilliant, General Hieu is thought of as moderately diligent by both Vietnamese and American officers.
Now the general is trying to lead his division to some higher level of competence. Most observers agree that if the 5th does become good it will bode well for the Vietnamese Army, for the 5th now is just about the worst of the 10 Vietnamese divisions.
At one time, not so long ago, there was something of a running competition among American advisers as to who could claim to be with the absolute worst divisions. The 5th, the 18th, and the 25th were all in the running, as horror stories were swapped.
It was not until 1969 that the desire for real, measurable improvement in these divisions became more than a matter of hope. In March, Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird told the command here in no uncertain terms that it had to get much more serious than ever before in preparing Vietnamese units – even the worst – to assume the burdens of war. Galvanized into action, the command began looking around to ways to step up progress.
Last summer, the American and Vietnamese units began working much more closely together in combined operations. Units of the 5th have been working with elements of the U.S. 1st Infantry, in particular, as well as the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile).
Since the 1st U.S. and the Vietnamese began working together under the program called “dong tien”, which translates as “progress together,” there have been substantial increases in enemy killed, captives, Hoi Chanhs (ralliers to the government side), and weapons captured. In terms of these conventional measures, the 8th Regiment of the Vietnamese 5th is doing about three times as well as before.
The Vietnamese in general are compiling better records than the Americans. During one month, for instance, the Vietnamese 5th elements and territorial forces garnered all but eight of the 61 ralliers in the U.S. 1st Infantry’s area of operations.
The 5th Division’s kill rates are high, particularly in the cases of the better battalions. But American officers agree that the various tallies are an imperfect measure of a division’s performance and capabilities. So far, however, nothing better has been devises.
The tallies that look so promising are somewhat a product of the special environment of the Dong Tien program, in which vast quantities of U.S. helicopter transport and gunship support, as well as massive artillery and air support, are available. Under such circumstances, high kill rates can be expected.
When one battalion of the 5th completed a cycle of working with the Americans and then worked for a similar period away from the Americans, there were few signs of continued progress. As one adviser put it, the battalion “had about held its own.”
While there are doubtless advantages to be gained in working with Americans, exposure to the relative plenty of the American war machine can lead to problems, many military sources believe. The Vietnamese quickly learn that going by helicopter is easier than going by truck, that trucks are better than walking, that supplies can be quite plentiful, and that the fallen will be quickly evacuated.
But, when the Americans are gone, the supplies won’t be so plentiful. There will not be so many helicopters. Medical evacuation may not be so swift. Many things will only work if the Vietnamese make them work. American help won’t be so readily available.
American officers agree that the 5th Division is being given a great deal – perhaps too much – now. But, they say, this does improve Vietnamese effectiveness. At the best, sources say, this plenty may be a sort of “pump priming” that will lead to a much higher level of performance when the Americans leave. In the meantime, one American said, a “hot-house environment” is needed for improvement.
Another officer was worried over the enormous problems that continue to plague the 5th. He asked: “Are we showing them things that aren’t germain?”
At present the division’s three regiments are rated good, acceptable, and weak. In terms of battalions, most U.S. officers who have worked with the 5th say that about one-fourth are very good, another fourth rather marginal, and the rest somewhere in the middle.
There are excellent battalions. One is the 1st of the 8th Regiment, which recovered after the loss of its commander and is now doing well in the field. The Americans thought so highly of the slain commander, Lt. Col. Chau Minh Kien, that they renamed Fire Support Base Mahone in his honor.
The 1st was replaced at Kien by the 3rd Battalion of the 8th, which has also done well, racking up better scores on the inevitable charts than other American battalions, including the U.S. battalion based with the Vietnamese battalion at Kien.
When a Vietnamese unit is good, it has a marked advantage over a similar American unit in terms of its ability to gather intelligence and to find out what is happening in its area. When Vietnamese units behave themselves and don’t steal or destroy they are in a better position to be accepted by the people and to work with them.
When a unit is bad, the situation can be disastrous. For instance, one battalion of the 5th is so bad, Vietnamese commanders won’t let it out of training camp.
The 5th remains beset by shortages of officers, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted men. Officers of appropriate rank are often unavailable to command units. Some battalion commanders are captains. One commander, a captain, told me he had officers to head the administrative, logistical or civil-affairs sections of his headquarters.
When an officer is lost, there is often no one qualified to replace him. Promotions are slow, and a Vietnamese unwillingness to move officers around denies many the broad base of experience they would need to fill a new post adequately.
This officer problem is compounded by the fact that in war many of the best officers get killed. The casualty rate is far higher among the courageous and the capable.
Desertions remain a constant source of trouble for the 5th. Unlike the 18th Division nearby, which is now exempted from taking habitual or likely deserters into its ranks, the 5th takes all who are sent. And they can be a mixed bag. An estimated half of all new men sent to the 5th are rated as desertion-prone for one reason or another.
The 5th’s location within easy hiking distance of Saigon doesn’t help, for deserters often find it easy to lose themselves from the authorities in Saigon.
General Hieu has taken some steps to improve the situation. There are signs of greater interest at headquarters now in the concerns of the troops. And the general has tried to get the internal squabbling that has always plagued the division within manageable levels. But pay remains very low. There isn’t much dependent housing and what there is is not very good. Also food is scarce and costly.
Within the area the 5th shares with the U.S. 1st, the enemy strength is rather low. Including Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, strength totals perhaps 5,500. There are almost no concentrations. Thus the enemy can be found usually at squad strength or less.
Since the effort to improve the 5th went into full force in mid-1969, many elements of the division have moved away from the populated areas, leaving security to territorial forces and civilian defense groups. Those working with the U.S. 1st are largely in upper Binh Duong province north of Saigon. Other units are working with the U.S. 1st Cavalry closer to the border.
There are 55 hamlets rated as Viet Cong-controlled in III Corps, which surrounds Saigon and includes the populous center of the country. All but two are in Long An Province, leaving the 5th with only two to cope with in Binh Duong.
If the Americans were to leave Bind Duong now, with the Vietnamese 5th left responsible, the 5th would succeed, most sources say. If the enemy situation were to be stronger, the 5th might encounter difficulties, they add, while agreeing that the 5th will have troubles enough as it is.
A concerted drive is now under way to overcome some of the 5th’s most serious problems, and senior Americans hope for marked improvement by April. By then, they say, strength should be generally higher, and there will have been time to gain experience where it is most sorely needed.
This will not remove concerns. One senior American said he was convinced the 5th could fight the big, conventional sort of battles, but such battles appear as a thing of the past. Now, he said, there is a need for the Vietnamese to learn how to fight well in small units, in decentralized operations, with an emphasis upon stealth, endurance, and a willingness to persevere.