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Part I 1966 The War Begins In Earnest

A Vietnam Retrospective
1966 - Close Quarter Napalm Drop

1966 Napalm Drop - "Smoking Charlie From The Treeline"

– The Signal Corps In Action –

The war in Vietnam did not get up to speed as rapidly as some might think… combat wise things got off to a slow start. Up until 1965 combat operations just sort of bumped along. But around about the end of 1965 it all began to change, as more and more units began arriving in country, with their commanders anxious to get it on.

To be more specific, America's military involvement in Vietnam began with advisors sent to assist Ngo Ding Diem’s rookie army in 1954. Between 1961 and 1964 their number grew from 900 to 23,000. Yet while the number was significant, the involvement of these advisors was minimal, being relegated to a narrowly defined instructional and training role. It wasn’t until February 1965 that the U.S.' first independent combat operation was mounted in what would become known as the Vietnam War, and that involvement centered around a series of retaliatory strikes after the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

Being what it was, no ground troops were involved, as the strikes were carried out by the U.S. Air Force and Navy. Strange as it was however, neither this independent action on the part of the U.S. to escalate the war, nor a decision made in February of 1965 to increase the number of ground troops in-country by sending 3,500 Marines to Đà Nẵng, was shared with the South Vietnamese government. Except for a trifling last minute request to the South Vietnamese Premier Dr. Quat the morning of the Marine's actual arrival on the beach—to issue a press statement supporting the U.S.’ efforts—the South Vietnamese were kept in the dark until it was too late for them to do anything about it. Instead, miraculously, the Marine's amphibious assault craft simply appeared on the horizon, world press just as miraculously appeared on the beach, as did dozens of pretty young Vietnamese girls dressed in áo dàis, ready to drape the advancing Marines with leis. Does anyone sense an ego at work here?.[1]

Marines land at Da Nang, 1965That was the case for the 3,500 Marines that landed at Đà Nẵng on March 8, 1965... and it was also the case for the 20,000 support personnel that were ordered to Vietnam on April 1, 1965, as well as the order issued on April 14 to deploy the entire 173rd Airborne Brigade. For a war that was supposed to be about Uncle Sam working hand in hand with the South Vietnamese government to gain control of the country, upgrade the skills of the ARVN, help the ARVN oust the NVA and V.C., and set up a democratic system of government, Westmoreland sure was keeping his "partner" in the dark about his intentions.

One wonders, if the government and military of South Vietnam... even in those early days... had a greater involvement in planning and prosecuting the war, or at least understanding the logic behind America's actions, might they not have been able to go it alone when the time came? And if not... that is, if it was not possible for the South Vietnamese ever to go it alone... then what were we doing there in the first place? Was the plan to stay forever? No? Then why wasn't the South Vietnamese government and its military brought into the equation day one and taught what they needed to know to run their own country... including the knowledge that we weren't going to stay forever and that they had better get on about building both a democratic country and a military that could defend it, instead of wasting their time fighting internecine political wars for power while we pursued Charlie in the boonies?

To this author it's amazing the stupidity with which America fights its modern day wars to free nations. Yes, it's o.k. to send our men into battle to help free the people of another country... but if we are going to do so then we should demand that the leaders of that country step up to the task of creating both a functioning government and a capable military. If the leaders they pick don't prove up to the task, then we should pluck them from power and tell the people of the country to pick another one... and keep doing this until some local George Washington steps forward and shows that he understands his role is to be that country's George Washington, not its Napolean.

Regardless, as the summer of 1966 approached things really began to “hot up.” By August five new major combat units had arrived in country, and with their arrival serious combat operations got underway. Technically, 1966 represented the second year of serious combat for the U.S. Army, but in reality it was the first year when the Army had enough men and materials to mount a vigorous, forceful, coordinated effort. So in 1966 the war began in earnest, and with it the Signal Corps was put to the test.

Since most of the training of the newly arrived Signal units had occurred in Europe or the U.S., where methods of communication between combat units had already been codified into a science for some 20+ years, it came as a surprise to those setting up the systems in 'Nam that these same approaches to the use and application of communication technology were not operating as expected. Instead, rather than finding that their deployed gear worked swimmingly, what they found was that things that had worked back home simply didn’t work in Vietnam.

Vietnam Jungle - 1966One of the reasons, as they quickly learned, was that while the terrain back home and in Europe was benign and conducive to the kind of communication architectures and equipment the Army employed at that time, Vietnam was proving to be different. More to the point, what they found was that whether because of the unique tactical scenario the enemy presented in Vietnam, or the climatic and geographic conditions that existed, getting reliable communication up and running was not only proving difficult but often times impossible. Overall, getting communication links in place to support tactical combat field operations was turning out to be a real problem for the Signal Corps in the early days of 1966.

To make matters worse, while many units, like the 25th Infantry Division, had trained for jungle operations in climates similar to that of Vietnam, and had learned something or two in the process, the combat similarities they internalized didn’t carry over to the Signal support personnel that trained with them. That is, while for the infantry boys combat simulation in a hot climate proved to be similar to what they found in Vietnam, this same training regimen was proving to be of little value to the Signaleers arriving in Vietnam. The reason was that what the combat boys were up against was heat, while the Signal guys were up against 173rd Airborne Brigade - Casper Platoonsomething entirely different: a topographic environment far different than either what they had trained in or that which their equipment was designed for. It’s one thing to learn to take a few salt tablets and keep yourself hydrated, it’s another to learn how to bounce a ridge line signal over a bunch of hills and then aspirate it through a jungle canopy until it hit the FM radios on the other side.

This became evident when the first major combat element to arrive in Vietnam, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, discovered that it was having a devil of a time communicating over extended distances of any kind. In this case both local terrain conditions and unit dispersal proved to be the problem, for while the 173rd's troops were in Vietnam their logistics base was in Okinawa. All told, communication between the units HQ, their logistics base in Okinawa, and their forward bases in the field proved to be a bridge too far for the signals equipment being relied on.

For these guys, where normally voice communication would be established around the use of the standard single sideband radio equipment the unit normally employed, in this new theater of war this SOP approach was simply not working. Paramount in this was the fact that the distances involved were far beyond the designed range for the assigned equipment, and even when they weren’t the topographies involved defeated the system’s ability to carry the signal over the route needed. From day one then, the Signaleers found they had to scramble to figure out how to get voice communication up and running.[2]

AN/ASC15 Radio Communication in Huey 1DPart of the answer was found in an expedient solution invented early in 1965, when some Signal guy somewhere mounted an FM command and control console in a UH-1D helicopter and took to the skies with it. This improvised platform was then used as an airborne relay to help get the message up and over the obstacles involved, and the distances too, until it reached the intended party. It proved to be so effective that almost immediately the idea was copied by other units throughout the country.

At the same time the Signal Corps itself began designing a communication system to fit in the Huey, so that combat commanders like those just arriving could take to the air and control their air assaults in real time, rather than sit back in an office somewhere in Nha Trang and try to second guess the troops on the ground.

The first of these was designated the AN/ASC6. It included a basic console, two FM radios, one VHF radio, one UHF radio, and one high frequency signal side band radio. In essence, it tried to duplicate what the earliest Signaleers had patched together as an expedient to provide both airborne relay and airborne command and control.    

AN/VRC-12 in M151 JeepHistorical Signal Corps documents claim that the AN/ASC6 was brought to the field in 1965... if so, it must have been a well kept secret as there are no contemporaneous accounts of its use, while there are dozens of stories of kluged airborne relay systems being  built and launched by eager, creative and driven E3 - E4 Signaleers. Instead, the earliest accounts of it begin to pop up in early 1968, by which time the AN/ASC10 was hitting the field, purportedly to replace the mysterious and unaccounted for ANA/ASC6. As for the difference between them, the AN/ASC10 provided an internal intercom system for the command group onboard the helicopter.

By 1968 every airborne commander wanted his own command and control chopper, outfitted with every radio he could get his hands on. It was as though every LTC and above had discovered the thrill of Ham radio. And of course, the Signal Corps obliged, by introducing the AN/ASC11, followed by the AN/ASC15. About the time the war started to go flat again (19701971 and onward) hardly a commander of any stripe didn't have his own little 'com center' following him around at all times.

Major General DePuyBut back in 1966 those days were still a long way off, and  the Signal guys on the ground were struggling to get basic communications up and running.

While the kludged airborne communication relay was a step in the right direction, and something that clearly worked, the concept still depended on bandaged together commo equipment that was proving to have inherent limitations. For the most part, the limitations found stemmed from reliance on older, WWII series FM radio sets… equipment that simply didn’t have the horsepower needed to deal with the environment Vietnam presented. Worse, as more and more units arrived in Vietnam they too ran into the same problems. Within a short while it became painfully obvious that with or without the airborne relay concept, a more permanent solution was badly needed, and its use needed to be turned into a standard operating procedure quickly.

For the 173rd Airborne Brigade part of the solution came in late 1965 when the Signal Corps replaced the older series of radio systems the unit was using with the AN/VRC-12 family, along with AN/PRC-25 radios. For radiotelegraphy (i.e. high frequency radio teletypewriter service between the battalions and brigade) two AN/VSC1 sets were made available to each battalion, while back at brigade headquarters a shelter-mounted AN/GRC-46 was provided to interface with them.

Hot on the heels of the 173rd other units began to arrive in Vietnam. Among the other units that arrived during this period was a brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, a brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, and another from the 25th Infantry Division. These units too saw their commo systems upgraded—and none too soon, as major combat operations began almost the instant the troops from these units hit the ground. In fact, by late 1966 six major combat operations involving the soldiers of these brigades were either underway or had already occurred, with five of the six happening in the II Corps central threat area.[3]

For one of these campaigns the 1st Infantry Division (commanded by Major General William E. DePuy) fielded an operation called EL PASO II. It began on 2 June 1966, and depended for its success on the solution to some weighty communication problems… of both a logistical and operational nature.

From the get-go the 121st Signal Battalion had problems deploying what was needed to support EL PASO II, as both the men and the equipment it normally would have used were tied up supporting the base camp complex at Dĩ An. Both men and material were dedicated to this large base camp, and so it was necessary to find a way to extract the 121st from this duty so that it could focus its signal duties on providing combat support for the 1st Infantry Division, which was its normal organic role.

MRC-34Y2 - Vietnam 1965This was accomplished by reassigning the 595th Signal Support Company to Dĩ An, attaching them to the 69th Signal Battalion, and giving them responsibility for most of the 121st’s duties. An expedient, looking back now, one can see that this quick fix was the beginning step in the never ending game of “unit swap” that saw so many Signal Corps units assigned, reassigned, and reassigned again throughout the Vietnam War, until the TOE at the end of the war looked nothing like it did at the beginning. Whether a mark of typical American ingenuity or poor planning to begin with, the flexibility the Signal Corps demonstrated as it moved its units around the world to support operations in Vietnam, as though they were pieces on a chess board, was a stroke of genius. Come hell or high water, people and equipment were going from where they were to where they were needed, the TOE be damned.

While the 595th helped free the equipment required for EL PASO II, it didn't solve the problem of getting the equipment to where it was needed, and making sure it could be moved in real time as the troops moved. To solve this problem the 121st copied what they had seen done by the 25th Infantry Division. They modified the vans that carried the VHF multi-channel AN/MRC-69 equipment by removing one stack of AN/TRC-24 radio equipment and one stack of AN/TCC-7 carrier equipment (one-half the capability of the AN/MRC-69).

How to build a Fire Support Base...These were then remounted in a 3/4-ton truck, or more usually simply boxed in wooden crates that could be stacked together on arrival at whatever forward base they were headed for, wired back together, switched on and quickly operated while the rest of the Signal squad built sand bag barriers around this unattractive but all important pile of boxes. To make the whole kludge look and sound like an authorized piece of real Army equipment, the entire modified ensemble of commo gear was given the name MRC-34Y2 and deployed. It proved extremely successful in establishing VHF links in the field, typically from a forward fire base back to a base camp. Best of all, because the entire system weighed much less than the AN/MRC-69 it was replacing, each individual wooden boxed component could be hand carried by two men, slid inside the belly of a UH-1, and transported along with the combat teams as they moved from one forward base to another.

In the case of EL PASO II this proved invaluable as the division and brigade command elements involved were spread all over the tactical combat area, with ten distinct command post locations operating at the same time. Many, being expedient helicopter supported forward bases, were inaccessible by any other means. Without the MRC-34Y2 being Huey UH-1 helicopter-transportable, EL PASO II and the other four combat operations that got underway in the summer of 1966 would have been in big trouble. Sure, bigger lifting helicopters were available, but not in sufficient numbers to support fluid combat operations where a forward operating base might be changed every day of the week, and sometimes twice on Sundays. Being able to rely on UH-1s made the job of getting communication in place as the troops themselves deployed doable. When the troops moved, their commo gear followed them, in the same choppers that they rode in.

But that wasn’t the end of the problem. Unbeknownst to everyone a new form of combat was in the process of being invented, and this new form required that the Signal guys that supported field operations had to invent new signal solutions to cope with it.

Major General DePuy turned out to be an aggressive combat leader. Unlike General McClellan of Civil War fame, who couldn’t get out of the way of his own shadow, or more precisely, preferred not to, DePuy had no intention of letting grass grow under his feet, or rice as the case may have been. His plan was simple: move fast, hit hard. As a result he initiated 1st Infantry Division tactics that rapidly expanded the pace and scope of combat operations, more quickly and intensely than any prior Vietnam Army commander had. His troops moved as fast as the famous Generals Sherman (again, of Civil War fame) and Patton (WWII), and possibly faster, even without taking into account the fact that DePuy rode on choppers while the best they had were horses and a tank.

With DePuy it was not unusual to see a command post and a few fire support bases appear one day, only to be moved the next. DePuy’s approach correlated his troops physical presence to the potential for action, putting his men in the line of fire whenever he could, rather than waiting for the line of fire to come to him. It may be an old infantry adage that if you hear the sound of gunfire, head toward it, but if it is, DePuy lived these words. He wanted to engage the enemy and he expected his troops to move to do so whenever the opportunity arose, even if that meant fighting while on the move.

With this kind of an attitude what could the Signal boys do but find new ways to not only keep up with him but prove their mettle too by outpacing the ground pounders. This caused them to have to come up with even more rapid ways to deploy the communication assets at their disposal and get them up and running quicker. In this case though the problem wasn’t lack of equipment, it was the pace of tactical combat change. In particular, the unique Vietnam environment simply made communication at this pace anything but reliable. The standard process deployment approach that had been developed simply did not work. To fix the problem the Signal boys turned to innovation again.

Nui Ba Den - Black Virgin MountainAn example of this can be seen at Nui Ba Den, one of the few mountains of useful height in the 1st ID’s tactical area of operation. It proved critical to maintaining a number of the long multi-channel “shots” to the rapidly shifting forward command post locations that filled the surrounding flat land. But it wasn’t enough. After all, it was only one mountain, where 20 were needed.

The answer of course was to erect signal towers. The only problem was that back then the TOE for a Signal Battalion didn’t include equipment for signal towers. Strangely, while no such equipment existed or was authorized, signal towers soon began to appear. Since few people knew that they weren’t authorized or part of a Signal Battalion’s equipment list, few people asked questions. For the most part Captains, Majors, Colonels and the higher ranks that saw them simply assumed that they were supposed to be where they were, or they wouldn’t be there. No one asked how they got there, who authorized them, or anything. And from the rank of Lieutenant on down, no one told. When a tower was needed, it just magically appeared. Another example of American ingenuity at its best.

As to what they looked like, they were usually cobbled together from the two standard issue systems that made up the 45 foot AB-577 and the 65-foot AB-216. With a little judicious use of guy wires these things could be erected up to and over two hundred feet into the air.

How did the troops involved know this? Part of the answer can be traced back to Army Signal OCS, at Fort Gordon, where early 1966 Officer Candidates were shown how to erect towers, guy them, and keep them up in the wind. Because of this fortuitous training, when these same butter bars hit the field in Vietnam and their EMs told them that the way to solve the connection problem was to get the antennas up higher than the surrounding terrain, they instantly thought of the towers they had trained on back at OCS. The fact that this solution involved equipment that was not authorized to their units, or readily available, didn’t matter. What mattered was getting the message through… and they knew that could be done by simply putting an (unauthorized) tower higher than anyone had before. Wet behind the ears as Second Lieutenants they may have been, but intimidated they were not. After all, they had themselves built these same towers back on the fields of Signal OCS and so knew that the equipment was strong, reliable, and not beyond their ability to master.

AB-216 and AB-577 Signal TowersAnd so it happened, Enlisted ingenuity and the excitement of Junior Officer command led to signal towers popping up all over the place in the II Corps zone, authorized or not. Find a field command post or forward fire base in Central Vietnam and the chances are you would also find a couple hundred feet of tower sticking up into the sky.

Whatever the cause, whatever the reason, it worked. These off-the-cuff towers kept the VHF and UHF systems on air, providing to every major combat unit the voice of command they needed.[4]

As to what all of this accomplished, it set the tempo and tenor for how tactical Signaleers would face the war ahead. By combining rapidly constructed towers of the kind first learned about back on the training fields of Signal OCS with ground and light air-transportable equipment layouts, wooden boxed pieces of signal equipment kluged from much larger systems, air borne relay stations, and upgraded VHF and UHF equipment, field signal platoons were able to install, operate and maintain backbone field expedient multi-channel trunking and switching systems able to meet the needs of any tactical combat field unit… of any size… any complexity… at any number of forward bases… in support of any combat team with a fire in their belly to find and fix the enemy, and jump to the occasion by moving itself at the trigger of a trip wire from where it was to some other God forsaken location in Vietnam… and then get up and do it all over again the next morning.

Yet while all in all the system worked and worked well, it wasn’t perfect. As the combat units settled into their routines the pace quickened even more, bringing the rate of combat engagement up several notches higher than that which had been set when they first arrived in country.

The case of the 1st ID gives an example. For it the links the commo guys set up between the main command post at Dĩ An and the brigade main command post at Phuoc Vinh worked well, but still only provided basic communication. So too for communication between the brigade command post and the division's forward command post at Lai Khe, and similarly for division support command, which was tied into brigade headquarters at Dĩ An. All in all, basic communication… with a jump capability thrown in to tie together the division and brigade tactical command posts whenever they were deployed. But beyond that, the system simply could not keep up with the evolving needs of the combateers, especially as their commanders grew to spend more and more time in the air. In a nut shell, the combat commander’s growing penchant to spend as much time in the air as they could, applying and employing helicopter borne command and control rather than pacing back and forth in an office back in the rear, put a stress on field communications that the Signal Corps had not seen in all the wars before.[5]

How did the Signal Corps fix this problem? You’ll have to read Part II to find out that answer. In Part II we’ll take a look at the communication problem helicopter borne command and control created, and how the Signal Corps went about solving it. Join us there to continue the story of the Signal Corps’ efforts in the 1965 – 1967 period, when the war began in earnest.




[1] Sources and cross check for comments about non-notification of government of South Vietnam: — Neil Sheehan, Hendrick Smith, E.W. Kenworthy, and Fox Butterfield, eds., The Pentagon Papers (New York: Bantam Books, 1971) — William Bundy’s unpublished manuscript, chapter 19, as read and commented on by Bui Diem, member of the delegation to the 1954 Geneva conference, Chief of Staff to the Premier of South Vietnam, 1965, et al. — U. Alexia Johnson, The Right Hand of Power (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1984) 

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[2] For a well written, brief history of the 173rd in Vietnam, see this Wikipedia article: Wikipedia - 173rd Brigade  

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[3] EL PASO II, HAWTHORNE, PAUL REVERE, SILVER BAYONET, MASHER/WHITE WING  [Click here for map of combat operations]

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[4] At Dĩ An base camp the tower stood at 120 feet. At Christmas the Signaleers traded around until they had enough Christmas lights to wrap the guy wires. To make sure the symbolism wasn’t missed, they topped it with a huge star. One written archive of the time stated that when “the Big Red One communicators gathered about the tower, the commanding general of the division commended them for their outstanding work as communicators and, at the conclusion of his remarks, officially lit the ‘tree’.” Little did he know that the tower was not part of the TOE, was unauthorized and built from scrounged parts and materials. As the ceremony proceeded, starting with a few 1st Lieutenants and on down through the enlisted ranks, smiles and chuckles spread throughout the assembly as the idea gained momentum that they were being commended for what was essentially an unauthorized activity and something that flaunted SOP. For most of the higher Officer ranks however, at least for those that noticed the levity and jostling of the crowd, the question was bantered about as to what the troops found so humorous that they could hardly contain themselves. - To return to your place in the text click here: Return to place in text

[5] Dĩ An is a town in Binh Duong province in southeastern Vietnam, about 20 km north of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). It is 1706 km by rail from Hanoi. As of the 2009 census the town had a population of 73,859. The town covers 60 km².  - To return to your place in the text click here: Return to place in text

Additional Sources

Primary source material, data and statistics used in this article taken from Vietnam Studies, Division Level Communication, 1962 - 1973, Lieutenant General Charles R. Myer.

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This story originally published on our February 2013 Home Page.


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