The First Infantry Division in Vietnam
The 1st ID shipped out to Vietnam in April 1965, and arrived in country during June of that year. The division established its headquarters north of Saigon at Di An, and was soon engaged in small unit actions in an attempt to secure their main base camp area. While the rest of the division continued to trickle in, the infantry regiments of the Big Red One continued their efforts to pacify the area surrounding their base camp. By November of that year with all of its commands in country, the division was declared fully operational.
The year 1966 saw an increase in operational tempo and in April the division was moved into the Tay Ninh province for Operation Birmingham, its first large scale action since deploying to Vietnam. Operation Birmingham was soon followed by its next large scale operation in May: Operation El Paso. Throughout the summer the division fought a series of actions to keep Highway 13 open, and in August the Big Red One scored its most overwhelming victory to that date: the Battle of Bong Trang. During this fight, the 2nd Infantry Regiment destroyed an entire Viet Cong main force battalion. The next major divisional operation occurred in November when the division engaged and destroyed the 9th Viet Cong Division during Operation Attleboro.
In 1967 the division moved into the Iron Triangle for Operation Cedar Falls, followed soon after by Operation Junction City. Operation Junction City was at this point in the war the largest operation conducted by the Americans. At Ap Gu on April 1st, elements of the 16th and 26th Infantry Regiments repulsed wave after wave of NVA infantry, leaving more than 600 communist soldiers dead on the field. Throughout the rest of 1967 the 1st continued operations around Saigon and in the Iron Triangle.
The Tet offensive saw the Big Red One engaged in fierce fighting in the suburbs of Saigon. In the first two weeks of fighting the division inflicted over 1500 casualties on the VC. After the fighting to reclaim Saigon from Viet Cong hands, the division spent most of its time mopping up communist pockets in its area of responsibility. By the end of the year, most of these pockets of resistance left over from the Tet Offensive had been eliminated.
Throughout 1969 the division aided the ARVN in preparing to shoulder the bulk of the fighting. By November of that year it was announced that the 1st Infantry Division would be returning home in 1970. By April the entire division had returned to its home at Fort Riley Kansas. It should be pointed out that when the 1st Infantry Division left Vietnam, communist activity in its AO ceased to exist. This led the division commander, General Miloy, to remark: “We have worked ourselves out of a job.”
The 1st Squadron/ 4th Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam
The First Squadron of the Fourth Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam was an armored cavalry unit assigned to the First Infantry Division. The squadron served as the division’s reconnaissance element in the early 1960s. What made the Fourth Cavalry, and most armored cavalry squadrons, unique was, in addition to armored vehicles, each squadron had an air cavalry troop assigned to it. The First Squadron of the Fourth Cavalry Regiment was organized as follows throughout most of its tour in Vietnam.
*Consisting of three platoons each organized as follows:
3x M-48 Main Battle Tanks
5x M-113 Armored Personnel Carriers
1x M-113 APC Command Vehicle
1x M-113 APC 81mm Mortar Vehicle
*Organized as above
*Organized as above
Air Cavalry Troop (to be covered latter)
When the First Infantry Division arrived in Vietnam they found few passable roads, and the surrounding terrain either too marshy, or too densely forested, to support armored vehicles. The terrain had effectively negated the 4th’s ability to serve as a recon unit. Thus the Fourth spent its first year in country escorting supply convoys up and down Highway 13. In 1966, the new year brought a change in role for Fourth. The new commanding general for the First Infantry Division saw the Fourth as an asset. With its vast amount of fire power, the Fourth became the fire brigade for the First Infantry Division moving from hot spot to hot spot. On numerous times the Fourth had to rescue cut off elements of the Sixteenth, Eighteenth, and Twenty Second Infantry Regiments, from annihilation by the NVA or VC. The Fourth Cavalry served in every major operation the First Infantry Division staged during the war, in addition to its role as the fire brigade. In February of 1970 the squadron returned home with the rest of the division.
The troop that our organization portrays is D-Troop, the squadron’s air cavalry troop, and more specifically the troop’s aero rifle platoon. D-Troop was organized as follows:
[Weapons Platoon] –“Red”
*Consisting of the following:
11x AH-1G Attack Helicopters (the model and type of aircraft varied from time to time as newer models became available or were phased out)
[Scout Platoon]- “White”
*Consisting of the following:
10x OH-6 Scout Helicopters (Again the model and type depended on the time frame of the war)
[Aero Rifle Platoon]- “Blue”
*Consisting of the following
5x UH-1 Transport Helicopters
1x HQ Section
4x Rifle Squads
Each rifle squad consisted of anywhere from 10-12 men, and each squad had at least 1 M-60 machine gun and 1 M-79 grenade launcher. For communication purposes a pack radio, normally an AN/PRC-25, was carried as well.
The purpose of the air cavalry troop was pretty straight forward. Just as the armored troops of the squadron provided a land based fire brigade that supported other elements of the division, the air cavalry troop did the same mission, except through the air. In addition to being the division’s flying fire brigade, the troop provided the division with crucial aerial reconnaissance. Types of missions that the troop normally engaged in were as follows:
Intelligence gathering- many times the troop was called upon to be the eyes in the sky for many First Infantry Division operations. The troop would conduct visual reconnaissance from the air, and on the ground in the case of the aero rifle platoon, on roads, areas of enemy activity, and potential targets for air and artillery strikes. The troop would also be called in to assess the damage inflicted by air and artillery strikes. In a war where helicopter mobility was king, the troop was used to reconnoiter and secure potential helicopter landing zones for larger operations.
Security- Another role the troop was forced to take on in Vietnam was that of providing security to vital areas in the division’s AO. Often times, the troop, most often the aero rifle platoon, was called upon to provide an early warning to enemy action or to screen larger divisional operations from the enemy. Convoy protection was another vital job that the troop engaged in. The supply convoys that were forced to lumber down the primitive roads in South Vietnam were always in danger of being ambushed. As a result, the air cavalry troop was often tasked with providing air and ground support to these vulnerable, but vital, convoys. Finally, when an aircrew was forced down due to enemy action, it was often the responsibility of the air cavalry troop to recover their fellow aviators.
Economy of force- Despite the small size of the troop, the air cavalry troop contained a lot of fire power and flexibility. In an effort to relieve larger, but less efficient forces, for duties more suited to their size, the air cavalry platoon was called in. One job that the troop excelled in was quick, combined air ground assaults on enemy positions. . In a further effort to take the war to the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, the air cavalry troop was used to spring ambushes on enemy forces both from the air and the ground. The troop was also ideal for delaying the enemy from exploiting an assault until larger forces could be hustled in to shore up the defense of an area. Finally when remote fire bases were constructed, or in the process of being constructed, the air cavalry troop was often used as a defense force for these installations.
As you can see, the troop was often times spread thin, and constantly in action on various missions. This is not to say that they were constantly in contact with the enemy, but they were often called upon to complete mission after mission. The stress on men and machines was intense. While some would argue that the men in the air cavalry troop had more creature comforts available to them, the strain placed on them by the ever growing demands of the division more than over shadowed the small luxuries afforded them.
While much of this history has been devoted to D-Troop as a whole, it is time to focus attention on the aero rifle platoon that this organization portrays. As discussed earlier the aero rifle platoon added great flexibility to the troop. The unit was normally under strength compared to a platoon from a line infantry unit; however, the platoon made up for its lack of size by the fire power it had at its disposal. The amount of air support at the platoon’s disposal often allowed it to engage targets that normal rifle platoons would avoid. Their smaller size and mobility allowed them to go places that, often times, were very difficult for larger line infantry units to insert into. On the whole, the aero rifle platoon provided a great amount of support to each element of the 1st Infantry Division in whatever role it participated in.
The Big Red One: The First Infantry Division, 1917-1970 by
Christopher J. Anderson- Stackpole Books, 2003
Air Cavalry Troop- Vietnam found on Cavhooah.com-
Vietnam Order of Battle by Shelby Stanton- Stackpole Books, 2003
Jungle Dragoon by Paul Walker- Presidio Press, 1999