The 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam
This brief summary of the History of the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam is not all inclusive of all Combat Operations. In the early '60s, the Army predicted a large involvement in Southeast Asia and began building up the 101st Airborne Division in addition to several other units.
In July of 1965, the 101st was ordered into combat. The 1st Brigade (Separate) of the 101st Airborne Division landed at Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam on July 29, 1965. It was the third unit to be shipped to the new war zone and was comprised of the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 327th Infantry and the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry. After a brief period where the Soldiers acclimated themselves and received all their equipment, the 1st Brigade (Separate) went into action.
The Brigade was ordered into the Song Con Valley, about 20 miles northeast of the town of An Khe. During one mission, the 2nd Bn, 502nd Infantry encountered heavy enemy fire at their landing zone. Three company commanders were killed and the contact was so close, air support and artillery could not be called in until they pulled back. That night, 100 sorties and 11,000 rounds of artillery hit the enemy. The next morning, the 2nd Bn 502nd Infantry was pulled out. They later discovered that they had landed in the middle of a heavily entrenched enemy base. For the rest of 1965, the 1st Brigade (Separate) continued to mount patrols and interdicted the enemy supply lines.
At the beginning of 1966, the enemy greatly reduced his operations. In May, the enemy began massing in the Pleiku and Kontum Provinces. The 1st Brigade was moved from An Khe to Dak To, a Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) base camp in the northern area of South Vietnam. Here a South Vietnamese force was surrounded by the 24th North Vietnamese Regiment. The 1st Brigade (Separate) was ordered in to reinforce the South Vietnamese position. After evacuating the South Vietnamese forces, the 2nd Bn, 502nd Infantry established their lines inside the abandoned camp and sent C Company forward in an exposed defensive position. On the night of June 6, the 24th NVA Regiment attacked C Company in a brutal assault. In a desperate attempt to stop the enemy advance, the commander of C Company called in air strikes on top of his own position, killing NVA and Americans alike. It was a hard decision to make, but it worked. The 24th NVA Regiment pulled back long enough for A Company 1/327 Infantry to be brought in by helicopter to reinforce the C Company positions. With the arrival of A 1/327 Infantry, the 24th NVA Regiment began to retreat.
The soldiers of 1st Brigade (Separate) pursued the enemy and several large scale air attacks were called in. Hundreds of enemy soldiers were killed but the 24th NVA Regiment managed to escape into Laos. In October and November, 1966, the 4th Infantry Division and 1st Cavalry Divisions were heavily engaged with enemy forces in the Kontum Province. When it became clear that the enemy was attempting to withdraw into Laos, a massive helicopter airlift of the 1st Brigade (Separate), 101st Airborne Division landed just as the enemy was crossing into Laos and safety. The 1st Brigade (Separate) was ordered into reserve at Phu Yen.
In early 1967, the 1st Brigade (Separate) acted as a rapid reaction force, reinforcing American and South Vietnamese forces when necessary and responding to enemy attacks. They had become experts in rapid helicopter assaults. In April of 1967, the 1st Brigade (Separate) was attached to Task Force OREGON and placed under operational control of the III Marine Amphibious Force and moved to Chu Lai. At Chu Lai, the 1st Brigade (Separate) assisted in a large-scale pacification effort in the Quang Tri Province. Later, the 1st Brigade (Separate) was called in to assist a Marine battalion finish off an enemy attack around Khe Sahn, which would be the scene of a long, bloody siege in 1968. In the fall of 1967, Task Force Oregon was reorganized into the 23rd Infantry Division, better known as the Americal Division.
The 1st Brigade (Separate) was detached and waited for the arrival of the 2nd and 3rd Brigades of the 101st Airborne Division, which arrived in December 1967. On January 31, 1968, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive. Tet, the traditional Vietnamese New Year Celebration, was supposed to be a peaceful time.
The enemy attacks caught the Americans by surprise. The 101st Airborne Division, along with the 1st Cavalry Division, and elements of the 1st & 5th Marine Regiments, (Correction provided by Nicholas Warr 2/26/14, email@example.com) began to fight for control of Hue City. Hue was considered vital to the Communist effort because of its history of Buddhist activism and Communist sympathy. The North Vietnamese felt that Hue would be their first political foothold into South Vietnam and committed Regular forces to its capture. When Tet began, Hue was defended by South Vietnamese Army units who were quickly driven from the city. The battle for Hue raged for three weeks and was the only extended urban combat of the war. Fighting in Hue was intense and advances were measured by houses. Each building seemed to hold enemy soldiers. In some cases, the soldiers of the 101st Airborne fought hand to hand. Finally, after much destruction to the city, Hue was liberated from the North Vietnamese.
During the Tet Offensive, over 33,000 enemy soldiers were killed and many thousands more captured. Tet was a major American victory despite the appearance of defeat back home in the political arena. It is interesting to note, that one platoon from C Company, 1st Bn 502nd Infantry, 2nd Brigade was airlifted into Saigon and fought a pitched battle on the roof of the American Embassy after it had been infiltrated by enemy forces.
Following Tet, American forces began launching hundreds of small unit counter attacks designed to contain and destroy any remaining infiltrated enemy units operating in South Vietnam. In March and April, the 101st Airborne attacked enemy supply bases in the A Shau Valley during Operation SOMERSET PLAIN. During this operation, several hundred tons of enemy supplies were captured.
The 101st Airborne was next ordered into the coastal lowlands in the Thua Thien Province in Operation NEVADA EAGLE which began May 1968. For 288 days, the 101st Airborne conducted sweeping patrols of the area and engaged the enemy almost daily. After it was over, the province was cleared of enemy forces and the 101st Airborne had captured enough rice, weapons and equipment for 10 enemy battalions.
Following NEVADA EAGLE, the 101st Airborne returned to the A Shau valley in early 1969 and began a series of operations to clear the valley of enemy forces. During one operation, the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry assaulted Dong Ap Bia Mountain, aka Hill 937 where the enemy had established a well fortified base camp. For 10 days, 3/187 Infantry launched attack after attack on the enemy position but could only advance yards at a time. The enemy had established several lines of defense. Fighting on Hill 937 was some of the most brutal of the war and was often hand-to-hand. The 2nd Bn 501st Infantry, 1st Bn 506th Infantry and A & D Co 2nd Bn 506th Infantry of the 101st Airborne were called in to take Hill 937. In the end, Hill 937, now called "Hamburger Hill", was captured. The battle was very controversial because it had no tactical or strategic importance and the Army later abandoned it. Defending the operation, the commander of the 101st Airborne acknowledged that the hill's only significance was that the enemy occupied it. "My mission, was to destroy enemy forces and installations. We found the enemy on Hill 937, and that is where we fought them," he later said.
The A Shau valley was finally cleared and armored forces were brought in to reopen abandoned air strips.
After these operations, the 101st Airborne went through a series of reorganizations. Their name was changed to the 101st Air Cavalry Division and later the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile). With the change in names came a change in mission. The 101st Airborne was ordered back into Thua Thien to participate in Civil operations designed to bolster the South Vietnamese government forces. They established a series of fire and patrol bases and conducted several operations that prevented the enemy from re-entering Thua Thien. In addition, the 101st Airborne provided valuable technical training to the South Vietnamese forces and supported several South Vietnamese operations into Laos to cut off enemy supply and infiltration lines. These operations were designed to allow the South Vietnamese Army to operate on their own and turn over the fight to them. This was called "Vietnamization."
In late 1971, and early 1972 the 101st Airborne Division began returning home to Fort Campbell. It was the last Army Division to leave South Vietnam. The 101st Airborne Division spent almost 7 years in combat in South Vietnam. During that time, the Division became one of the most feared units of the American Army. During Vietnam, Army forces were ordered to create black and green subdued shoulder insignia that were designed to blend in with the green uniform. The 101st Airborne is the only unit to retain their colored emblem.
The North Vietnamese called the 101st Airborne the "Chicken Men" because of their insignia. (The Vietnamese had never seen an eagle before). Many enemy commanders warned their men to avoid the Chicken Men at all costs because any engagement with them, they were sure to lose.
This brief summary of the History of the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam is not all inclusive of all Combat Operations.