Fighting the War
An Airmobile War
The war consumed Vietnam, a country not twice the size of Florida. North Vietnam was the target of repeated U.S. bombings, but South Vietnam was the setting for bombing, defoliation, and most of the fighting. The war also spilled over into Laos and Cambodia. Vast, widely dispersed armies and guerrillas confronted each other in mountains, central highlands, and river deltas; in dense jungles, fields of ten-foot-high elephant grass, and marshy mangrove forests; and in hamlets of thatched-roof huts, rice paddies, and city streets.
Helicopters flew patrols, attacked enemy positions, delivered supplies, carried troops into combat, and retrieved the wounded and dead. They made possible a new tactic of ground warfare: air mobility, devised for fighting a war without front lines. Ground troops were lifted into widely dispersed locations to engage the enemy, then extracted and redeployed. These maneuvers were part of broader strategy of attritionkilling so many of the enemy that they would lose their ability to fight.
Thousands of Bell UH-1 helicopters, nicknamed Hueys, carried troops into battle, seven to twelve infantrymen at a time. The choppers could fly low and slow, dodge enemy fire, hover just above ground level at the outskirts of hamlets or fields of elephant grass, or drop into newly cut jungle clearings barely larger than the sweep of their rotors.
The transports were nicknamed slicks because they were unarmed except for an M60 machine gun in the doorway. Often they were accompanied by Huey gunships armed with external machine guns and rocket and grenade launchers that covered landing troops.
Rapid combat-casualty evacuations flown by daring Dustoff crewspilots, medics, and crew chiefsextracted nearly 400,000 wounded from battle zones during the course of the war. Crews commonly put themselves at great risk, flying in and out of intense fighting. Often targeted by enemy snipers, they worked frantically to save lives and ready casualties for evacuation to surgical hospitals. They repeatedly witnessed the horrible realities of war. During a mission, the air would be permeated with what one soldier described as the sickeningly sweet redolence of fresh blood.
Medics in the field were the first to treat the wounded. But helicopters made it possible for the wounded to be on a surgeons table in a hospital within an hour. Once there, doctorsand more than 10,000 nursessaved 97 percent of those still alive when they arrived at hospital helipads.
Most Americans in Vietnam served as support troops and saw little combat, but gruntsthe infantrymen on the groundfaced difficult conditions. Their standard-issue gear was not designed for extreme heat, humidity, and frequent rains. Cotton uniforms rotted, boots became waterlogged, and packs were cumbersome.
Many infantrymen modified or even abandoned their gear. Some adopted captured enemy equipment. They prized their flop hats, extra socks, ponchos, and multiple canteens. These things made the going a bit easier as they worried about the sorry state of their feet, enemy fire and booby traps, and going home.
The North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong insurgents in the South waged both conventional and guerilla warfare. They followed the ancient principles of insurgency: when the enemy attacks, retreat; when the enemy digs in, harass; when the enemy is exhausted, attack. They employed modern weaponry, including Soviet- and Chinese-supplied aircraft, antiaircraft artillery, and surface-to-air missiles. They used improvised weapons as well, such as recycled U.S. explosives, homemade rifles, trip-wired booby traps with crossbows, concealed nail-studded boards, even excrement-coated bamboo punji sticks that could pierce a boot.