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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 29, No. 14. 1966.

Vietnam mission—the effect of bombing

page 20

Vietnam mission—the effect of bombing

General Nguyen Van Minh, Commander of the 21st Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, sat cross-legged on a table in the middle of the room. He was directing Operation Dan Chi 205, a division-sized searchand-destroy mission involving about 1200 men.

The tough, aggressive little general was holding the receiver of a field telephone to his left ear, listening to reports from his battalion commanders. He traced their movements on a map spread out before him on the table.

"He goes all the time," an American adviser told me. "He always seems to have his men out somewhere chasing Charlie; and he's usually out there with them."

The object of General Minn's current operation was to rout out Viet Cong elements in the Delta province of Vi Thanh. This province had been a Viet Cons stronghold for many years, but the Vietnamese Army was now beginning to move into the area.

Earlier in the morning a river assault group of small troop-carriers had sailed up a river and landed fifteen battalions of government troops in the operation area. At the same time helicopters were flying more Vietnamese troops into paddy fields a few miles further north.

The heat was on. The Government troops were combing every inch of land hunting for Viet Cong.

They knew the Viet Cong were there and were moving in for the kill. But the Viet Cong knew they were coming and were not expected to give up their territory too easily.

Air cover was need to keep the Viet Cone occupied while the ground troops moved foreward.

As fresh troops Jumped out of helicopters and ran across the paddy fields, they could hear American and Vietnamese bombers circling above in the clouds, lining up for an air strike.

By now I was up in the sky, flying as an observer in a single-engined two-seater reconnaissance aircraft of World War 2 vintage.

Throughout the operation we were right alongside another O-1E. This was the forward Air Command (FAC) aircraft responsible for directing all air strikes.

I had a set of ear-phones over my head, and was able to listen in on all radio communications between the FAC aircraft and the bombers.

The target was a small village. Vietnamese intelligence agents had reported that this village contained a Viet Cong dispensary and several VC rice shelters.

We could see a number of VC foxholes and trenches surrounding the village, but were too high up to be able to tell whether or not they were occupied.

Suddenly the FAC aircraft, dropped into a nose dive and plunged down towards the village. It was going in to drop a locational flare. We kept right in behind it.

I could see the ground rushing up to meet us as we dived; down towards the village.

Under both wings of the FAC plane were flare rockets. When the pilot had reached the lowest altitude passible he fired a rocket Into a field just outside the village. Both aircraft pulled out of their nose dives and started to climb again.

The rocket ignited a smoke flare as soon as it hit the ground, and a thick spiral of smoke rose up into the air. This flare located the village for the bomber pilots.

About one minute later a US Air Force F-100 dropped out of the clouds and dived down towards the village. It dropped a canister of napalm and shot back up into the sky.

When the canister hit the ground it exploded, sending a tongue of fire racing through the village, consuming everything in its path.

A strong wind carried it about 500 feet. The flames burnt brightly for about three seconds, and then changed into a thick grey cloud of smoke.

A few minutes later the smoke cleared a little and I could see that several buildings were still burning.

The second bomber to zoom in over the village dropped another canister of napalm, and this burnt off a strip of houses parallel to the first.

The remaining aircraft flew in to shower the village with bombs. They would dive down to an altitude of about 3000 feet, drop about six bombs, and then curve upwards again.

The pilots had to exercise a high degree of accuracy when they dropped their bombs. The Vietnamese troops who had been landed earlier by helicopter were moving through the paddy fields towards the village and were dangerously close to the target area.

The last F-100 dropped its cargo of bombs and flew back to its base at Bien Hoa.

We flew around for a few minutes waiting for the smoke to clear and then dropped a little to try to ascertain the extent of damage.

About half the buildings had either been destroyed or were still burning. The thatched roof of one house suddenly burst into flames as the wind blew sparks across from another house still smouldering nearby.

Two long narrow strips of charred timber and grass running through the village and out into the paddy fields marked the path of the napalm flames.

There was no sign of movement in the village. Throughout the air raid we had seen no sign of ground fire directed at the bombers. Even the two little O-1E spotters had failed to attract any fire.

A ground radio operator told us that, so far, the ground troops had made no contact with the Viet Cong, although they had picked up a few suspects hiding in the fields.

They had not reached the village yet, but there appeared to be no sign of life there.

Before the air strike a psychological warfare plane had dropped pamphlets warning the villagers that their village was about to be bombed. This was a humanitarian measure designed to cut the rate of non-combatant, civilian casualties.

The pamphlets had persuaded the villagers to evacuate, and the VC had probably withdrawn with them.

My pilot concluded that even if the bombs had failed to inflict any casualties on the VC. they had at least kept the VC out of the way while government troops moved in and occupied the village.

On that particular day 367 different areas in South Vietnam were hit by aerial combat sorties.

In the space of about 20 minutes I had observed just one of these air strikes.

The fear and damage that had been created in that short time was just a fraction of what had been created all over the country.