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South Viet Nam: D-Day in the Delta

5 minute read

The heartland of South Viet Nam is not the barren highlands and bamboo valleys north of Saigon, where U.S. forces have fought the war’s fiercest battles, but the swampy southern tip that is sluiced by the Mekong River. The Delta is the dwelling place of more than a third of the country’s population, the rice basket for half of its food—and the Viet Cong’s prime source of men, money and supplies. The Communists very nearly seized it all in the grim months of late 1964 and early 1965 before the U.S. buildup. District towns were overrun, scores of outposts captured and destroyed, and government troops driven into the dubious safety of large towns. Huge tracts of Delta land fell under Viet Cong sway.

But the Delta did not go under. Though no U.S. combat units were sent in, the American arrival elsewhere stiffened Vietnamese army morale all along the line. With the help of some 5,000 U.S. military advisers, government troops stemmed the rout and fought back to what is now essentially a military stalemate in the Delta. Given the increasing U.S. mastery of the battlefields to the north, stalemate in the Delta is no longer good enough. Last week Premier Ky announced the long-anticipated news: within a month, American combat units for the first time will move into the Delta in force.

Smelly Mud. D-day in the Delta will bring the American fighting man a set of challenges unique even in Viet Nam. The principal fact of the Delta is water, water everywhere: drowning the great, flat expanses of paddyfields that reach to the horizon, running in brown, lazy fingers through 2,500 miles of navigable canals, tributaries and the Mekong itself. Only long, lush tree lines and the populous villages they shelter break the landscape’s monotony, and it is in the tree lines and villages that the Viet Cong are most often found.

The tactics of Delta warfare are far from ideal. Helicopters swoop in low and drop troops in the open. Other armed choppers orbit overhead, ready to help out if the enemy is in the trees, but the infantryman must slog forward, sinking up to his knees at times in oozing, smelly mud, wading through canals that cut across the fields every few hundred yards, and finally rushing into the village to overrun the enemy’s positions. Vietnamese troops, who seldom weigh much more than 100 Ibs., move with considerable ease through the mud and can keep going from sunup to dark. Heavier Americans find themselves sinking deep into the slime, and U.S. advisers usually go on several short missions before they can take a full day’s punishment in the paddies.

Stinging Ants. The enemy the U.S. will face is by and large Delta-born and bred and has been fighting in the paddies for a long time. There are an estimated 30,000 “hard hat” or main-force Viet Cong soldiers and some 50,000 local guerrillas and political agents. No North Vietnamese regulars operate in the Delta, but the Viet Cong main force units are equipped with modern Chinese weaponry that equals in firepower the South Vietnamese force that has opposed them up to now. Principal Red sanctuaries are the mangrove swamps along the coast, the Plain of Reeds, which is alternately under monsoon waters or a brick-hard bed of dried mud in the dry season, and the U Minh “Forest of Darkness” infested by poisonous snakes and king-size stinging ants as well as by the Viet Cong.

U.S. troops will have to learn, as the Viet Cong have, that in a water war, ammunition belts corrode and uniforms and boots can rot within a week. Finding adequate amounts of dry land for base camps will also be a problem. A good rest area is essential: even the long-inured Vietnamese seldom stay out in the field for more than 24 hours at a stint. Finding dry land to implant batteries of howitzers is difficult. More armed helicopters could fill the gap, but they require airports, which in the Delta must be built up with imported gravel. Can Tho airfield proudly announces that it is seven feet above sea level, and the Bac Lieu airstrip sports a sign giving its elevation as “Dry season: two feet above sea level. Rainy season: two feet below sea level.”

Last Rich Refuge. No one doubts that Yankee ingenuity will solve many of these problems. Already, in fact, U.S. technology is at work in the water war. Plastic-hulled airboats with airplane propellers ply the canals leading from Cambodia. On the navigable waterways the U.S. Navy’s Operation Market Time employs a fleet of 120 water-jet-powered patrol boats armed with machine guns and grenade launchers.

Demanding though the battle for the Delta will be, the rewards of cutting into the enemy’s last rich refuge in Viet Nam will more than justify it. Even at unquiet stalemate—and occasionally in conditions of local accommodation between Viet Cong and government commanders—the Delta war has long been yielding up to a fourth of the enemy’s losses each month. And the enemy’s manpower squeeze has already begun to seep down into the Delta, making it more than ever ripe for American thrusting. Not long ago the government captured an unprecedented 55 soldiers of the main force So Trang battalion, once one of the Viet Cong’s finest. Among them was a boy of only 14, and the average age of the 55 was 17. They had been press-ganged into the Communist ranks only ten days before.

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