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South Viet Nam: Taking the Initiative

4 minute read

The U.S. bomb line was moving slowly closer to North Viet Nam’s capital of Hanoi. Sweeping in from their carriers in the South China Sea, U.S. Navy fighter-bombers struck twice at a vital bridge link on the coastal highway just 65 miles south of the capital. The bombs and rockets that smashed the span marked the first time U.S. air power had hit a purely strategic target in North Viet Nam.

It was not to be the last. In quick succession, swarms of U.S. and South Vietnamese aircraft blasted other bridges important to North Vietnam’s transport system. Over one target, Communist Migs suddenly darted out of the haze and in a brief, ferocious blaze of gunfire brought down two U.S. Air Force F-105’s.

That encounter may have indicated that Hanoi’s Red rulers are worried that their hard-won light-industrial complex—located between Hanoi and the port city of Haiphong—might be the U.S.’s next target. Other U.S. strikes last week hit at half a dozen air-defense radar stations throughout North Viet Nam, blinding the electronic eyes that might later be used to direct Communist interceptors against attacking American forces. Within South Viet Nam itself, U.S. jets and prop-driven fighter-bombers flying from ships and shore continued their pounding of the Communist Viet Cong.

Attacks by Night. The noise of airplane engines and the violence of the Viet Cong’s sneak attack on the U.S. embassy in Saigon (see THE NATION) were in sharp contrast to a curious silence on the ground in South Viet Nam. For nearly a month the Viet Cong “main force” has been lying low, refusing to tangle with the South Vietnamese army. Communist-provoked incidents have dropped from a peak of 1,020 a week during December (long before U.S. air strikes began) to 400 a week last month. In the critical Mekong Delta, South Viet Nam’s prized and hotly-contested “rice bowl,” night attacks by the Viet Cong slumped to the lowest level in years.

What was happening? Were the Viet Cong finally being hurt by the air strikes? Or were they merely regrouping for harder and deadlier actions in the weeks to come? No one could say, but the Viet Cong follow Mao Tse-tung’s combat-tested guerrilla formula: retreat in the face of superior force, choose your own time and place for battle, and cultivate patience as if it were rice.

Bloody Scuffle. From Danang to the Mekong Delta patience was growing thin last week on both sides. Taking the initiative, some 3,000 South Vietnamese marines slogged through 38 slimy canals south of Saigon batting away leeches even as they caught slugs from Communist snipers. The toll was light—18 Viet Cong killed—but it was the first government offensive since December in the delta, and U.S. advisers hoped it would encourage the government troops to undertake bigger and more effective pushes not only in the delta, but throughout the country.

The Viet Cong were clearly willing to fight when they were engaged, whether in the delta or farther north. Up in Quang Tin province, near Danang, a helilift of South Vietnamese paras, hoping to provoke a big battle, made contact with the Communists in a slough of serried hills, scuffled briefly but bloodily, then withdrew to regroup. The Viet Cong did not press their advantage, so the government troops waded in again. By week’s end more than 300 Reds had been killed. Government losses were 34 dead—plus two U.S. Marine Corps advisers killed by ground fire.

Operation Backfire. Almost simultaneously, South Vietnamese and U.S. forces launched another key offensive in the Boiloi Forest, 48 square miles of Communist stronghold 25 miles northeast of Saigon. Leaflets were dropped on the cave-infested region, warning all noncombatants to get out fast. More than 2,000 did. Then planes saturated the woods with chemical defoliants. After a few weeks of sunny, wind-scoured weather, the Boiloi Forest was tinder-dry. Last week U.S. bombers swept in with loads of Incendijel (an incendiary compound derived from napalm), while behind them flew C-123s dropping drums of fuel oil.

The forest went up in flames—precisely as U.S. planners had figured. Then came the sort of absurd disaster for which the Viet Nam war has become famous. The intense heat of the Boiloi boil caused the wet, tropical air overhead to condense into giant thunderclouds. The “thermal convective condition,” as U.S. Air Force meteorologists later defined it, triggered a drenching downpour that doused the forest fire and left Boiloi’s Viet Cong safe and unsinged in their caves.

The operation may have backfired, but still, the initiative in the air and on the ground in Viet Nam last week remained on the side of the government forces.

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