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Special Forces and Their Early Role in Vietnam
To describe the Special Forces role in Vietnam is one that is impossible to pigeonhole into one role, one mission or one ideology. Their “green berets” set them apart from other soldiers and they would be the first to tell you that they were not a part of the United States Army Special Forces, but were members of the United States Special Forces. The rigid structure of the conventional Army left a bad taste in the mouth of a Special Forces soldier. Their focus was on the mission as opposed to the binding of rules and regulations that ruled the actions of a regular U.S. Army soldier. This lack of conformity is exactly what made the Special Forces soldier effective in Vietnam. Another very important aspect in regards to the effectiveness of Special Forces teams in Vietnam was the unconventional nature of the conflict in Vietnam. The Special Forces soldier was well suited to play a lead role in not only the training and development of the indigenous soldier but also in fighting in a guerrilla warfare environment. The Green Beret was not only a teacher and diplomat; he was fighting force that set the standard for all other military forces in Vietnam.
The Special Forces Early Role in Vietnam
Special Forces units arrived in Vietnam in 1957 and left in 1973. When the 7th SFGA arrived in Vietnam in 1957, their mission was to train groups of Vietnamese commandos who in turn would take this training back to their own Special Forces groups. This group of Vietnamese soldiers totaled about 58 but by 1967, the Green Berets would be advising, training and assisting over 40,000 Vietnamese special operations groups. According to Col. Francis J. Kelly, this development of paramilitary groups would be the primary focus and mission of the Special Forces operations in Vietnam. In 1961, the 1st and 5th SFGA had teams on the ground assisting with the training of special operations to the Vietnamese soldiers, in particular, the Montagnards of the Central Highlands. The U.S. Army assessment of the strategy in Vietnam made it clear that Special Forces teams, with their abilities of being combat-oriented, capability of independence in the field, trained for rugged guerrilla operations, and positioned for cooperation with the Vietnamese people made the Special Forces ideal as the early and sustained force implemented in Vietnam.
In Vietnam, depending on the year, the location and the group involved, one would see results of an entirely different set of circumstances from that of other Special Forces units, possibly with the same overall mission. Many of the glamorized Special Forces units such as reconnaissance projects and MIKE Forces were the minority and the A-Camp strike forces made up the heart of the Special Forces in Vietnam. These camps usually occupied by a dozen or so American Special Forces soldiers, Army of South Vietnamese (ARVN) soldiers and LLDB (Luc-luong Dac-Biet – or Vietnamese Airborne Special Forces) and in some cases Chinese “Nungs” (indigenous Chinese who were employed as mercenaries by the Special Forces). They faced not only the enemy at a fundamental level, but found themselves involved in operations at all levels. An A-Camp Special Forces soldier would find himself not only training, advising and fighting with the indigenous population but also providing medical care, education, agricultural and construction assistance to the Vietnamese troops, their families and the local villagers. They were self-sufficient and able to support the camps population over a sustained period or during a prolonged siege. And regardless of rank, they would work side-by-side with everyone to ensure the success of the mission.
An up-close and personal intimacy that the Special Forces team had with the indigenous population would be a major factor when U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MAC-V) assumed responsibility for the Civilian Irregular Deffense Group (CIDG) program in 1962. The ability to make initial assessments of campsites, and areas would be something that the Special Forces teams would be experts in due to this personal intimacy with the local people. This would lead to more camps built in “hot” areas that the Viet Cong were dominant and the ARVN and US military presence was minimal to non-existent. Strike force missions from these camps resulted in significant amounts of enemy contact during the intelligence-gathering patrols. Positioning these first-tier camps in proximity to the Cambodian and Laotian borders facilitated their tasks of border surveillance and delaying, disrupting and destroying enemy forces and supplies. Green Berets assigned to the second-tier camps, positioned nearer the interior of Vietnam, would conduct combat reconnaissance missions as well as interdiction of infiltration routes. Equally important as these counter-guerrilla operations of a Special Forces strike force team was the psychological operations that they carried out. By raising the standard of living, developing a loyal identity with the government and enlisting their active support these units were able to transform a hostile area into one that became hostile to the enemy. Waging, as Francis Kelly aptly stated, an “unconventional war under conventional war conditions” was how the Green Berets trained. However, in Vietnam, they now found themselves fighting guerrilla warfare not in enemy territory, but in “friendly” territory.
Significant Special Forces Operations in Vietnam
Many of the earliest engagements that took place in Vietnam involved, as stated previously, A-Camps stood up by Special Forces teams in areas known to have high concentration of Viet Cong and little to no ARVN or U.S. military presence. These camps were in very remote portions of the country, out of the normal range of friendly artillery and mostly left to their own defenses. Retired Vietnam Special Forces soldier Gordon L. Rottman stated that, “cut off from civilization, they were more akin to Old West frontier army posts within Indian Territory and surrounded by hostile and capable foes.”
Most, if not all, the camps were attacked at least once, and usually multiple times. Attacks ranged from simple harassment to major assaults and sieges. Of all the camps, only seven actually were overrun and fell to the enemy. Many were close to being overrun, however once counterattacks began and reinforcements arrived the camps would ultimately prevail and drive out the enemy forces. On prime example of this is the attack at Camp Nam Dong.
This typical A-Camp was 15-miles from the Laotian border and like many of the A-Camps was comprised of a mix of ARVN, U.S. Special Forces, LLDB Special Forces, Nungs, and even an Austrailian Chief Warrant Officer. The camps total military population of barely 400 soldier found themselves being attacked on the very early morning of 6 July 1964. The sheer determination and exceptional valor allowed these Special Forces soldiers to prevail and hold the camp, even with, as it was found out later, over one hundred Viet Cong sypathizers in the ranks of the South Vietnamese strike force with orders to slit the throats of those sleeping nearby before the attack. When air strikes rolled in during the later morning hours the VC retreated and the camp remained in the hands of the Special Forces team, despite poor defenses, the large number of turncoats, and the lack of military support from the remaining ARVN and LLDB soldiers. What is considered to be the saving grace for the camp was the dedication and loyalty of the Nungs, a solid inner perimeter, and unified and cohesive actions of the Special Forces team. Green Beret Captain Roger H.C. Donlon, wounded numerous times during the battle noted, after observing the dead VC that were left behind, that, “We had been fighting hard-core professionals, not poorly trained, ill-equipped guerrillas.”
Captain Donlon would become the first American to receive the Medal of Honor in Vietnam for his actions at Camp Nam Dong.
While Camp Nam Dong barely survived, Camp Plei Me would be a resounding success for a Special Forces camp. The camp was a critical center for Special Forces movement in Vietnam and would be the site of an extensive siege that lasted from 19 October 1965 to 27 October 1965 and was a precursor to the battle that took place Ia Drang. The battle involved a large number of CIDG forces and ARVN Rangers along with the very small number (twelve) of Special Forces soldiers. The training that the CIDG received at the hands of the Special Forces soldiers would be instrumental in their success in the repulsion of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). This would mark the first major commitment of troops to combat in Vietnam.
By the end of the Special Forces stay in Vietnam, many of the earmarks of their early endeavors would come to an end. By New Years Eve of 1970, the CIDG and LLDB programs would end and see it’s members absorbed into the ARVN. Many of the camps that were stood up by the Special Forces would be used by the ARVN. But in the end, when one thinks about the role that the Green Beret’s played in Vietnam it cannot be said that it was for naught. Their training and advising of CIDG camps had allowed them to provide a government presence in remote areas that had no chance of convential unit occupation. The Montagnard villages were protected, indiction routes maintained a constant source of problems for the VC, and provided the ARVN and regular Army forces better ability to operate in crucial areas.
The Special Forces in Vietnam would have unswerving support from the top military commanders. Even with their distaste for conformity to Army rules and regulations, the Green Berets proved time and time again that their methods were effective. Their ability to function in remote areas, under adverse conditions, with little to no additional support system and in unconventional warfare would be the standard for the Special Forces of today. One can look at the situations our modern day Army faces and can see the similarities to the adversities the Green Berets faced in Vietnam. Francis Kelly sums it nicely when he stated,
"The Special Forces men earned on the battlefield their rightful place in the United States Army. Tough, resourceful, dedicated and efficient, the men of the Special Forces stood and fought as well and as bravely as those of any fighting unit in our country’s history. They are firmly committed to their official motto of ‘Free the Oppressed’ and with equal firmness to their official yardstick: ‘We are known by what we do, not by what we say we are going to do.’"
- US Army Special Forces Captain Roger Donlon visits deserted defense positions at Camp Nam Dong in Vi
View Captain Roger Donlon stock footage in Vietnam, 1964. Buy HD video and historic still photo images of clip number 65675069980.
- United States Army Special Forces officers and Vietnamese officers discuss beside a trench at Camp N
View United States Army Special Forces stock footage in Vietnam, 1964. Buy HD video and historic still photo images of clip number 65675069978.
Donlon, Roger H. C. Beyond Nam Dong. Leavenworth: R&N Publishers, 1998.
Kelly, Francis J. The Green Berets In Vietnam 1961-71. New York: Maxwell Macmillan Company, 1991.
Rottman, Gordon. Green Beret in Vietnam 1957-73. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, LTD., 2002.
—. Special Forces Camps in Vietnam 1961 - 70. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, LTD., 2005.