Army of the Republic of Vietnam Special Forces
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|ARVN Special Forces|
|Active||February, 1956 – 30 April 1975|
|Branch||Army of the Republic of Vietnam|
|Type||Special Operations Force|
The Army of the Republic of Vietnam Special Forces (Vietnamese: Lực Lượng Đặc Biệt Quân Lực Việt Nam Cộng Hòa or LLDB) were the elite military units of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (commonly known as South Vietnam). Following the establishment of the Republic of Vietnam in October 1955, the Special Forces were formed at Nha Trang in February 1956. During the rule of Ngô Đình Diệm, the Special Forces were run by his brother, Nhu, until both were assassinated in November 1963 in a coup. The Special Forces were disbanded in 1975 when South Vietnam ceased to exist after the Fall of Saigon.
The Special Forces came into being at Nha Trang in February 1956 under the designation of the First Observation Battalion/Group (FOG). By 1960, most Special Forces units were involved in the FOG program. At Long Thành, they were trained in intelligence gathering, sabotage and psychological operations (PSYOP). The main duties of the Special Forces entailed the recruitment and training of one-to-four man teams in intelligence, sabotage, and psychological warfare missions. The success of these missions was poor.
Although minor sabotage and unrest was fomented, Hanoi declared that all agents were to be killed or captured. Those who were captured were interrogated and executed. In 1961, the Special Forces and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam 1st Infantry Division, based in the northernmost area of South Vietnam, conducted a joint operation against Communist infiltrators in northern Quảng Trị Province. In the autumn of 1961, Special Forces units began Operation Eagle at Bình Hưng with a night parachute assault. In September 1962, United States Special Forces personnel assumed responsibility of the CIA's border surveillance and Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) programs and began working with the ARVN Special Forces. The Special Forces continued to expand and began to increasingly operate with the CIDG.
During the rule of President Ngô Đình Diệm, the Special Forces were used mainly for repressing dissidents. Despite the fact that South Vietnam was struggling against the communist insurgency of the Viet Cong in the rural areas, the Special Forces were mostly kept in the capital Saigon, where they were used to prevent coups or harass regime opponents. Under Diệm, the Special Forces were headed by Colonel Lê Quang Tung, who had been trained by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the United States and commanded some 1,840 men under the direction of Nhu. Tung's most notable military activity was leading a group run by the CIA, in which ARVN personnel of northern origin were sent into North Vietnam, posing as locals, in order to gather intelligence as well as sabotaging communist infrastructure and communications. They were trained in bases at Nha Trang, Đà Nẵng and sometimes offshore in Taiwan, Guam and Okinawa. Of the eighty groups of operatives, numbering six or seven per group, that were deployed in 1963 via parachute drops or night time sampan journeys, nearly all were captured or killed. Those who were captured were often used for propaganda by the Communists. Tung was heavily criticised for his management of the operations.
In 1963, South Vietnam faced civil unrest in the face of Buddhist protests against discrimination by the Catholic-oriented Diệm regime. In the wake of the shootings of nine Buddhist protesters on the birthday of Gautama Buddha for defying a ban on the Buddhist flag, mass protests calling for religious equality erupted around the country. With opposition to Diệm growing, Nhu plotted an attack against Xá Lợi Pagoda, the largest Buddhist centre in Saigon, where the movement was organizing its activities. Tung's special forces under Nhu's orders were responsible for the raid on 21 August 1963, in which 1,400 monks were arrested and hundreds were estimated to have been killed, as well as extensive property damage. These attacks were replicated across the country in a synchronised manner. Following the attacks, U.S. officials threatened to withhold aid to the Special Forces unless they were used in fighting communists, rather than attacking dissidents.
Another infamous religious assault on the Buddhist community was carried out by Tung's men in 1963. In a small pond near Đà Nẵng, a hugely over-sized carp was found swimming. Local Buddhists began to believe the fish was a reincarnation of one of Gautama Buddha's disciples. As pilgrimages to the pond grew larger and more frequent, so did disquiet among the district chief and his officials, who answered to Ngô Đình Cẩn, another younger brother of Diệm. The pond was mined, but the fish swam on unhindered. After raking the pond with machine gun fire, the fish still lived. To deal with the problem, Tung's forces were called in. The pond was grenaded, killing the carp. The incident generated more publicity as newspapers across the world ran stories about the miraculous fish. South Vietnamese army helicopters began landing at the site, with ARVN paratroopers filling their bottles with water which they believed had magical powers. Tung was reported to have been planning an operation at the request of Nhu to stage a government organised student demonstration outside the US Embassy, Saigon. In this plan, Tung and his operatives would assassinate U.S. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., other key officials and Buddhist leader Thích Trí Quang, who was given asylum after being targeted in the pagoda raids. On 1 November 1963, a coup was launched by the ARVN against Diệm. Knowing Tung was a loyalist who would order his Special Forces to defend Diệm, the generals invited him to ARVN Joint General Staff headquarters on the pretext of a routine meeting. He was arrested and later executed along with his deputy and younger brother, Lê Quang Triệu. Diệm and Nhu were also executed after being captured at the end of the successful coup and the ARVN's leadership consequently changed.
In 1964, the U.S. Army's 5th Special Forces Group was officially assigned to Vietnam. The LLDB worked closely with the U.S. command and although the Americans funded the CIDG camps, the LLDB assumed ultimate responsibility. These camps were commanded by the ARVN Special Forces, supplemented by U.S. Special Forces advisors. From 24 June to 1 July 1964 under Project DELTA, LLDB teams performed five parachute drops into Laos to gather intelligence. By 1965, LLDB personnel were working with the ARVN in recruiting and training as well as sending groups into communist areas in South Vietnam to gather information. US Special Forces referred to the LLDB as "LL" or "LIMA-LIMA" using the phonetic alphabet. Over the radio they were called "XRAY" so it would not reveal the unit as CIDG.
In March 1970, aware of the impending withdrawal of U.S. Special Forces from Vietnam as part of a general withdrawal and with the failure of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) program due to fraud and corruption, the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) agreed to convert CIDG camps into ARVN Border Ranger camps. The most highly regarded of the CIDG units, the Mike (Mobile Strike) force follows the conversion and integration into the ARVN as well. The LLDB were eventually disbanded. The former indigenous reconnaissance team personnel previously assigned to work with MACV-SOG (the US military reconnaissance office for MACV) were regrouped into the Intelligence Directorate of the ARVN General Joint Staff. This directorate is usually known with the nickname "the 7th Technical Directorate" and is divided into three sections:
- Coastal Defense office to deal and manage with all maritime-related reconnaissance activities.
- Liaison Office to manage the reconnaissance and military intelligence in Northern part of South Vietnam and the tri-border area (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia).
- Topography office to manage the land reconnaissance activities within South Vietnam.
The ARVN also had a special strike unit, Liên đoàn 81 Biệt cách dù (81st Airborne Ranger group), under the direct command of the Joint Staff. It can be counted as part of the Special Forces and was under the Special Forces command, later being placed under direct Joint-Staff's command. The unit was bloodied during the 1968 Tet Offensive and the 1972 Easter Offensive when it was launched into battle to relieve the garrison of An Lộc northwest of Saigon from a NVA siege that threatened to choke off Saigon. Some former LLDB personnel were formed into a new clandestine unit, the Vietnamese Special Mission Service (SMS). Approximately 5,000 personnel served in the Special Forces during the Vietnam War. After the Fall of Saigon, those who did not escape were sent to reeducation camps.
- Gordon L. Rottman and Ron Volstad, Vietnam Airborne, Elite series 29, Osprey Publishing Ltd, London 1990. ISBN 0-85045-941-9.
- Gordon L. Rottman and Ramiro Bujeiro, Army of the Republic of Vietnam 1955-75, Men-at-arms series 458, Osprey Publishing Ltd, Oxford 2010. ISBN 978-1-84908-182-5
- Kenneth Conboy and Simon McCouaig, South-East Asian Special Forces, Elite series 33, Osprey Publishing Ltd, London 1991. ISBN 9781855321069
- Lee E. Russell and Mike Chappell, Armies of the Vietnam War 2, Men-at-arms series 143, Osprey Publishing Ltd, London 1983. ISBN 0-85045-514-6.
- Phillip Katcher and Mike Chappell, Armies of the Vietnam War 1962-1975, Men-at-arms series 104, Osprey Publishing Ltd, London 1980. ISBN 978-0-85045-360-7
- Spencer Tucker, Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, ABC-CLIO 2000. ISBN 1-57607-040-9