Operation Masher (24 January—6 March 1966) was in early 1966 the largest search and destroy mission that had been carried out in the Vietnam War up until that time. It was a combined mission of the United States Army, Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), and Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) in Binh Dinh province on the central coast of South Vietnam. The 3rd Division of the communist North Vietnamese Army, made up of two regiments of North Vietnamese regulars and one regiment of main force Viet Cong guerrillas, controlled much of the land and many of people of Binh Dinh province which had a total population of about 800,000. A CIA report in 1965 said that Binh Dinh was "just about lost" to the communists.
The name "Operation Masher" was changed to "Operation White Wing", because President Lyndon Johnson wanted the name changed to one that sounded more benign. Adjacent to the operational area of Masher/White Wing in Quang Ngai province the U.S. and South Vietnamese Marine Corps carried out a complementary mission called Operation Double Eagle.
The 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) was the principal U.S. ground force involved in Operation Masher. 228 Americans of the lst cavalry were killed and another 46 died in an airplane crash; 834 were wounded. Twenty-four U.S. marines were killed and 156 wounded in Operation Double Eagle. Several additional Americans from other units were killed. Eleven South Korean soldiers were reported killed; South Vietnamese casualties were not reported. The U.S claimed to have killed 1,342 enemy soldiers. The ARVN and ROKA forces reported they had killed an additional 808 enemy soldiers. Six hundred communist soldiers were taken prisoner and 500 defected. 52 crew-served and more than 200 individual weapons were captured.
The U.S claimed the 3rd NVA Division had been dealt a hard blow, but intelligence reports indicated that a week after the withdrawal of the lst Cavalry North Vietnamese soldiers were returning to take control of the area where Operation Masher had taken place.
Binh Dinh province was a traditional communist and Viet Cong (VC) stronghold. Binh Dinh consisted of a narrow, heavily-cultivated coastal plain with river valleys separated by ridges and low mountains reaching into the interior. The vital artery of Highway 1 ran north and south ran through Binh Dinh. The area of Operation Masher was about 30 miles (48 km) north to south and reached a maximum of 30 miles (48 km) inland from the South China Sea. The U.S. Marine's Operation Double Eagle extended northward from Masher and the ROKA's Operation Flying Tiger extended southward. South Vietnamese forces participated in all three operations.
The First Cavalry Division (Airmobile) was selected by U.S. Commander William Westmoreland to carry out the operation. The 1st Cavalry had born the brunt of the combat during the Siege of Plei Me and the Battle of Ia Drang in October and November 1965 and some battalions of the lst Cavalry had sustained heavy casualties. More than 5,000 soldiers in the division were recent arrivals in Vietnam with little combat experience. The South Vietnamese 22nd Division stationed in Binh Dinh had also suffered heavy casualties in recent fighting and was on the defensive.
The opposition to the American and South Vietnamese units participating in Operation Masher/White Wing was the communist 3rd division consisting of approximately 6,000 soldiers in two regiments of North Vietnamese (NVA) regulars who had a recently infiltrated into South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh trail and one regiment of Viet Cong guerrillas who had been fighting the South Vietnamese government since 1962. The majority of the population of Binh Dinh was believed to be supportive of the communist forces.
The plan of Operation Masher was for the U.S., South Vietnam, and South Korean soldiers to sweep north and for the U.S. and South Vietnamese marines to sweep south catching and killing the communist forces between the allied forces. Orders for the U.S. forces in Operation Masher were to "locate and destroy VC/NVA units; enhance the security of GNV [Government of South Vietnam] installations in [provincial capital] Bong Song, and to lay the groundwork for restoration of GVN control of the population and rich coastal plain area." The primary metric for judging the success of the operation would be the body count of communist soldiers killed.
Operation Masher officially began on January 28, but preliminary movements began on January 25 as the 1st Cavalry moved by land and air from its base at Camp Radcliff to the village of Phu Cat and to establish a division forward headquarters near the provincial capital of Bong Son which was securely held by the ARVN. That first day of movement, however, was marred when a C-123 carrying troops of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry from Camp Radcliff to Bong Son in preparation for the operation crashed into mountains near An Khe, killing all 4 crewmen and 42 passengers on board.:13
On January 28 three Project DELTA U.S. Special Forces teams consisting of 17 personnel were inserted in the An Lao Valley for reconnaissance. The teams ran into immediate trouble and when rescued a day later seven had been killed and three wounded. Project DELTA Commander Major Charles Beckwith was seriously wounded while extracting the teams. Beckwith was criticized for going into the An Lao valley, under communist control for 15 years, without South Vietnamese counterparts and ground intelligence and in poor weather.
Phase One: Bong Son. (See also Battle of Bong Son) Operation Masher began officially on 28 January 1966 with the helicopter insertion of Air Cavalry units at several landing zones west of Highway One, 5 to 10 miles north of the town of Bong Son and on the coastal plain which consisted mostly of rice paddies separated by scattered forests and hamlets. The South Vietnamese Army operated east of Highway One toward the coast. Bad weather hampered the movement. U.S. troops on the ground were attacked by a reinforced North Vietnamese battalion. Several helicopters were damaged or shot down and were unable to land their complement of soldiers. Tactical air strikes by the U.S. Air Force the next morning assaulted the communist positions with napalm and other bombs and opposition tapered off. The engagement at Landing Zone 4 is sometimes referred to as the Battle of Cu Nghi.:14Search and destroy operations by the Americans for the next few days found few enemy soldiers and the Bong Son operation was terminated on February 4.
Casualties on both sides were substantial. The U.S. estimated that it killed 566 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers at a loss of 123 American dead (counting the 46 lost in the airplane crash). Two helicopters were shot down and 29 damaged.
Phase Two: An Lao valley. The An Lao river valley, 10 miles (16 km) to 15 miles (24 km) northwest of Bong Son and the surrounding highlands were the next target of the 1st Cavalry. Bad weather delayed the beginning of the operation from February 4 to 6. The U.S Marines blocked the northern entrance of the valley, the South Vietnamese army blocked the southern entrance, and three battalions were landed in the valley. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces had withdrawn. The 1st Cavalry discovered large caches of rice and defensive works, but reported killing only 11 communist soldiers at a loss to American forces of 49 wounded.
The U.S. offered to assist the inhabitants in the An Lao valley to leave the valley and escape from communist rule and 4,500 of 8,000 occupants did so. The U.S. reported that 3,000 people were moved by U.S. helicopter, the others leaving the valley on foot. However, the "voluntary" nature of the departure of the people in the An Lao valley was questioned by an American journalist who also reported that the displaced villagers had been placed in a camp in which living conditions were very poor.
Phase Three: Kim Son Valley. The Kim Son Valley consisted of seven small river valleys about 15 miles (24 km) southwest of Bong Son. Three American battalions were deployed to the valley. On 11 February the 1st cavalry established ambush positions in the highlands at the exits to each of the valleys and on 12 February began a sweep up the valley and outward, hoping to catch the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong as they retreated. Initially unsuccessful, on 17 February three companies of the 1st cavalry found a North Vietnamese army anti-aircraft artillery battalion and decimated it with air strikes and artillery, counting 127 NVA bodies after the battle.
On 18 February, two platoons of Americans came across a heavily defended area in the eastern part of the Kim Son Valley. They called the area the "Iron Triangle" (not to be confused with the better-known Iron Triangle near Saigon). The area was assaulted by lst cavalry units, artillery, and B-52 air strikes. On February 22, the area was secured at a cost of 23 American deaths and an estimated minimum death toll of 313 for the communist forces. Illustrating, however, that the Viet Cong were still in the area a force of 15 to 20 ambushed an American patrol on February 28, killed 8 Americans, and captured their weapons.
Phase Four: Cay Giap mountains. The final phase of Operation Masher, March 1–6, was in the Cay Giap mountains, five miles east of Bong Son. American intelligence indicated that a battalion of the North Vietnamese army was hiding in the mountains. A South Vietnamese division surrounded the mountains and stationed a fleet of small vessels off shore to prevent the communists from escaping by sea. A heavy land, air, and sea bombardment of the mountains was followed by a three battalion sweep by the 1st Cavalry. The South Vietnamese killed about 50 communists, but most of the North Vietnamese had left the area before the assault.
With the completion of Operation Masher on March 6, the 1st Cavalry withdrew from Binh Dinh province, returning to its base at Camp Radcliff near the town of An Khe
Operation Double Eagle
Operation Double Eagle, carried out by U.S. and South Vietnamese marines, was a complementary mission to Operation Masher in neighboring Quang Ngai province adjoining Binh Dinh province to the north. Operation Double Eagle was carried out over an area of about 500 square miles (1,300 km2) about 25 miles (40 km) north to south and extending as much as 20 miles (32 km) inland from the South China Sea. 6,000 regular troops and 600 guerrillas were believed to be operating within this area. U.S. Marines dedicated to the operation would number more than 5,000 plus several thousand South Vietnamese soldiers of the ARVN's second division.
Operation Double Eagle began on January 28 with the largest amphibious assault of the Vietnam War and the largest since the Korean War. Bad weather hampered the early days of the operation, but the Marines pushed slowly inland. The plan was for the Marines to push southward into Binh Dinh province where they would meet the 1st Cavalry advancing northward in Operation Masher, trapping communist forces between them. In reality, the Marines found few communist soldiers in their operating area, the main force North Vietnamese regiments having withdrawn from the area a few days prior to the amphibious landing. The Marines claimed to have killed 312 enemy soldiers and captured 19 at a loss of 24 Marines killed.
Marine Corps Commandant General Victor Krulak later said that Operation Double Eagle had failed because the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had been forewarned. He also said that Operation Double Eagle was a failure because it showed the people of the region that the Marines "would come in, comb the area and disappear; whereupon the VC would resurface and resume control."
During Operation Masher, South Korean troops were alleged to have committed the Tay Vinh and Gò Dài massacres. The Bình An massacre, committed by the ROK Capital Division of the South Korean Army, took place on 26 February 1966. The Korean troops killed 380 villagers within an hour. The Gò Dài Memorial Tower in the village lists the names of the victims.
Operation Masher was carried out in heavily populated rural areas. The fighting resulted in the displacement, voluntary or involuntary, of a large number of people. The 1st Cavalry listed as a success of the operation that "140,000 Vietnamese civilians volunteered to leave their hamlets in the An Lao and Son Long valleys to return to GVN control." The "voluntary" nature of the departure or flight of many of the civilians from their land is questionable.
Operation Masher demonstrated that a consequence of large unit military operations and heavy utilization of artillery and aerial bombardment was the generation of refugees from the fighting and, inevitably, civilian casualties. The U.S. evacuated thousands of civilians by helicopter from combat areas and more thousands walked out to safety in the larger towns near the coast. The 1st Cavalry counted more than 27,000 people displaced by the operation. While many people fled the fighting, others remained for fear that if they abandoned their homes, the Viet Cong would confiscate their land and redistribute it to more dedicated supporters.
Although the U.S. Army maintained that the refugees were fleeing communism, an Army study in mid-1966 concluded that U.S. and South Vietnamese bombing and artillery fire, in conjunction with ground operations, were the immediate and prime causes of refugee movement into South Vietnamese government controlled cities and coastal areas. The U.S. considered that meeting the humanitarian needs of refugees was the responsibility of South Vietnam, but the response of the South Vietnamese government was often deficient.
An American journalist visited a camp housing 6,000 refugees from Operation Masher a week after their displacement. He found them packed 30 to a room, receiving inadequate food and medical treatment for diseases and wounds, and in a sullen and depressed mood.
Operation Masher-White Wing was considered a success by the Americans, demonstrating the capability of the helicopter-borne 1st Cavalry to conduct a sustained campaign against North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces and "to find, fix, and finish" the enemy.The U.S.'s official statistics of the operation claimed that the bodies of 1,342 communist combatants were counted and an additional 1,746 were estimated as having been killed. 593 communist soldiers surrendered and 500 defected. However, only 202 individual weapons were captured, casting doubt on the casualty estimates for combatants by the U.S. The normal ratio of enemy soldiers killed to weapons captured was three or four to one. The U.S., as it had in the earlier Battle of Ia Drang, relied on the massive use of firepower. 171 B-52 strikes hit suspected communist positions and 132,000 artillery rounds were expended—100 for each communist soldier killed. In addition, tactical air support was provided by 600 sorties by fixed-wing aircraft.
The positive results cited by the Americans appear to have been only transitory. The lst Cavalry cited among the favorable consequences of Operation Masher that it had give the local population "a chance to be freed from VC domination by moving to areas which are under government control" and stated that the South Vietnamese government "intends to reestablish civil government in the area." Communist influence, however, continued to be extensive in Binh Dinh province. Two months later, Under Operation Crazy Horse, the 1st Cavalry was back sweeping part of the same area covered by Operation Masher and in October 1966 Operation Thayer began an extended effort by the 1st Cavalry once again to "fully pacify" Binh Dinh province.
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