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By Joseph Trevithick,War Is Boring
Unlike more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the common image of America’s war in Vietnam is sweaty grunts fighting insurgents in jungles, mountains and other remote areas.
Throughout the conflict, however, the Viet Cong brought common terror tactics to hit U.S. troops and their South Vietnamese allies in the middle of major urban areas.
A rare film shot by representatives from North American Aviation shows just how dangerous the situation really was in the capital Saigon and other major cities. In between tours with the U.S. Navy, the contractors stayed in the same quarters as their military guides.
The San Diego Air and Space Museum obtained the footage from the now defunct Ryan Aeronautical Company. In September 2016, the museum put a digital copy online.
In surprisingly candid moments, you can watch as off-duty officers laugh at how easily the Communist rebels could kill them.
The film does not explain why North American sent the contractors to South Vietnam to tour Navy activities between June and July 1965. The California-headquartered plane-maker had built the RA-5C reconnaissance aircraft flying from carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin.
In addition, the firm was cooking up a new type of plane for fighting insurgents. Both the Navy and the Marine Corps would go on to fly the resulting OV-10 Bronco.
On top of that, the Pentagon had given the South Vietnamese air force a number of modified North American T-28 trainers. Saigon’s pilots flew the small planes as tiny attackers in the early 1960s.
Like many defense contractors, North American was working on various other projects outside its more commonly known products. With technocrat Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and his “Whiz Kid” defense analysts at the helm, the Pentagon was looking at any and all technical solutions to fight the Viet Cong.
“The Ocean Systems and Life Sciences Department had been engaged in several studies and contracts relating to counterinsurgency,” narrator Wally Schirra, then a former naval aviator and astronaut, explains at the beginning of the footage. “It was felt that if the technical capabilities … were to be constructively applied, a first hand understanding of both Navy operations and the Vietnam environment must be provided.”
So, the Navy gave the company’s representatives the full tour. According to the Schirra’s narration, the three man team got to see American advisers working with their South Vietnamese counterparts, operations at various air bases and finally travel out to the flattops USS Coral Sea and Bon Homme Richard.
But in the down time in between these site visits and briefings, the contractors mingled with their hosts and ventured out to get a sense of the small Southeast Asian country. And what they found was utterly terrifying.
To house American troops, “virtually all hotels in Saigon have been taken over by the [U.S.] military,” the film notes matter-of-factly. “Quarters range from the very plush Caravel to the many less deluxe hotels.”
Unfortunately, these appropriated civilian buildings offered no special protection against bombs or sniper fire. Viet Cong rebels tried to kill the American troops at every possible opportunity — and warned Vietnamese to stay away from hotels, popular bars and night clubs and military bases.
“Security is a major problem in the Saigon area, as highlighted by a sniper bullet, which had penetrated the window at the … hotel during the happy hour,” Schirra describes as Americans inspect the bullet hole. On the street, the North American representatives filmed part of a funeral procession for South Vietnamese civilians caught in the crossfire.
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“As one meets various U.S. military personnel, they enjoy pointing out the ease with which the Viet Cong can ambush these various military BOQs from adjacent buildings,” Schirra says, using the acronym for “bachelor officers quarters.” As he talks, two Americans on the hotel balcony double over in laughter, apparently pointing out potential sniper positions.
“This causes some concern to the visitor,” the film intones.
But this was the South Vietnam that North American’s team got to see up close. And everyone was aware of it.
By January 1965, U.S. Navy admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, Jr. — the top American commander for all forces in the Pacific region — decided the danger to his forces had reached a tipping point.
On his recommendation, dependents of U.S. government employees evacuated from South Vietnam. To guard the remaining personnel, the Pentagon sent more American troops and hired private guards to back up local police officers.
“In spite of the rapid buildup of security forces for both close internal security and protection of large U.S. installations, on 30 March, V.C. terrorists exploded a bomb, placed in a car in front of the U.S. embassy in Saigon,” an originally top secret report of Pentagon efforts in Southeast Asia in 1965 noted. “On 16 June, a terrorist explosion occurred in the civilian air terminal at [Tan Son Nhut airport].”
Outside the capital, the contractor found other bases were in even more precarious situations. The North American team found that the Navy’s base at Vung Tau, fewer than 50 miles southeast of Saigon near the mouth of the Dong Nai river, was effectively surrounded by rebels.
“Security for the U.S. naval advisers at Vung Tau is a primary problem,” Schirra says as the film shows a plainclothes American stands guard behind a small sandbag wall with a World War II-era carbine. “The barbed wire just beyond the sandbag emplacement constitutes Viet Cong territory.”
“Several suggestions were made with regard to increasingly security, but these did not meet with necessarily a high degree of interest,” according to the film. No explanation is offered as to why that might have been the case.
Part of the problem might have been a lack of resources. Even with more and more American troops steadily flowing flowing into South Vietnam, the Pentagon simply couldn’t keep up with the security demands.
“As it was, U.S. military personnel were so few in some areas that they worked as advisors or on other primary jobs during the day and stood guard at night,” the 1965 Pentagon review noted. “In Saigon, the U.S. [military police] were pulling eight hour shifts on static posts because of the shortage of personnel.”
In addition, Washington was adamant that Saigon should shoulder the biggest burden for providing security. For the Pentagon, putting Americans on watch gave often poorly trained South Vietnamese security forces only added incentive to neglect their own posts.
And remember, North American’s trip came at a time when the American public broadly supported the war. Fewer than five months after the contractors visited South Vietnam, an Opinion Research Corporation poll found that 65 percent of Americans were in favor of staying and fighting, according to the Pentagon’s annual report.
More than 80 percent of Americans didn’t want any troop withdrawals until the Communists sat down to negotiate peace.
These opinions finally shattered nearly three years later as the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese benefactors launched the spectacular Tet Offensive. On Jan. 30, 1968, around 80,000 insurgents attacked more than 100 urban areas and military facilities across South Vietnam.
Though the American public had been broadly aware of the terrorist threat and the abilities of the Communist rebels, the weeks of major fighting throughout the country was jarring. American and South Vietnamese troops effectively crushed the Viet Cong as they regained control of the countryside, but the incident directly contradicted the Pentagon’s often rosy picture of how the war was going.
The threat of terror attacks never went away. By 1970, reported “incidents include assassinations, abductions, injuries, damage to civilian and government facilities, and general acts of harassment such as taxation and confiscation of commodities,” according to an Pentagon annual review for that year.
By that point, American public opinion had almost fully turned on the war. In January 1973, Washington finally signed the Paris Peace Accords and effectively ended its involvement in Southeast Asia. North American had merged with Rockwell International to form North American Rockwell in 1967.
But eight years earlier, three men from North American had already gotten a glimpse of how little progress the Pentagon and its South Vietnamese allies were making on providing even basic security in areas they supposedly had full control over.