The First Team in the 'Nam
Submitted by 'Wild Bill' Wilder

"We’re Still Cavalry!"

Upon arriving in Vietnam in the fall of 1965, the proud young sky troopers of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) took a lot of ribbing from the grunts. They ridiculed their "cruising" around in the sky, enjoying a soft army life. In angry defense, a young private, embarrassed, yet intensely proud of his unit and his accomplishments, retorted, "Go to hell! We’re still cavalry!"

And they were. It is true that their arrival on the battlefields of Southeast Asia was not heralded by a trumpet sounding "charge," or the thundering hooves of frothing stallions, but rather the whirring of jet turbine engines and the steady "thump-thump," unique sound of swirling Huey helicopter rotor blades. They carried no sabers, but instead, automatic weapons. Their cannons were not pulled by draft horses, but also mounted on helicopters; lethal, fast moving gunships, darting in and out of enemy positions, leaving a trail of death.

Keeping the Tradition

At first glance, they looked just like any other foot soldier, but they were far different. They brought with them the tradition of American cavalry. This element of the United States Army had been the glory of its armed forces. They walked and fought with a unique flair. They were part of a noble and proud tradition.

It was during the Civil War that the American cavalry came into its own. The dash and wiliness of imaginative cavalry leaders revealed the potential of this vital military arm. Names like Stuart, Custer, Sheridan and Forrest became as familiar as Grant and Lee.

They were independent formations, designed to move fast. Their purpose was to scout and reconnoiter. They were equally capable of executing lightning attacks or strong delaying actions. They covered the flanks and became the eyes of large armies of foot soldiers as they marched.

One of the most potent capabilities of these mounted fighters was the cavalry raid. They overran enemy outposts, disrupted lines of communication and played havoc with supply lines. The enemy had to always wonder if enemy horsemen were around. The threat alone was electric.

During the Indian wars, the Cavalry was in its glory. It was the horse soldier that helped to win and control the west. Once the era had passed however, cavalry fell into a quieter, more nondescript role of courier service and fighting as dismounted infantry.

The Need for Cavalry

With the advent of the mechanized age, cavalry was seen in a new light. Here was the opportunity to form strong, fast-moving forces that could again do the job of the cavalry of the nineteenth century. During the Second World War, cavalry squadrons performed nobly and contributed to many victories.

At the initiation of the "Great War," most nations went to the division as the basic military unit. Smaller cavalry suddenly found itself in a vacuum, now that the horse had little or no place on the modern battlefield. New doctrines premised on light mechanized reconnaissance began to be developed and in the interim most cavalry units tried to fit the new role or else simply reverted to foot infantry.

But die-hard military men would not allow the concept to just disappear. Cavalry still had a role, but it was vague. Then the First Cavalry Division was organized at Fort Bliss in 1941. It remained largely horse cavalry until ordered overseas in 1943. Then the changeover from horse to jeep or armored car began. Since it was intended for amphibious assault in the Pacific, it was changed with special equipment allowances and retrained as infantry. By the end of the war, the 1st Cav had become a pure infantry formation. The only part of it that was still cavalry was its name.

There were numerous cavalry units smaller in size that performed well during the Second World War, but many seemed uncertain as to the role it should play. Some felt it was that of armor, while others felt that there was something else out there for these rapid-deployment forces. The question was how to apply the basic cavalry doctrines of scouting and rapid raids to modern times.

In Korea, the tragedy of a lack of the cavalry element in an army became apparent. Early in the war, a perfect opportunity for flanking the North Koreans as they squeezed American forces into a corner presented itself, but the 1st Cav did not have the wherewithal to take advantage of it. There was no unit so equipped and trained in the military inventory of the UN forces deployed in Korea.

Later, after the successful invasion of Inchon, the 8th Army, still not fully mechanized and without strong mobile formations found itself putting together "task forces," or mixed units of tanks and infantry in an effort to catch up with and cut off the fleeing North Korean army. Instead, except for a few successful efforts, such as TF Dolvin, the US Army was slow on the move.

But it was the great tragedy of the sudden Chinese intervention that underlined the need for specialized and properly equipped units prepared as cavalry. Air surveillance was not enough. The Chinese "volunteers," nearly half a million strong moved into North Korea and remained largely undetected.

Roving cavalry units, had they existed, might have discovered the seriousness of the situation before disaster struck. The sudden Chinese human avalanche against UN forces sent them reeling southward in panic and confusion.

A New Concept in Combat

After Korea, the army put itself to seriously modifying its structure and considered new units, fast and mobile. At the same time, the helicopter, which made its first appearance at the end of World War II, was coming into its own. Combining the need for the rapid deployment and vertical envelopment by large military forces found its mechanical counterpart in the chopper. It could be the steel horse for the new cavalry.

Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, during the Kennedy and later the Johnson administration, caught the vision of what might be done after reading of the experiment. He quickly cut the red tape and gave the go-ahead for the formation of the 11th Air Assault Division at Fort Rucker, Alabama. As it developed, the new unit became known as the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile).

"The Horses"

While soldiers were being imbued with this new concept, the hardware was keeping pace. Hundreds of the new model helicopter, the UH-1 (later to become known as the "Huey") Iroquois, were being produced by Bell Aviation. As they came off the assembly line, new army pilots flew them away. Theirs was definitely "on the job" training. It soon became a rush job.

A larger companion chopper called the CH-47 Chinook was also in production. It would become the principal Army air cargo transporter, airlifting its essential artillery and heavier equipment into battle. One Chinook could carry 44 fully equipped troops or 10,000 pounds of cargo.

The whole principle of airmobile warfare depended heavily on the success of these two aircraft. The Huey performed beyond all expectation. It served as a gunship (or hog), troop transport (slick), or a flying ambulance (med-evac or dustoff). The Cav had a saying about the twin rotored monster. "If you can’t carry it with a Chinook, you don’t need it!"

Lamentably, the Chinook did not do as well as the Huey. It had serious initial mechanical problems that caused the death of a number of army men. Throughout the war, the Army maintenance personnel and the manufacturing employees worked hard to improve its service record. Good or bad, the division was forced to rely upon it throughout the Vietnam conflict. They made do with what they had.

The Cavalry to the Rescue!

By early 1965, the situation in Vietnam had become quite precarious. Either the US would have to pull out completely, or it would have to be fully committed to support the rather shaky government of South Vietnam. President Lyndon B. Johnson, fearing a "domino" effect (if one Southeast Asia country fell to Communism, others would soon follow), decided that a stand would be made there.

As whole divisions prepared to ship out to the Far East, pressure was put upon the 1st Cavalry Division to be prepared to move in less than a month. General Kinnard, its commander, performed a prodigious feat in getting his force ready. On July 28, 1965, the division began shipping out, headed to Vietnam.

Outloading from Mobile, Alabama, the division found itself packed into six passenger vessels, eleven cargo ships, and four aircraft carriers. On the move were over 15,000 sky troopers, 3,100 vehicles, nearly 500 helicopters and 19,000 tons of equipment. It was quite an armada. On September 11th the first vessels arrived and a week later, the 1st Cavalry units were engaged in combat.

General Kinnard envisioned his division as being based in Thailand. It would operate up and down Laos and Cambodia breaking up the supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh trail. The political ramifications of such a move, however sound militarily, were too much for the American leaders and it was not allowed.

In his first visit with General Westmoreland in August 1965, just prior to his division departing for Vietnam, Kinnard was forced to take a firm stand against the commander. Westmoreland indicated his desire to break up the division in smaller groups and spread it all over South Vietnam.

Kinnard, un-intimidated by his commander, and being convinced of the proper use of airmobile forces, objected, saying that the Army Chief of Staff had spelled out his mission. He was to keep the critical East-West Highway 19 from Pleiku to Qui Nhon under allied control. It was a given that if the enemy succeeded in dividing the country, it would fall.

To control that highway was to control the Vietnamese Highlands. And the saying was in Vietnam, "he who controls the Highlands, controls the country." Kinnard ended his argument by stating that the strength of the airmobile concept lay in its concentrated manpower and firepower. He ended with the statement, "If you penny pocket them all over the country, you’ve lost it." Westmoreland allowed him to keep his division intact. Kinnard had successfully argued his case.

A New Weapon for a New War

The purpose of the coming of the 1st Cav to Vietnam was to fight and win over a new enemy. This was a very different kind of war. In Vietnam, there were no front lines. The enemy could be anywhere, everywhere, and often was. The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese soldiers were guerrilla fighters. They knew how to hit and run. They were in their element. It was their country. Their people had been fighting invading foreigners for hundreds of years.

The terrain was totally inhospitable to any sort of massive troop movement. In the southern tip of Vietnam were marshland, waterways and swamp. Ground vehicular movement in most areas there was prohibited.

The central region of the country was dense jungle-like terrain with few roads. To the north of it were the highlands, heavily forested with little more than foot paths nearly invisible from above. Finally in the northern section of the country, there were mountains and more trees, always trees. Roads were rare, in bad repair and often controlled in sections by the enemy.

But the enemy was in his element. He knew how to use the ground to his advantage. The Communist forces were familiar with the land. They could maneuver through it with ease, hide in it when necessary and spring from it in vicious slicing attacks when it was opportune. Then as quickly as they appeared, so they could disappear. Chasing them on foot was useless. Pursuing them with tanks and personnel carriers was difficult, dangerous, and usually got little positive result.

Yet strangely, this was just the kind of situation that suited the role of the new airmobile forces. The helicopter was not bound by any barriers on the ground. It moved swiftly above all of these difficulties, sweeping in low to search out the hidden enemy. Now the needle in the haystack could be found.

Once found, the sharpness of its point was blunted by the carefully coordinated attacks of the Air Cav. Now the VC and NVA could be found with a minimum of effort. And when found, a large force could be inserted to pin him in place and destroy him in detail.

Destiny Takes a Hand

So the arrival of the 1st Cavalry Division to Vietnam was propitious. Even as they began establishing their base at An Khe, the North Vietnamese began making their final moves for a takeover of the country. Three full regiments were enroute to the Highlands of Vietnam. Their goal was to take Pleiku, control the east-west highway and sever South Vietnam in two parts.

The coming of the Air Cav, however, would change all of that. Their purpose was four-fold. They were to find, fix, fight and finish the enemy. They would do all four and do them well. The 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) came to Vietnam to spread its wings and do its job. It remained there until April 29 1971, when the last units departed for Fort Hood.

Undoubtedly the First Team made the strongest impact of any single unit on the Vietnam War. Times have changed. The First Cavalry Division of today is both airmobile and armored: a lesson learned in Vietnam. The legacy brought from the past has made this unit one of the finest in the United States Army.

One of the great assets of the division was its leadership. During the period of nearly six years it enjoyed the leadership of eight outstanding generals. George W. Casey, who commanded the unit in 1970, was killed in a helicopter crash after setting out to visit some of his wounded men at the hospital at Cam Ranh Bay. The wreckage was found on July 9th in the mountains of Vietnam. He had written a congratulatory letter to the men under his command just prior to making the flight. It was addressed "to the SKYTROOPERS of the 1st Air Cavalry Division."

After citing numerous specific examples of courage and team spirit, and mentioning some of the major accomplishments achieved by the Air Cav, he concluded his tribute with these words:

"This is your achievement. This is yet another demonstration that you of the 1st Air Cavalry Division deserve – and have earned again – the accolade of the FIRST TEAM. It is my honor to have served alongside you during this crucial and historic period."

This tribute tells it all. They went and they did their job. They did their duty. Long live the Skytroopers!


Article reproduced courtesy of the original author, Wild Bill Wilder, from The Gamers Net


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