US Casualties from Friendly Fire Incidents in Vietnam - Introduction



 There can be few situations in warfare that are as unpleasant and demoralising as sustaining casualties as the result of your own friendly fire. However, such fatalities inflicted by friendly fires on friendly forces are as old as warfare itself. Stonewall Jackson, one of the most brilliant general officers the Confederacy produced, was mortally wounded at Chancellorsville by the fire of his own men. As technology increases the complexity of modern warfare, such mistakes are apt to occur more frequently. This was true especially in an environment like Vietnam where there were no "front lines" and firepower was continually massed in support of ground operations.

Medevac amidst a dust stormEarly in 1964, the increased rate of accidental casualties became a matter of grave concern to COMUSMACV who stated, " ... one mishap, one innocent civilian killed, one civilian wounded or one dwelling needlessly destroyed is one too many." Commanders were directed to maintain a personal interest in these accidents as they occurred and take appropriate corrective action to drastically reduce or eliminate such occurrences. This was to be accomplished by constantly reviewing and updating training programs and safety directives, and strictly enforcing approved operational procedures and rules of engagement. The goal was to eliminate, to the maximum extent possible, all friendly casualties due to human errors.

To ensure continuing command attention and emphasis on this subject, a quarterly analysis of friendly casualties caused by friendly fires was initiated. Subsequent to this analysis, data was disseminated to subordinate commanders for information and necessary corrective action to minimize casualties inflicted on friendly forces and civilians.

2. TRENDS 1967-1968

In the first and second quarters of Calendar Year 67, fire direction center errors and firing battery errors were the most prevalent, with a total of 56 incidents. Faulty ammunition created 30 incidents; lack of coordination accounted for 24 incidents; unit disorientation was responsible for 20 incidents; forward observer and forward air controller errors caused 16 incidents; and violations of rules of engagement, particularly delivering ordnance into villages without the sector chiefs approval, accounted for 13 incidents. Fixed wing aircraft delivered ordnance incidents, although infrequent, had devastating effects when they occurred. Numerous miscellaneous incidents occurred after all prescribed rules of engagement and established standard operating procedures had been followed. These primarily involved civilians returning to hostile zones which had been cleared for harassing and interdiction fires or civilians violating curfew laws.

US marines evacuate a wounded brother...In the third quarter of Calendar Year 67, a rising trend was noted in the number of incidents and friendly deaths. This represented an increase of 24 percent in the number of incidents and an increase of 71 percent in the number of friendly deaths over the second quarter of that calendar year. Artillery fires and air delivered munitions accounted for 63 percent of the incidents, 83 percent of the deaths, and 70 percent of the wounded. Remaining casualties were by mortar fires, smal1 arms, naval gunfire, water surface craft, and miscellaneous incidents. Although all of the reports of investigation were not available, those analyzed revealed that the most prevalent causes of incidents were human errors by Forward Observers (FO), Fire Direction Center (FDC) personnel and gun/howitzer and mortar crews. During this quarter, coordination problems resulted in 35 incidents; faulty ammunition caused 27 incidents; disorientation was responsible for 20 incidents; and pilot/Forward Air Controller (FAC) error caused 11 incidents. The principle cause of most incidents was failure to follow established procedures, directives, and safety checks. Incidents also continued to occur when civilians violated curfews, entered fire areas, or inadvertently became involved in fire fights.

In the fourth quarter of Calendar Year 67, the upward trend of total incidents was reversed. The number of incidents was down 30 percent, deaths down 28 percent, and casualties were down slightly but remained at a high level. The preponderant cause of incidents was the result of supporting fires being too close to friendly positions (see Weapons Minimum Safe Distances). The enemy's tactic of "hugging" the friendly positions complicated the task of delivering supporting fires without a margin of risk in inflicting friendly casualties. Although in the minority during this quarter, incidents continued to occur as a result of human error.

The country-wide trend for the first quarter of Calendar Year 68, as compared with the quarterly averages for Calendar Year 67, showed a decrease in incidents by approximately 51 percent, a decrease in deaths by approximately 17 percent, and a decrease in wounds by approximately 33 percent. One accidental air strike accounted for 25 percent of the total number of deaths for this quarter. In view of the increased number of operations for this quarter, friendly casualties caused by friendly fires showed a significant improvement.

The downward trend in casualties continued during the second quarter of Calendar Year 68. A comparison of the second quarter results with the first quarter, Calendar Year 68 showed a reduction in incidents by 18 percent, deaths by 55 percent, and wounded by 18 percent. An in the first quarter of Calendar Year 68, artillery and fixed wing air incidents continued to cause the majority of the casualties. During this same quarter, as a result of the 5 May 1968 VC/NVA Tet offensive against Saigon, 127 civilians were killed and 2950 by enemy/friendly actions. This resulted in a study being made to determine those measures that needed to be taken by friendly forces to reduce noncombatant casualties and destruction of civilian property. Corrective action was then initiated.


The causative factors involved in incidents of inaccurate or accidental delivery of ordnance, resulting in the injury or death of friendly military forces or noncombatants, were myriad. Lessons Learned #70 could not detail the multiplicities of causes in each and every such incident that occurred throughout the Republic of Vietnam. However, representative ground incidents and air incidents have been selected and are discussed from the point of view of (1) what caused the incident and (2) the lessons learned. Causative factors are summarized at the end of each section.


The statistics and examples of incidents, although important,, cannot and do not of themselves reveal the complete picture of the deplorable loss of 1ife by fire from friendly sources. All service components were acutely aware of the seriousness of these incidents in terms of lowered effectiveness of the fighting forces, lessened rapport between US forces themselves and Vietnamese Nationals, and the unquestionable adverse effect on the overall military effort.

The lessons learned were not new. They were merely a restatement of lessons which had previously been publicized in various forms and in great detail by commanders at all levels. They also served as a reminder that the battlefield was and always has been a strict and harsh disciplinarian. Those who deviated from proven techniques, used "short cuts" because it was the "easy way out" or failed to follow directives and established procedures, invariably did so with disastrous results. While adherence to proven techniques and established procedures did not completely eliminate the possibility of error, it certainly reduced the probability. Therefore it was incumbent upon commanders at all echelons to constantly press, with every means available, for a solution to the vexing problem of "friendly casualties from friendly fires.

Ground Incidents

Air Incidents

Weapons Safe Distances


Vietnam Lessons Learned No. 70: Friendly Fire Incidents. United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, 17th October 1968


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