Fortified base camps were the pivots of Viet Cong (VC) military operations and, it was believed, if denied their use, the VC movement would wither. Local force units tended to place reliance on numerous small base camps dispersed throughout their area of operations and each unit attempted to maintain at least one elaborately fortified refuge. The larger local force units normally constructed a tunnel complex which housed their hospital and headquarters. The camps were usually extensively booby trapped and protected by punji stakes, mines and spike traps. Main Force base camps, on the other hand, were usually not so well guarded by mines; they were however, larger and frequently included training facilities, such as rifle ranges and classrooms. Main Force units invariably had pre-stocked base camps throughout their area of operations and often shifted their forces as the tactical situation dictated, either for offensive or defensive reasons.
Years of labor and an immense amount of material went into building a complex network of base camps throughout the country. It was this network which sustained irregular operations. A semi-guerrilla army, such as that of the VC, could no more survive without its base camps than a conventional army could survive when cut off from its main bases. However remote and concealed, the base camps could not be easily moved or hidden indefinitely. To find and destroy these camps was a prime objective of the allied military effort.
Defended base camps presented a formidable obstacle to the attacker. They were normally somewhat circular in form with an outer rim of bunkers, automatic weapons firing positions, alarm systems and foxholes. Within the circle there was a complete system of command bunkers, kitchens and living quarters constructed above the ground from a wide variety of materials. (Figs. 1, 2 and 3 illustrate the various types of VC base camps which were encountered by tactical units in South Vietnam).
The exact shape of the camp varied in order to take maximum advantage of natural terrain features for protection and to restrict attack on the camp to one or two avenues. Some of the camps, particularly those used only for training or way stations, had minimum defensive works. However, in all cases, the enemy was prepared to defend his camp against a ground attack. Even though natural terrain features may have caused a given camp to resemble a cul-de-sac there was at least one prepared exit or escape route opposite the anticipated direction(s) of attack. Tunnels connected the bunkers and firing positions, enabling the defenders to move from one point to another. This technique enhanced the effect of their firepower and gave them a significant advantage over the attacker. An unfordable river often paralleled one flank of a typical camp while open paddy land bordered the other.
The apparent lack of escape routes made the position appear like an ideal target for ground attack. However, until bombardment had removed most of the foliage, any maneuver into these areas on the ground was a complex problem. One local force squad had been known to withstand the assault of two US Army infantry companies, and a VC sniper or two, firing from within a mined camp, could inflict numerous casualties on the attacking force.
LOCATION AND DETECTION OF BASE CAMPS
The 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (US), made a study to determine if patterns existed for the establishment of enemy base camps and defensive fortifications. It was found early in the operation that the enemy invariably established his bases in the upper reaches of draws where water was available and dense foliage precluded aerial observation. Fortifications were found on the "fingers" covering the base camps and were mutually supporting. A comparison with information obtained from other sources such as agent reports, trail studies, etc., indicated that a pattern did exist and that potential base areas and bunkered positions could be predicted with reasonable accuracy. Based on this finding, information obtained from the Combined Intelligence Center, Vietnam (CICV), photos, Red Haze, visual reconnaissance and special agent reports was placed on overlays and the density of activity plotted. The plot was then transferred to maps using the color red to represent probable base camp locations. A careful study of surrounding terrain was then made to determine likely defensive positions and these were entered in blue on the map. Thus, commanders were presented with a clear indication of the most likely areas which would be defended. This method of identifying probable base camps and defensive positions proved to be relatively accurate.
During OPERATION MAKALAPA, the 25th Infantry Division (US) found that VC base camps were normally located along streams and canals and that extensive bunker complexes were built into the banks. Bunkers were usually constructed of a combination of mud, logs and cement. The bunkers presented a low silhouette and had extensive lanes of fire along the main avenue(s) of approach. Excellent camouflage negated the effectiveness of allied aerial and ground observation.
In OPERATION WHEELER, the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (US) found that "People Sniffer" missions effectively produced intelligence in areas of heavy vegetation where visual reconnaissance was ineffective. These missions were also invaluable in verifying agent reports as well as specifically locating enemy units, hospitals or storage areas as revealed by detainees or captured documents.
The After Action Report of the 25th Infantry Division (US) for OPERATION JUNCTION CITY, reflected that of the sixteen base camps discovered, two wore considered to be regimental size, ten battalion size and four company size or smaller. All base camps were located 200 meters or closer to a stream or other source of water. Each camp was encircled by a bunker system with interconnecting trench systems. The defensive positions showed evidence of careful planning of fields of fire and were well camouflaged and expertly organized. Enemy claymore mine positions were marked on the enemy side of a tree, usually with a single strip of white cloth or an "X"' cut into the tree.
The 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division (US) reported, after the completion of OPERATION JUNCTION CITY, that most base camps were located near streams or roads. It appeared that the plan was to locate all installations close to transportation routes. This Brigade made the same comment in their After Action Report for OPERATION BATTLE CREEK.
The 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry, 4th Division (US) After Action Report for OPERATION BREMERTON, which was conducted in the Rung Sat Special Zone, reflected that the most likely base camps in that area existed on the high ground. Therefore, caution had to be exercised when entering dry ground from the swamps. Also, all base camps encountered were within 150 meters of some type of waterway. Further, these camps, without exception, were well concealed and effectively bunkered. Similarity of these base camps enabled units to plan their method of approach to minimize friendly casualties.
In the conduct of OPERATION BENTON by the 196th Light Infantry Brigade (US), it was noted that in almost all cases the enemy installations were within 1000 meters of a valley or actually in the valley. This indicated that in this area, the VC avoided the rugged and more formidable higher elevations.
The 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (US) found in OPERATION HOOD RIVER, that the VC continued to utilize mutually supporting draws, each characterized by a water supply, dense foliage and fortified positions guarding accesses to base camp areas. This same unit noted in their After Action Report for OPERATION BENTON that the VC guarded his base camps with local forces who wore well trained and very capable of executing all aspects of guerrilla warfare.
Following OPERATION YELLOWSTONE, the 3rd Squadron, 17th Cavalry (-) (US) reported that sightings of previously unlocated base camps were reported daily. As each sub-area was searched in detail, large bunker complexes were located along every large stream in the jungle area. Enemy lines of communication interlacing the fortified base camps were found and plotted. Many of the base camps were vacant but a large percentage proved to be occupied and well defended.
The After Action Report of the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division (US) for OPERATION LANIKAI reflected that during this operation VC base camps were normally found along stream beds adjacent to built-up areas or in the midst of occupied villages. Bunkers were found in most homes, astride or strung along roads and dikes and in the corners of hedge rows. Pagodas were normally VC meeting places and were often protected by bunker complexes.
The use of the "Open Arms" program to obtain intelligence of specific areas and for guides to areas could be very effective. During OPERATION DAN TAM 81, conducted by the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the exact locations of VC base camps were revealed by a Hoi Chanh.
The 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division (US) reported upon completion of OPERATION BATON ROUGE that whenever a unit moved into an area where there were indications that much wood had been cut, the unit expected to find a base camp within 200 to 500 meters of the cutting area. (Note: VC regulations prescribed that wood cutting must be done at least one hour's walking time from such facilities.) Upon completion of OPERATION LEXINGTON III, this same unit reported that base camps and facilities were generally found near streams, indicating the need for easy accessibility in the type of terrain encountered in the area.
During OPERATIONS MANCHESTER, UNIONTOWN/STRIKE and UNIONTOWN I, the 199th Brigades 503rd Chemical Detachment conducted twelve "People Sniffer" missions during the period 17 December 1967 to 13 January 1968, identifying 94 hot spots of probable enemy activities. The "People Sniffers" enjoyed several successes by identifying VC base camps and supplementing other intelligence means in locating areas of enemy activity.
The After Action Report of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade for OPERATIONS MANCHESTER, UNIONTOWN/STRIKE and UNIONTOWN I contained the comment that the humane and considerate treatment of Hoi Chanhs reaped high dividends, saving countless man-hours of operational time. Once the confidence of these returnees was gained and sincere concern for their well being was established, they willingly provided information leading to identification and destruction of Viet Cong forces or their base camps.
For a long time it was thought that because of their superior knowledge of these areas, the Viet Cong habitually established base areas deep in the interior. Operations conducted by the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division tended to disprove this belief. Apparently the Viet Cong did not regularly inhabit the interior of dense jungle areas unless they were accessible by trail. Instead, they operated from bases within two or three kilometers of the jungle periphery.
Upon completion of OPERATION JUNCTION CITY, the 196th Light Infantry Brigade reported that defoliation flights cleared away brush and effectively revealed the enemy's base camps and supply routes.
The 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) reported that the questions most frequently asked local VC PWs and ralliers, especially Hoi Chanhs, pertained to the location of their base camps and AOs. The 5th SFG found that the two frequently used methods of map study and aerial observation were unsuccessful. Most PWs and Hoi Chanhs did not know direction, could not read a map and, when they were taken aloft for Visual Reconnaissance (VR), it was usually their first flight so they could not associate what they saw from the air with what they saw on the ground. However, most of these people would not admit that they were unable to read a map, tell direction or do a terrain analysis from the air. As a consequence, they usually replied in the affirmative when questions were asked. When detainees were re-interrogated using the same techniques, the information received in the second interrogation frequently differed from the first interrogation. One method of interrogation which proved successful was based on direct terrain orientation questions by the interrogator. First the detainee was asked the direction of the sun when he last left the base camp. He was then asked how long it took him to walk to the point where he Chieu Hoi'd or was captured. Judging from the type of terrain and health of the detainee the distance to the camp could generally be determined. The subject was then asked to enumerate significant terrain features he saw on each day of his journey, i.e., open areas, rubber lots, hills, rice paddies, swamps, etc. As the subject spoke and his memory was jogged, the interrogator found these terrain features on a current map and gradually plotted the subject's route and finally identified the area in which the base camp was located.
METHODS OF DESTROYING OR RENDERING BASE CAMPS UNTENABLE
The 1st Australian Task Force used tactical airstrikes, immediate and preplanned, against occupied enemy base camps during OPERATION INGHAM. Assessment of damage revealed that one strike was on target and destroyed two underground rooms, collapsed 60 yards of tunnel and blew in several weapons pits. One strike was not assessed as the camp was not revisited. The Task Force also reported that airstrikes were directed against the camps to force the enemy out of occupied camps during OPERATION PADDINGTON.
The 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division's method of rendering base camps untenable, as reported in their After Action Report for OPERATION MALHEUR, was to contaminate them from the air using CS. The CS concentration remained effective for a period of from four to six weeks.
During OPERATION DALLAS, the 2/2 Infantry (Mech) conducted jungle clearing operations in the Vinh Loi Woods with tank dozers and Rome Plows. During jungle clearing, when contact was made which indicated the presence of a VC base camp, the mechanized elements developed the situation by deploying laterally while directing supporting air and artillery fires into the suspected base camp. The jungle clearing vehicles immediately began clearing a swath completely around the base camp. When the circle was completed, additional swaths were progressively cleared into the center of the camp. The configuration of the cleared jungle took on the appearance of a spoked wheel superimposed on the base camp. After occupation and security of the base camp by mechanized elements, the camp would be systematically destroyed by dozers. The 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division also reported the use of both Rome Plows and demolitions to destroy enemy base camps during this same operation.
The 4th Infantry Division utilized tactical air to destroy bunkers during OPERATION FRANCIS MARION. Battle damage assessment (BDA) indicated two bunkers destroyed and one or two bunkers damaged severely, depending upon point of impact. Eight-inch artillery did not affect the bunkers unless there was a direct hit and then only the bunker receiving a direct hit was destroyed. The 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division reported after OPERATION NISQUALLY that enemy base camps were destroyed by burning but that during the dry season caution had to be exercised to prevent the fire from spreading to the adjacent jungle.
The 1st Infantry Division's tactic for destroying VC base camps during OPERATION TUCSON was that of backing off, destroying them with air and artillery, and then sweeping through the base camp with troops. During OPERATION CEDAR FALLS, this same division found that a dozer team of two tank dozers and six bulldozers was very effective, particularly when working in a joint effort with infantry. The infantry provided the security and the dozers destroyed the base camps and fortifications.
During OPERATION ATTLEBORO, elements of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division discovered nine base camps, all of which had the same type fortifications. These ranged from open trenches and foxholes to bunkers with overhead cover. The largest base camp had fifty bunkers with overhead cover. Overhead cover consisted of logs with a layer of dirt. Destruction was difficult. At times units would physically remove the overhead cover and fill in the holes. The most elaborate was a circular bunker (See Fig 4). The bunker was 50 meters in diameter and the trench was 5 feet deep and 2 feet wide. 10 dugout holes in the trench were large enough for one man's protection against artillery. 6 claymores were wired and in the trench ready for ground emplacement. Control to fire the claymores was located at the southern exit. When demolitions were available they were used to destroy the bunkers. The primary means, however, of destroying the enemy installations was to call for air and artillery after evacuating the area.
SUMMARY OF SALIENT LESSONS LEARNED WITH RESPECT TO VC BASE CAMPS.
US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Counterinsurgency Lessons Learned, No.68: Viet Cong Base Camps and Supply Caches, July 1968
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