Counterinsurgency is a war of many faces and at all times the requirement to ultimately separate the people from the insurgents, and induce them to support the local government dominates every action. Village searches presented one of the most tedious and dangerous 'faces' of counter-insurgency operations in RVN.
When confronted with a government force they did not wish to meet, the VC would attempt to evade, hide or meld with the local population. Experience had indicated that many times hiding or melding took place within the many villages and hamlets of SVN. A quick but thorough search of villages and hamlets became a requirement under these conditions.
The problem was how to successfully ferret the VC from his hiding place in the village while refraining from actions which would alienate the populace and at the same time minimize risk to the unit which was conducting the search.
VC HIDING TECHNIQUES
VC attempted to evade and avoid all contact with government forces for any one of many reasons and this was the normal reaction for a VC unit when confronted with a superior government force.
Frequently however, GVN tactics or time/distance considerations made it necessary for the VC to evade by physically hiding in villages, or becoming one of the local population. This article is concerned with this one aspect of VC escape and evasion technique and is especially oriented to the situation presented when search operations were made more difficult because they were conducted in the presence of a friendly or passive populace.
While VC equipment was generally limited in quantity, that which they did have was remarkably effective and highly prized.
Protection of equipment was equally important, if not more so, than protection of personnel. In some instances elaborate steps were taken to hide equipment of all types; in other instances only the simplest steps were taken on the assumption that the obvious hiding places would be overlooked.
Almost any place above or below ground in a village was a potential hiding place in which equipment of all types could be cached. Weapons were buried in gardens, floors of houses, in animal pens (especially if the animals were cantankerous) or any place which could be prepared to hide the weapon. In many instances they were thrown into a rice paddy, stream or canal with or without a waterproof cover (locally produced plastic material, commonly used as a rain cape, provided an excellent waterproof cover for weapons which were to be stored underwater for prolonged periods).
Munitions were hidden in haystacks (more than one haystack had exploded when it had been burned), buried, or hidden along with weapons. Weapons and equipment were also found concealed in false ceilings in dwellings with thatched roofs. Both mud and thatch false walls provided equally deceptive hiding places. Treetops also formed an effective hiding place for small pieces of equipment. VC equipment, including flags and propaganda signs, which were found in obviously exposed places had to be treated as suspect. Experience had indicated that many pieces of equipment were booby-trapped and had resulted in death and injury to careless personnel who had attempted to recover those items. Ordinary precautions had to be observed in the removal of equipment which might be booby trapped.
Hiding places for personnel were almost as limitless as they were for equipment, however, underground and underwater appeared to be the favourite personnel hiding places. Personnel frequently attempted to hide underwater by completely submerging themselves while breathing through a hollow reed or a short piece of bamboo. Any canal, stream or rice paddy in or near the objective village had to be regarded as suspect. Mud banks along streams and canals were also used as hiding places but usually no breathing tube was used. The individual simply burrowed into the mud, covering himself and any exposed parts with the ooze. Since a standing man would sink to above knee-deep in the soft mud, a man could easily conceal himself in this manner and not be detected even at short ranges.
Individuals also hid underground by being buried alive. Again the reed was used as a breathing device and the man was simply buried in a spot where a new excavation need not be explained e.g. in a garden. More elaborate means of hiding personnel and equipment underground ranged from simple 'spider-trap' holes to elaborate reinforced underground rooms. From the surface these underground installations or tunnel systems were most difficult if not impossible to detect. Critical points were entrances and emergency exits which were usually concealed in gardens, thickets, animal pens, below water surfaces or wells and streams, under piles of refuse, in or under any structure, and other similar locations. Primary entrances could also be found under fireplaces in dwellings, under food storage bins, water containers and even in conjunction with real or false latrines where there was an easily explained excavation.
Any thicket, refuse pile, hay stack, structure (including shrines) or dwelling common to the locals had to be suspected of concealing an entrance or exit of an underground installation. While there were few instances of VC attempting to evade government forces by hiding in trees, this readily accessible but frequently overlooked hiding place had to be examined also.
The technique of 'playing possum' was also encountered. Of course, this was effective only after there has been an exchange of fire in the area but VC had been known to attempt to hide by playing 'dead' while retaining weapons and/or grenades so that if investigated closely, escape could be attempted.
Although the VC was a cunning enemy who knew and used many unusual devices and techniques to evade and hide from attacking government troops, he could be found and defeated. Trained troops, employing good search techniques and, when available, special equipment and material, could quickly, thoroughly and safely search villages without unnecessarily destroying property or jeopardising the safety of the populace.
Planning Village Searches
A village search mission was a common one in counterinsurgency, usually conducted in conjunction with other combat operations. Each village search mission had to be carefully and completely planned and based on current intelligence. Orders had to contain considerable detail and would be accompanied by briefings using a sand table type mock up of the village. If possible, within the security restrictions detailed below, rehearsals would be conducted using a similar village.
Security and counter-intelligence took on great importance during all planning and briefing phases preceding the search operation. Since VC intelligence nets always sought information about impending operations, every effort had to be made to deny this information to the enemy. By the same token during movement to the objective area, proper physical security to include deceptive methods, had to be employed to prevent the VC from learning the true destination and route of march of the search unit. In this regard, the helicopter provided an excellent means of rapid and secure movement to the objective village at a speed which surpassed that of the VC warning net. Proper security permitted surprise. A surprised enemy did not have time to effectively evade or hide thus simplifying search operations.
Since there were no front-lines in counter-guerrilla operations, the first step was to isolate the village.
The area of the village had to be sealed so that there could be no escape from, nor entry to the village during the conduct of the operation.
The second step was to clear the isolated area up to the village itself. Ideally, guerrillas discovered outside the village were killed or captured outside the village. This maneuvre was often accomplished by tightening the line of encirclement around the village or by holding the line of encirclement and moving a task force through the area clearing as they went.
The third step was to search the village. This part of the operation was like conventional 'town and village' fighting, except that in the presence of a friendly or passive populace, the application of force had to be accomplished with extreme caution.
The final steps of the search operation were;
ORGANISATION OF SEARCH FORCES
Troops were positioned to both prevent escape from and deny entry to the village whilst the search was in progress. Sufficient forces had to be available to hold the line of encirclement as well as provide a reserve capable of dealing with whatever enemy threat intelligence may have indicated as present.
While it was desirable to utilise natural obstacles and fires to assist in sealing the objective areas, experience indicated that the VC invariably escaped by passing over obstacles or through areas which could not be effectively covered by fire. It was essential then that sufficient troops were allocated to the blocking forces to isolate the objective village. These forces were brought to positions on the line of encirclement by airlift or they advanced overland to the line from more distant positions. Air insertion was preferred as it resulted in greater surprise due to the speed with which it could be executed. However, an overland advance, whilst slower, generally succeeded in destroying VC forces who may have been in outlying fields.
As blocking forces assumed their final positions on the line of encirclement they had to remain alert for;
A portion of the blocking force would be designated as a reserve and ideally it would be highly mobile in order to counter enemy threats which may have developed. The use of an airmobile force, for example an Eagle Flight, or Mechanised Infantry mounted on M113's, was frequently used in this role. This reserve, rather than units from the line of encirclement, would be used to deal with individuals or groups who were evading in order to avoid creating a gap in the line of encirclement.
Once the village was sealed, the second major operating force, the assault force, would move to the objective village itself. A variety of methods were used to conduct this movement;An inner line of encirclement would be formed which tightened on the village, or the troops would advance from one or more principle directions in small task forces
During this movement, any VC encountered would be killed or captured before they could reach the village. It was also during this phase that the advancing units had to be especially alert for ambush and booby traps.
If the force was well organised and of sufficient size, it was unlikely that the VC would attempt to defend the village but if the village contained a hard core VC unit or vital supplies, or if the government units gave early evidence of poor training or appeared to be poorly co-ordinated, the VC were very likely to take more overt offensive actions against the attacking forces.
The assault forces were organised into the following teams;
1. Reconnaissance Team
This team, which led the way into the objective village from the line of encirclement, generally numbered less than one-third of the total assault force. Its mission was to secure the area from the line of encirclement. Once the Search Team entered the objective village, the Recon Team performed local security missions and acted as a small local reserve for the assault force commander.
2. Search Teams
These teams, which made up about one-half of the assault force, were used to search out the VC in the village. They would move quickly but carefully into previously assigned search areas moving alternately by bounds from house to house under the cover of one another. All areas were carefully and thoroughly checked, literally leaving no stone unturned in order to dig out the VC and their equipment.
Search Teams would be armed with automatic weapons, fragmentation and offensive grenades. In some instances they would also have special equipment attached (see below).
3. Fire Support Team
This team, usually no more than one-quarter of the assault force, positioned itself where it could give fire support to the search teams should it be needed. The team was equipped with light mortars and if the situation warranted it, light recoilless and automatic weapons. The team would approach, but rarely enter, the village except with its flat trajectory weapons, since its value was in the indirect fire support which it provided for the search teams.
4. Civilian Control Team
This team assumed temporary control of civilians which were uncovered and grouped them together out of the way of the search teams. During the time available to them, they segregated and interrogated civilians, checking documentation and gaining whatever intelligence was available. They were especially alert to detect VC who were attempting to 'meld' with the populace and arrested all persons who could not establish their identity or account for their presence in the village. Suspects were usually evacuated from the village for more detailed interrogation at a later time.
The team was often augmented with Psywar and Civic Action personnel in order to carry out CA and Psywar activities (see below)
5. POW Team
A very small portion of the assault force was used to secure and process all POW's. the normal principles of handling POW's applied; Seize, search, Segregate, Silence and Speed in evacuation.
SPECIAL EQUIPMENT & MATERIAL
Items of equipment and material, which were available to speed up the search and make it more thorough, were often utilised and included some of the following;
1. Mine Detectors
Mine detectors were used to detect all kinds of VC metallic booby traps including spike traps, grenades and mines. Some detectors, like the AN/PRC-3, could even detect underground 'cavities' which may have been underground rooms or foot and man traps. More importantly, mine detectors could locate buried weapons, ammunition and other metallic objects. For instance, a rifle could be detected under 30cm of mud or 50cm of water.
Since in rural RVN the use of metal in construction was uncommon, the mine detector was also used to search the walls and ceilings of buildings for concealed hiding places for metallic objects. The use of mine detectors by search teams not only speeded up the search and made it more effective, but also helped to minimise friendly casualties from booby traps as well as preventing the unnecessary destruction of dwellings.
Military dogs, trained as scout dogs, not only helped to locate underground installations but also warned the handler if they were occupied. In dry areas the dogs were also effective at locating buried equipment. Dogs were also sometimes used to lead the units to the objective village and alert the handler at the approach to enemy ambushes. When used in search operations, dogs increased the speed of the search, helped to ensure thoroughness, and provided a degree of security to the assault force.
3. Riot Control munitions and WP Grenades
Search teams were often equipped with all type of riot control munitions as well as smoke and WP grenades. The primary use of these devices was to drive the VC from their underground installations. WP was not only a smoke producer but also a casualty producer as well as being capable of use as a fire starter to burn buildings if necessary.
4. Demolitions Equipment
In many instances the only means of destroying underground installations was with high explosives. Demolitions were also used to dislodge VC from their underwater hiding places.
Captured weapons, ammunition and equipment was often destroyed, in situ, by the use of explosives.
ACTIONS OF SEARCH TEAMS
The actual conduct of the search operation was not unlike conventional town and village fighting to the degree that the search teams had to employ the same techniques of movement from house to house, clearing and thoroughly searching each possible hiding place both inside the dwelling and in the village itself.
Whilst in most instances the VC would not fight for the village, attempting rather to escape and evade, the search teams had to remain alert at all times since the threat of VC counter action was always present.
Great emphasis was placed on using only that level of force required to conduct the search operation with the desired degree of thoroughness. Too little force would result in either an inadequate search, or would give the VC the opportunity to react and attack the searching units. Too much force would result in the alienation of the populace, making the ultimate task of establishing government control more difficult.
In order to obtain maximum benefit from the search operations, it was necessary to capitalise on GVN presence in the village. The ultimate goal in counter-insurgency was to re-establish government control over the people and no opportunity to prepare the people to accept government control could be overlooked.
Often, it was impossible to leave Civic Action cadre behind in the objective village but they, or members of the participating military units, were aware of what they could do whilst in the village both during and after the search. Details of Psywar and Civic Action activity was pre-planned so as to gain the greatest possible effect during these operations.
Withdrawal of the assault forces from the objective village was carried out over a different route than that taken during the advance. Withdrawal of the assault force was to the line of encirclement which remained in position until joined by the assault forces. All forces then withdrew with those not using airmobile extraction using multiple routes which different to those used during the approach. VC ambushes were most common when units were returning from operations and extreme caution and vigilance needed to be exercised during the withdrawal and return to home station.
Speed and thoroughness were the key elements to success in all village search operations. Speed was essential in order to achieve surprise and to capitalise on its effect. However, thoroughness could not be sacrificed for the sake of speed. Once an objective village had been entered, the search had to be completed and thorough. Only by proper training, planning, coordination and execution could a village search operation achieve its greatest success.
US Army Military Assistance Advisory Group Vietnam (MAAG) - Lessons Learned No. 25 Search Techniques (December 1962)