How the Helicopter Changed Modern Warfare: Vietnam

Posted on November 18, 2011
By Walter J. Boyne

Establishment of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile)

The combined results of [testing] and the operations in Vietnam led to the establishment of the iconic 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), unit­ing the resources of the Second Infantry Division and the 11th Air As­sault Division (Test). There was a mad scramble to obtain the necessary personnel and equipment, but an advance party arrived in the Republic of Vietnam on August 25, 1965. It immediately proceeded to An Khe, where it began a new tradition.


The 1st Cavalry initially fielded four types of helicopters, the Bell OH-13S Sioux, Bell UH-1 Iroquois, as transport (UH-1D) and gunship (UH-1B), and Boeing Vertol CH-47 Chinook. Each was significantly improved over time, and each received many specialized modifications. They were supported by other Army helicopters, including several Sikorsky models.

While the innovation was continual, the new techniques were impres­sive, and the results of both in-country combat and state-side testing were congruent, the Army possessed pitifully few assets. Between December 1961 and early 1965, the U.S. Army had only 248 helicopters in Vietnam, clearly not enough to perform the duties demanded of them. Few of them were yet of desired combat standard. This disgraceful situation was the direct result of failure in previous years to invest in the necessary re­search, development, and production called for by the visionaries of the helicopter movement. Virtually the same condition exists today. Incred­ibly, current production funding is almost exclusively devoted to tired designs from many years ago. Many advances in both U.S. and foreign helicopter design are being ignored in the name of economy. As a result, the richest country in the world, the United States, is fighting twenty-first-century wars with twentieth-century helicopters. Unless there are radical changes, it may well be doing so in the twenty-second century.

From 1961 to 1965, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were learning much from the American efforts to use helicopters to profitably employ South Vietnamese troops. A study group headed by Brig. Gen. John Norton found that the Viet Cong had already introduced heavier machine guns (12.7-mm) into South Vietnam and planned to employ 37-mm cannon. The Viet Cong had also begun locating their anti-aircraft weapons to con­trol the most desirable LZs, which, in effect, forced ARVN troops to use LZs preferred by the Viet Cong. The Viet Cong were also mustering larger forces, to the degree that they were expected soon to be using division-size units. Air-mobile forces would find that their work was cut out for them.

Fighting for a Place from Which to Fight

While the massive logistic and training efforts involved in moving the 15,787 personnel, 1,600 vehicles, and 470 aircraft (including 435 he­licopters) of the nascent 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) were under way, an adequate base for the division had to be secured in the An Khe area by the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division. It did so in Opera­tion HIGHLAND, conducted over a forty-day period beginning on August 22, 1965, with no fewer than eight airmobile assaults combined with extensive ground operations. Movement along Route 19 to An Khe was hotly contested by the enemy, and helicopters would soon become the preferred mode of transport. The first elements of the 1st Cavalry Divi­sion, an advance party of about 1,000 men, arrived in An Khe on August 27. The month of September was spent in the housecleaning necessary to establish an operating base in an area where the vegetation sometimes reached jungle proportions. The clean new area, quite literally chopped into existence, was promptly given the sobriquet “Golf Course” and be­came the largest operation of its type in the world.

The North Vietnamese, while well aware of the arrival of the 1st Cav, were proceeding with plans of their own. The North Vietnamese govern­ment recognized that the intervention of the United States on behalf of South Vietnam was drastically altering the efforts of the Viet Cong. That intervention had in fact reversed a trend, and the Viet Cong were experi­encing a decline in recruitment. The local populace was also less willing to provide supplies and intelligence material. This forced a weighty deci­sion at the highest levels of the North Vietnamese government. In the past, the North Vietnamese Army had been carefully husbanded, being used only in situations in which it could prevail without much risk. To offset the decline in the value of the Viet Cong efforts, the North Viet­namese were forced to accept the risks implicit in regular warfare by planning a drive from Duc Co on the Cambodian border through Pleiku to Qui Nhon on the South China Sea.

With their customary disregard for national boundaries, they assem­bled three regular North Vietnamese Army regiments—the 32d, 33d, and 66th—in Cambodia and in the western part of Pleiku Province. These units began a series of attacks on October 19, 1965, and the command­er of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), Gen. William C. Westmoreland, ordered Maj. Gen. H. W. O. Kinnard, commanding the 1st Cavalry, to “seek out and destroy” the enemy. This became the first genuine test of air mobility against a capable enemy adept at disappear­ing into the hostile greenery of Vietnam and then suddenly reappearing in strength at another point.

Beginning on October 27, the 1st Cav proved itself in a thirty-five-day struggle that became known as the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. A contact on November 1 resulted in the capture of a large enemy hospital site, with seventy-eight enemy being killed and fifty-seven captured. Five men were killed in the 1st Cav, with fifteen wounded. It was the start of an important facet of the long war of mutual attrition, one in which the mobility and firepower provided by helicopters was the only means by which American and ARVN forces could contest the actions of the North Vietnamese.

By November 26, this first bitter campaign was over. Rather than split­ting South Vietnam in half, the enemy had withdrawn its forces into Cam­bodian sanctuaries for redeployment. The hard-fought battles resulted in the loss of 151 troopers from the 1st Cav, with four more missing in ac­tion. Almost two thousand enemy troops were known to be dead. Over the thirty-five days of the campaign, more than thirteen thousand tons of cargo was airlifted to the troops in the field. Entire infantry battalions and artillery batteries were flown to crucial hotspots, and some 2,700 refugees were moved to safety. The CH-47 Chinook distinguished itself in a style that made Frank Piasecki proud during these massive movements over otherwise impassable terrain.

A number of hard facts came immediately to light. The enemy was re­sourceful, and its “bear-hug” or “belt-buckle to belt-buckle” style of close combat was difficult to counter from the air. As well supplied as the 1st Cav was for this one campaign, it was painfully evident that there were far too few resources to conduct the war throughout Vietnam in the same way. Offsetting this was the general consensus that the helicopters were providing air mobility at a previously undreamed of level of skill. Very few deficiencies in air mobility were mentioned in after-action reports. Many of the reports fervently praised the Iroquois pilots and crews, who ignored intense enemy fire to land or pick up troops. Four helicopters were lost, but three were recovered, two of them flown out beneath CH-47 Chinooks. This was an encouraging if perhaps misleading portent for the future.

Lessons abounded. The vertical lift and descent capability of helicop­ters was foiled by the jungle canopy. The 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne de­veloped techniques in which engineer LZ teams rappelled into the jungle, with their gear and armament following them down. The big chainsaws used to fell trees were often choked by the dense growth of vines. Clear­ing a landing pad was hard, backbreaking work. (Later, thermo-baric “Daisy Cutter” bombs were sometimes used for this purpose.) When the situation did not allow time to create a clearing, it was virtually impos­sible to evacuate wounded personnel. The available winch systems were inadequate for lifting stretchers, so new equipment had to be invented, produced, and installed.

As 1966 loomed, the faulty planning of the past became evident. There were too few helicopters available and too few pilots to fly them. As usual, the slack was taken up by the force in place and resulted in both crews and helicopters being vastly and unfairly overworked. This is exactly the same condition in which the armed forces of the United States have been since 2000, in which they find themselves today, and which they will experience for the next decade at a minimum.

Then, as now, the dearth of helicopters and crews meant that opera­tions had to be structured around the forces that were available rather than the enemy threat. This meant not only more exposure to risk but, worse, forfeiting a sometimes irrecoverable initiative to the enemy.

While the 1st Cav had a just sufficient number of organic aircraft, a de­cision was made to divide and prorate the remaining available resources. This meant that the ARVN divisions, the single division from the Republic of Korea, the U.S. Army’s 1st Division, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, and the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division were provided with only one assault helicopter company per brigade in the II, III, and IV Corps Tactical Zones. The Marines provided aviation support in the I Corps Tactical Zone. This paucity of equipment was exacerbated by the variety of terrain and vegetation that was encountered by individual army units. It was found, for example, that the CH-21s were better employed in the flat Mekong Delta region than in the highlands. Operations in these vastly different areas also resulted in marked differences in the command and control proce­dures that were being improvised as the war progressed. All of this pointed toward the dreaded concept of “centralization,” which went against the desire to provide control at the lowest possible level of command. With centralization came the specter of a new “Army Air Corps,” with all the complications this would bring within the Army itself and most certainly within the United States Air Force.

Despite these misgivings, the 1st Aviation Brigade was formed on March 1, 1966, with 11,000 officers and men and 850 aircraft. It was the first aviation brigade in Army history and consisted of eight battalions in the 12th and 17th groups. The forty-three companies of the Brigade were located from Hue in the North to Soc Trang in the South.

A veteran of the 11th Air Assault Division (Test) planning and testing, Brig. Gen. George P. Seneff was named commander. He managed to finesse all of the inherent problems by seeing that his organization coordinated and trained the non-organic Army aviation elements while ensuring that the ground commander retained operational control of the available air­power. Under Seneff and his successors, the 1st Aviation Brigade would grow into the Army’s largest aviation unit and would successfully engage the enemy all over South Vietnam. It would work in concert with the 1st Cav, and later the 101st Airborne Division (Mobile), for the rest of the war.

Seneff’s mode of operation proved to be a brilliant solution to what might have been a crippling dilemma. It also set the stage for one of the most cru­cial agreements ever reached by the Army and the Air Force, one that would have a major impact on the helicopter’s role in changing modern warfare.

This April 6, 1966, agreement, between USAF chief of staff Gen. John P. McConnell and Army chief of staff Gen. Harold K. Johnson, in effect eliminated the Army’s interest in heavier fixed-wing aircraft but established its rights to develop a vastly expanded capability in rotary-wing aircraft. The Air Force agreed to relinquish all claims on rotary-wing air­craft designed for intra-theater movement, fire support, supply, and re­supply of Army forces. This gave a virtual carte blanche for backers of Army vertical-lift capabilities. (The Air Force did retain its right to use helicopters in the critically important CSAR role.) The USAF agreed to supply the Army’s needs for transport in fixed-wing aircraft such as the de Havilland Buffalo and Caribou and Fairchild C-123.

By the end of 1966, the Army had learned much from its many en­gagements. First of all, it was evident that a static defense, in the style of the French quadrillage efforts in Algeria, had no application in Vietnam. Even though American strength had risen to nearly four hundred thou­sand, there was no way to occupy the territory of South Vietnam. The development of helicopter air-assault methods provided the American forces with a successful means of making a surprise attack en masse. In some respects this was frustrating, for attacks had to be repeated in areas where the enemy had been defeated several times before, due to the fact that the helicopter troops did not occupy the battlefield after the battle. On the other hand, the initiative remained for the most part in the hands of the American and South Vietnamese forces.

Since World War I, American forces have always been known for their reliance on excellent artillery fire, delivered accurately and in volume. Helicopters soon provided a means of getting large-caliber (first 105-mm and then 155-mm) artillery pieces into positions in the field to support ground operations. These were supplemented by a totally unexpected de­velopment, the formation of aerial artillery battalions. These were made up of thirty-six Iroquois helicopters armed with 2.75-inch aerial rockets. The Hueys were much easier to keep supplied with ammunition—they could fly to base and pick up their own. The artillery in the field, howev­er, was limited to the ammunition that could be flown in by helicopters.


Excerpted from How the Helicopter Changed Modern Warfare by Walter J. Boyne.

© Walter J. Boyne.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Pelican Publishing Company, Inc.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher.

WALTER J. BOYNE was inducted into the American Combat Airman Hall of Fame in 2011 and into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2007, in recognition of his many contributions to air and space.

A career Air Force officer, Boyne retired in 1974, as a Colonel with 5,000 hours flying time in everything from the T-6 to the B-1B.

He joined the National Air & Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution after his retirement from the Air Force, and became acting director in 1981 and director in 1983.

Upon his retirement from the National Air & Space Museum in 1986, he began a third career of writing and consulting.

Now the author of over 50 books, he is among the few to have had best sellers on the fiction and the non-fiction list of the New York Times.

His most popular books include: Beyond the Wild Blue: A History of the U.S. Air Force, 1947–1997, The Wild Blue: The Novel of the U.S. Air Force, Trophy for Eagles, Weapons of Desert Storm, The Smithsonian Book of Flight, The Leading Edge and Power Behind the Wheel.

Beyond the Wild Blue has been made into a five part video series of the same name for the History Channel. A previous work Clash of Wings: World War II in the Air has been made into a thirteen-part video series appearing on PBS, Speedvision and Wingspan.

His fourth career, in television, began with his co-founding the cable television channel “Wingspan: The Air and Space Channel, which was purchased by the Discovery Channel.

He is the president of Walter J. Boyne & Associates and the chairman of the National Aeronautic Association, the oldest and most prestigious aviation group in the United States. Consulting clients include museums as well as aviation, publishing and television companies.

A honor graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, with a BSBA, he graduated magna cum laude from the University of Pittsburgh with an MBA. He received an honorary Doctorate of Aeronautical Science from Salem University in West Virginia.

For more information about Mr. Boyne and his books and other projects, please visit:

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