The U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam
In the early 1960s, the U.S. Army developed an airmobile concept of counterinsurgency that appeared quite promising. Helicopters would be employed in an aerial cavalry that swooped down from the skies, achieving the classic effects of speed, surprise and shock, with immensely greater firepower than cavalry horsemen ever had and with mobility substantially improved over the wheeled and tracked vehicles of a mechanized infantry division.
The cavalry designation was deemed appropriate for airmobile units, as they emulated the dragoon class of mounted infantry employed during the 19th century, advancing by helicopter then engaging the enemy in ground combat.
Search and Destroy
In the early years of America's involvement in Vietnam, joint forces commander General William Westmoreland chose a search and destroy strategy of attrition warfare in South Vietnam. Forbidden from sending ground troops to attack North Vietnamese concentrations and supply routes in Laos, Cambodia and in North Vietnam itself, Westmoreland aimed to grind down the People's Army of Vietnam by inflicting large losses in personnel and materiel, bringing them to the point of collapse.
Search and destroy involved dispatching ground forces to hostile territory where they would search out the enemy, destroy them, then immediately withdraw. This concept, thought to be ideally suited to counter-guerrilla operations in a low-mobility environment like the jungles of Vietnam, was made practicable by development of the military utility helicopter and implemented by the creation of a new type of military organization: An air cavalry.
The 1st Cavalry Division at An Khe Army Airfield
Established in 1921, the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division had been converted during the Pacific War to infantry formations. In the early 1960s, in Fort Benning, Georgia, they were again transformed, this time into a completely new type of organization called an air assault division and designated the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile).
In 1965 they began deploying to Camp Radcliff, a base camp near the town of An Khe in Vietnam's Central Highlands region built expressly to meet their unique requirements. It was the largest helicopter base in the world at the time, capable of accommodating the 1st Cavalry Division's 400+ helicopters and featuring an airfield capable of landing C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. It set many precedents as an airmobile combat base of operations.
An Khe was located on Route 19, the main highway connecting the port facilities at Qui Nhon, in the coastal population center, with Pleiku in the Central Highlands. Pleiku served as the primary Central Highlands terminus for the military supply logistics corridor extending westwards from Qui Nhon.
The 1st Cavalry Division was given a vast tactical area of responsibility (TAOR), ranging from the South China Sea to the Cambodian border, and approximately 150 miles from north to south. Only certain parts of the coastal plain and nearby valleys were built up and populated, while the interior of the TAOR was sparsely settled. Its highlands and mountains were thickly covered with jungle and forests. Into this wild, rugged environment, wholly favorable to a wily enemy skilled in guerrilla warfare, the sky cavalry launched its first air assaults in September and October of 1965.
What an Airmobile Assault was like for a Huey Pilot
As described by the author of Chickenhawk, a U.S. Army airmobile assault in Vietnam was quite a spectacle. Upon the 1st Cavalry Division's arrival at Camp Radcliff, the men had cut back foliage covering a huge area down to ground level, by-hand, and called it "the golfcourse". On a big assault mission, 80 or even 100 helicopters might be employed. Either the ground infantry troops would assemble in a different location and Huey pilots would fly to pick them up, or the "grunts" would just line up on the golf course, where 80 ships were spread out, waiting. Each helicopter was identified by a color and a "chalk number", which was a number written with a piece of chalk on the side of each helicopter. The lead ship took off, others followed, and before long the entire sky was filled with helicopters. After climbing to a cruise altitude of 2,000 or 2,500 feet, the airborne armada would swarm over towards the objective. Space had to be maintained between each ship and the one that followed, because time was needed for each helicopters to set down in the landing zone (LZ), which might only be large enough to hold 8 or 10 Hueys at a time. At the LZ, a continuous stream of helicopters would be landing and taking off. Back in the line, a couple of miles from the LZ, the pilot might see U.S. Air Force planes suppressing enemy fire in the surrounding area, or he might look aside and see Army helicopter gunship escorts. It could all seem like a big movie.
The line of helicopters would continue to stair-step from the pilot's location down to the ground. Way up ahead, gun fire and bombs were going off, tracers were flaming out, and for a minute one could forget that he was actually going into the midst of it. They would continue to approach — the Huey pilots instructing their gunners to aim for the tree line, in case they weren't already aware of that. Soon enough, the two M-60D machine guns on every Slick (troop-carrying helicopters) were going off, to cover soldiers and choppers in the landing zone and to shoot enemy soldiers waiting in ambush. Gunships coming in at their sides opened fire in order to protect the troop transport helicopter's flanks and to clear the area before them. The pilots landed, the ground troops on board started to unload and pilots would be calling out “taking hits” on their radios, so that others would know which direction fire was coming from. They waited until everyone had gotten out, then edgily stood by for that one order in the midst of a stream of incoming orders, that finally told them to take off. Eventually they got the “go”, and while everybody was taking off the next flights would be coming in right behind them, preparing to land in the same place. The airborne assault would continue and eventually the area would be filled with American troops and the enemy would be overwhelmed. The final detail explains how all this was intended to work, in theory.