This is the twenty-fifth in a series of posts on the Vietnam War. See here for the previous post in the series and here to go back to the master post. My series of posts about Operation Starlite starts off with a board game discussion, here.
Although I had made a note to myself to look up the Squad Battles: Vietnam scenario that took place during Operation Starlite, when it came time to do it, I forgot.
The scenario called The Battle at LZ Blue takes place during Operation Starlite and covers some of the worst fighting of the entire operation, near the Viet Cong entrenched positions on Hill 23. The Marine infantry company tasked to land at the southern-most landing zones (designated Red, White, and Blue) found that their landing zone was coming under fire, with enemies both to their front and their rear.
In contrast to the Steel Panthers map, this one seems to get the scales (time and distance) accurate, as well as the size of the units engaged. The scenario runs for about an hour and a half, starting with landings at LZ Blue. At the same time, not far to the east, a Marine infantry company, having landed at Green Beach, is accompanied by a mix of armored fighting vehicles. Objectives have been marked within their combined area of operation and the player is free to mix and match these forces so as to best take all the objectives within the allotted time.
Although this setup is much closer to begin historically accurate, the fighting is, nevertheless, compressed to fit into the available number of turns. The setup also encourages more coordination than, I think, could possibly have taken place during the actual battle.
As I try to compare the scope of the computer battle with the historical ebb and flow, I find that The Battle at LZ Blue has renamed all of the units. I think a big part of this is that Squad Battles has a policy of not using real names in their stock scenarios. It was felt that the possibility of Vietnam War veterans who might either a) come across their own names in a scenario or, perhaps worse, b) come across the name of a fallen friend in a scenario would be disrespectful and best avoided.
But Squad Battles goes a step farther. Despite the rather obvious connection between small unit actions and the forces they involved, the stock scenarios (mostly, always? I haven’t done a comprehensive check) rename the units themselves. In this case, the company tasked with securing Landing Zone Blue and then taking Nam Yen was Company H of 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, 3rd Marine Division. To their immediate east was the sector of Company I of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, who had made an amphibious landing. Despite the consecutive letters designating these two units, they hold very different places in the chain of command. It is true that as the first day of battle progressed, Company I mixed with armor from the landing and one platoon from Company H, owing to the difficulties they faced in their sector. This wasn’t, however, because they shared a common battalion commander.
So contrast the real situation for how it is set up in The Battle at LZ Blue. The order of battle employs two infantry companies, E and F, both of the 2nd Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment. Historically, the 14th was not even in Vietnam. Furthermore, placing all of the scenario’s infantry within the same battalion provides a coordination of commands (there is a Lieutenant Colonel represented in the game which is superior to all infantry units) that shouldn’t exist. One explanation may be the that “attaching” platoons outside their chains of command is not possible within the Squad Battles ruleset and this structure allows that fictional Lt. Col. to bridge the gap.
As Squad Battles scenarios go, this one is very big and very expansive. However, by allowing the mixing of several different units over fairly focused objectives in a short period of time, the resultant battle will necessarily be far less chaotic than the reality. The real Company H, upon landing, realized that it had unexpected enemy on its rear and launched its initial attack in the opposite direction from plan. By the time they began working towards their initial objective, they had already sustained casualties. Delays meant units weren’t where they were supposed to be and enemy units still occupied zones that should have been cleared.
Now, the fact that I can analyze what’s wrong with this scenario in such detail is itself a testimonial to how much more fidelity this has than the Steel Panthers version. When playing Steel Panthers, I lamented that there could have been battles, subsets of the operation, modeled correctly to scale. Instead, the game tried to shrink the entire battle into the engine’s parameters. Here we see an example of just what I was talking about. One of the more dramatic sections of the battlefield is isolated and modeled close to the correct scale. As before, we are mixing up something like six hours worth of fighting into a little more than an hour of game action, but that is probably necessary to provide a complete “story” with the scenario.
The result defies some Squad Battles‘ weaknesses. Being so much bigger than the typical fight, the player isn’t hemmed in to a single course of action. Particularly with helicopters and AmTracs at your disposal, you could probably hit all the objectives in almost any order you want. The lack of opponent AI is mitigated by the fact that they are placed in defensive positions to guard nearby victory locations. Little is required of them except that they shoot at you when you approach.
That said, in stark contrast to the battle portrayed, the scenario seems fairly easy to win. The real Company H fought well throughout the day but, in the end, returned to Landing Zone Blue without taking their objectives. This was no failure; their objectives were likely untenable given the unexpected location of enemy, particularly those on the wrong side of their landing location. Given this, how meaningful is The Battle at LZ Blue as a lesson about the actual battle? Or is this perhaps just a somewhat-more-accurate version of the Steel Panthers versions, giving the player a chance to mess around with a combination of helicopters and amphibious vehicles in a situation that resembles the reality?
I wrapped up my discussion of the Steel Panthers scenario with a thoughts on the artillery woes during the first day of Operation Starlite. I’ll do the same here. Notably lacking in Squad Battles: Vietnam is the massive artillery support which was available to Americans (in this and many of the other Squad Battles scenarios). The end of the fighting for Company H, indeed, involved the calling in of artillery and airstrikes onto the VC positions as the Americans withdrew. Yet in this scenario, there is no off-board artillery (or on-board, for that matter) and no air support. Again, it probably doesn’t pay to speculate too far on why the designer did not include it. The peculiarities of the artillery support that day may not have fit the model of artillery in Squad Battles. It may be that, having already made the scenario “winnable” by isolating the battlefield, throwing in huge amounts of artillery support would have been pointless. Whatever the case, I do feel that I’m missing out on one of the defining features of this fight.
All that said, I’ll give credit where credit is due. Squad Battles: Vietnam comes the closest to hitting Operation Starlite’s mark.