Just in case I was under the impression that every historical operation that is explicitly simulated in Vietnam Combat Operations necessarily ends in its historical outcome, here comes Operation Utah.
Recall that Vietnam Combat Operations is a detailed simulation of the entire Vietnam ground war using four-day turns. The scenario is played by following along with a document that narrates the course of the war and, in particular, highlights operations that are modeled in the scenario. Although the player is free to conduct the war as he sees fit, points are awarded for completing historical operations in a historically appropriate way.
In this case, however, I air lifted the Marines to the various villages of Chau Nhai, but made no contact with any Viet Cong or North Vietnamese formations. I did make a bit of blunder in the execution. I moved part of the Marine Task Force assigned to Utah into Chau Nhai a few days early. It could be that I suppressed a trigger that would have put the enemy in my path, had I waited. Or it could be that I simply did not find the enemy unit, which was an outcome for many Vietnam operations.
Unable to visualize this operation in The Operational Art of War, I instead went to a book to get my context for this operation. For me, this book is a new one. The Marines published books that roughly parallel the series that I’ve been reading from the Army, and they did it almost two decades earlier. The corresponding book to Stemming the Tide is U.S. Marines in Vietnam: An Expanding War: 1966 by Jack Shulimson. Similar in scope and size to its Army counterpart, it also follows much the same style. Or, should we say, the Army versions follow the style of the earlier Marine versions. I did not read the whole book, only flipped to the chapter on Operation Utah, so I’ll refrain from general commentary.
Perhaps because it is 18 years older, An Expanding War is not published electronically on a government website. Instead, I found it on Archive.org. Although it is much larger is file size, I find the PDF the preferred version to read it in. The eBooks created by scanning an original printed copy and then the text is converted automatically. That means there are a lot of mistakes in that image-to-text translation. In the PDF, the original scanned image is still there, so even when the computer sees gibberish, you don’t. If you read directly from an ebook format, the original images are gone and the mistakes become a distraction.
The Operation Utah battle was a significant encounter, even though the bulk of the fighting lasted only two days. Casualties on the U.S. side approached 100 dead (98 plus 278 wounded), plus another 30 from the South Vietnamese (in addition to 120 wounded). The insurgents suffered at least 600 killed. When the Marines entered the battlefield, they found themselves debarking in a heavily defended landing zone. Many aircraft were damaged, including both the transport helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters flying close air support. Being a joint operation with the ARVN, a large chunk of the Marine’s difficulty came from maneuvering to support their allies.
Squad Battles: Vietnam takes on this operation with its scenario, The Battle at Chau Nhai. The scenario narrows down on a particular subset of the fighting, taking place a few hours after the landings. Difficulties with the insertion aside, the Marines had encountered only light resistance when they were instructed to maneuver into a position to support a stalled ARVN unit. A few hundred meters along their new path, they were hit from prepared positions at close range.
An Expanding War explains how, despite supporting artillery and air being at the ready, the attack came from too close for support to be deployed. This jives with the design of the Squad Battles scenario which, like many in the package, lack any off-board support. In this case, at least, that seems warranted. The scenario design can also be forgiven for leaving off the ARVN units, which put the Marine’s into jeopardy by refusing to provide the support for which they were positioned. If these additional units and their positions weren’t a factor in the fight, leaving them off the map makes no difference. I am again a little baffled by the decision to exclude the mortar support integral to a Marine unit of this size. Mortars were present and were a factor in this battle.
This scenario is made interesting due to the fact it is a combination of some offense and some defense, with a swapping of roles through the course of the game. While I had read the scenario description, I hadn’t tried to “read into” the scenario description. It is often hard to tell, in advance, how much of a scenario’s notes are simply putting the on-screen fight (in the is case, less than two hours in a multi-day fight) into the larger context, or preparing you for the nature of the fighting you will face with clues about the setup parameters. In this case, it actually improved the experience because I was somewhat surprised by what, after all, was part of the historical course of this battle. Essentially, I was barrelling ahead in full attack-mode when the surprise appearance of extra enemy forced me back on the defensive.
This scenario ended with a favorable score for me, although it felt more like a draw. In the timeline of the actual fighting, the end of the scenario corresponds to a point where the Marine commanders decided to call in close air and artillery support and use it to withdraw to defensive positions. The heavy fighting would continue through the night and another day before the enemy broke off the engagement and withdrew from the field.