This is the fifty-ninth 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.
In February of 1967, preparations began for what was to be one of the the largest operations of the Vietnam War, code-named Operation Junction City. The offensive targeted the communist stronghold referred to as “War Zone C” with a massive invasion intended to trap and destroy what was referred to as the “mini-Pentagon,” an informal term for the Central Executive Committee of the People’s Revolutionary Party. This was the administrative headquarters directing the anti-government forces in the South.
The operation has an unprecedented scale for this scenario series. In the weeks before Junction City is to take place, preparations such as this diversion, are among the player’s tasks.
In gaming terms, I had some high hopes for this operation. It is covered by scenarios in three (or four, depending on your counting method) games; Vietnam Combat Operations, Volume V in The Operational Art of War, a scenario in each version of Squad Battles, and a campaign scenario in Radio Commander. In some ways, it provides an unprecedented opportunity to compare different games and different scales while looking at a single battle. The key is the scale of the operation. Junction City itself lasted for 82 days and that can be pushed to over 100 if you include preparatory operations such as Operation Gadsden. The U.S. forces committed included much of the 1st Infantry and 25th Infantry Divisions, the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, and the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. This is potentially 30 turns in Vietnam Combat Operations with a maneuver area this actually meshes well with the TOAW mechanics.
Horseshoe? It is hard to separate hammer from anvil in this screenshot. In what is considered by some to be bad luck, the “horseshoe” faces downward.
As I’ve explained, the scenario manual instructs you which units were historically involved in the operation in question and directs you how to place them historically. Satisfactorily doing so will earn you victory points as well as help match your play with the built-in triggers. You are, of course, free to deviate from the historical path in whatever ways you see fit.
Operation Junction City consisted of a horseshoe-shaped static perimeter intended to isolate the area containing the mini-Pentagon and to prevent enemy from escaping the operational area. With the perimeter established, a massive mechanized force entered the open end of the horseshoe from the south, sweeping north. They would either engage the enemy forces and annihilate them or force them against the waiting forces of the prepared perimeter.
In the end, my massive operation netted little more than a captured supply base.
The problem was, the communists, perhaps alerted to their vulnerability by sources inside the South Vietnam government, were able to move their logistics center to Cambodia and avoid being trapped by the operation. What engagements there were resulted in lopsided American victories, but the large scale battle where the U.S. expected to have a clear advantage did not materialize. While casualty ratios (per U.S. estimates) were on the order of 9:1, that did mean a non-trivial loss approaching 300 American servicemen in addition to equipment losses. In this, the scenario accurately recreates the operation. Besides a few inconclusive (and obscured by the game’s fog of war) battles, my only result was the location and destruction of an enemy supply center.
A very nice array of assets. both armor an artillery.
Absent a major, defining battle, one probably can’t expect the tactical-level games to integrate in any way with the operational treatment. For the Squad Battles scenarios, there is really nothing about them that gives a uniquely “Junction City” feel to them. In fact, the first of the two fits in just as well with one of my previous articles as as it contributes to this topic.
March 20th, around about midnight, saw a VC assault on a Fire Support Base 20 near the village of Bàu Bàng. Such an assault was anticipated by the American command, due to its proximity to a known communist stronghold, and so forces (3rd Squadron) from the Fifth Cavalry Regiment were deployed to defend the artillery. This fight is sometimes designated as the Second Battle of Bàu Bàng, the first having been fought in November of 1965. When I played a (First) Battle of Bàu Bàng in Steel Panthers, I suspected that a research error had caused some M48 Pattons to incorrectly make it into the order of battle. It is this, the 1967 scenario where the defenders have a mix of M113s and M48s and the Squad Battles setup accurately provides them.
Now, for all my complaints about deviation from historical lethality, my results in this scenario were very much matched to the historical results. I wound up losing only one AFV (it happened to be the one highlighted in the above screenshot) whereas the U.S. lost two vehicles to enemy fire in the portion of the actual fight modeled* by the scenario. Although the ability to rapidly react and to establish and expand a perimeter was a key element in the U.S. victory, I mostly fought from fixed positions. In any case, the scenario gives the (American) player a nice mix of armor and artillery. It’s a slaughter, but that’s the reality. The real-world casualty ratio was pushing 100:1.
Another fire base defense scenario.
Move ahead a day, and we get to the next of the Squad Battles scenarios. This one was part of the Squad Battles: Vietnam package, as opposed to Squad Battles: Tour of Duty, but like the first it is a fire base defense scenario. In this case, the defenses are manned by dug-in infantry of the 4th Infantry Division. What’s special about this scenario is that it (as seen in the above screenshot) models the direct fire capability of the artillery batteries using flechette ammunition, also called “beehive” rounds due to the buzzing noise they produce on their way to their target. Direct fire from defending artillery was often a factor when defending a fire base and this scenario allows the player to experience this capability hands-on.
Cavalry riding to the rescue.
As with the previous day’s action, armor was a factor. The player is granted four tanks to rush toward the sound of the guns. Moving them at maximum speed, they can engage the enemy for the last few turns of the scenario. In my case, they may have contributed to the salvaging of one of the victory locations, although it is hard to tell. I also lost a tank to RPG fire during the advance, which is consistent with the historical results. It was a hard-fought battle, but it is an easy win in game terms.
Another Radio Commander intro sequence, in the voice of an embedded reporter, answers my question about Coleman’s rank. Is he a grunt?
On to my third tactical scenario, this one from Radio Commander. First off, the campaign sees fit to address some of my open issues from previous steps. The cinematic intros continue, this time via commentary from a civilian reporter. We’re now clear on Coleman’s educational background and rank. What I don’t understand is whether or not an officer, provided they lead troops in the field, would have qualified as a “grunt.” Was this how the term was applied 50+ years ago? Besides that, I finally have my company up to full strength. I’m in command of three platoons instead of the usual two.
Dropped behind enemy lines, my guys need to find and trap the guerrillas.
I can’t knowledgeably comment on the historicity of this scenario. The action is too small and, frankly, too uneventful to be notable. It is certainly possible that something very similar happened at this time and place, but to verify or disprove that would take more effort than I’m willing to put in. I strongly suspect, instead, that this is yet another example of making a scenario that encapsulates key points from the larger battle, but at a scale more appropriate for the game.
Operation Junction was the largest airborne operation in the Vietnam War. By Vietnam, the U.S was seeing the need for parachute drops being, well, dropped in favor of helicopter insertions. The drop of 845 paratroopers was only a small part of the overall operation, but a noteworthy part. In my (above) operational game, I missed my chance to use the 173rd in their paradrop role. As I was reading the instructions, I actually inserted the second battalion of the 503rd via helicopter before I realized they were supposed to use an air drop. I probably lost some mission points for this, but given that I had more than enough helicopter transport to go around, my way was likely more effective otherwise.
The Radio Commander scenario, Hammer and Anvil, has an early AM drop of your subordinate company. Once in position, they are to push the enemy toward waiting mechanized elements of the 196th Brigade. This small-scale drop takes place about a month after the historical airborne operation. My gut tells me there was nothing that actually corresponds to this configuration of forces.
Herding cats. Armed, communist cats.
That aside, the scenario is an interesting in terms of its different approach. In this go-around, the objective is not to engage and defeat the enemy, the trick is to force them to move in the direction that you want them to. In doing this, there are plenty of things that can go wrong. You can miss them entirely, as you pass by them in the jungle. They can slip around your flanks or through the holes in your forces, escaping out of the operational area. They can achieve sudden, local superiority and teach you a nasty lesson. In short, it reflects the experiences of America’s large-formation operations against the insurgency.
There also seems to be, tucked away, a scripted event meant to advance a story line about war crimes. I’ll avoid commenting too much… for now. I will say that fictional battlefield atrocities seems like a cheap way to make a point, particularly if it is untethered to reality either through actual events or at least statistical occurrence.
That bit aside, I’d say all four of these scenarios provide some useful insight into various aspects of this operation, even if none of them are quite the gaming challenge that one might be hoping for.
Return to the master post for more Vietnam War articles. The next article looks at a hypothetical as implemented in a user made scenario – with a twist.
*As is often the case, it is hard to pin down what segment of the battle, exactly, is represented by the scenario. The battle went on for something like 4-5 hours before massive air power drove off the VC. Despite the effectiveness of mechanized units against the assault, it is estimated that the bulk of the enemy losses were due to airstrikes.