Today, we take three or four different views of the 1st Cavalry operation in Binh Dinh that took place at the outset of 1966. This province was strategically important to the U.S. operations in Vietnam and yet, at the same time, a stronghold of communist support. Encamped somewhere in Binh Dinh was a North Vietnamese division commanding two NVA regiments and a Viet Cong regiment. The U.S. high command made uprooting this enemy a priority and the task fell, again, to the 1st Cavalry.
There were actually two operations, conducted in concert, which were slated to target the insurgents in this area. Masher was the designation given to the 1st Cavalry operation in the Bon Song valley but, just to the north, the U.S. Marines were conducting Operation Double Eagle.
Once again, Vietnam Combat Operations provides an organized context for these operations within the wider war. Note that the “1965” part of the scenario title has been dropped as Vietnam Combat Operations, Volume 3 extends through the end of 1965 and into 1966. As before, it is a very different scenario experience. To play, I carefully follow along with the instructions on my tablet, meticulously completing each turn. I’m struck, as before, that the results of the game really do match the narrative I’m reading in Combat Operations: Stemming the Tide. This really shouldn’t be a complete surprise, as the Vietnam Combat Operations documents cite Stemming the Tide as a source.
It does say something for the skill of the scenario designer that the game engine is playing along properly. Note that in the first screenshot, I’ve located one of the NVA regiments near the coast in the northern part of the province, similarly to how the historic operation progressed. More impressively, the fighting moved south, between the first and second screenshots, pretty much on the historic timetable. In this grand operational scenario, I’m in the right place at the right time.
I also continue to be pleased with the way combat happens when and where it is supposed to but doesn’t happen where it shouldn’t which, as I’ve said before, seems very difficult to engineer in a TOAW scenario. For the first time for me as I play this series, the pace is picking up. While Operation Masher (by now, it was relabeled Operation White Wing as Johnson found terms like “Masher” a little too violent and bad for public relations) is the largest engagement across the entire map, I have several more smaller engagements, involving both U.S. and South Vietnamese -only forces. I’ve wound up stretching the limits of my air support to cover all the fights adequately.
The original scenario set for The Operational Art of War also had a scenario for Operation Masher/White Wing called Bong Son 1966. The scenario name is a reference to the provincial capitol, which was centrally located relative to the actions in this operation. The “Battle of Bong Son” is also used as a descriptor for the first phase of the campaign which included the first insertion points and the initial fighting for the 1st Cavalry, first near the city and then around the “Bong Son Plain” to its north.
The scale of this scenario is similar to the early 1st Cavalry foray in Ia Drang. Somehow, though, it captures the feel of the operation much better (again, using Stemming the Tide to set expectations) than the earlier scenario did. Significantly, the setup of the scenario means that I follow a similar path through the province as the actual fighting did, moving from North to South as the turns go by. There is significantly less of the feeling that the historical order of battle is simply scattered across the map, leading to an entirely ahistorical set of fights.
But it still isn’t perfect. Or, to put it another way, it doesn’t live up to the feeling of Vietnam Combat Operations, Volume 3. Most significantly, the enemy is all over and ubiquitous. The scenario introduction explains how the ARVN forces were given the task of holding open the coast, freeing up the US forces to hunt for communist forces inland. Very quickly, however, my ARVN units were under threat in the southern part of the map while my 1st Cavalry forces were getting pinned down in the north. It seems I had chosen my landing spots a little too far apart and the enemy was threatening to smash me, piecemeal. You can kind of see this in the above screenshot. Sort of. If you know what you are looking for.
The real operation was characterized by an inability of the US to find the communists. There were many instances where the US was sure they had nailed down the location of at least one of the targeted regiments. Airmobile forces were inserted to find and fight the enemy while specifically trying to prevent him from slipping away from battle. Yet time and time again the US forces would come up empty handed. To this day it isn’t known for sure, in many cases, whether the insurgents slipped through the holes in the 1st Cavalry’s blocking force or whether the intelligence on their whereabouts was bad from the get-go. What we do know, however, is if the enemy found himself at an advantage, he would fight.
With this context, Vietnam Combat Operations, Volume 3, captures it all much better as, most of the time, you’re staring at an empty map and wondering where the enemy is. In Bong Son 1966, the enemy seems to be everywhere and often in superior numbers to your own. While I think it is less accurate, it does capture a certain feel of the Vietnam War. As a US commander, it must have seemed like if you made even a small slip-up and left a company somewhere unsupported, the NVA or VC were bound to appear and extract payment for your oversight.
There is another characteristic of the TOAW system that, although I’ve complained about it before, seems to work here. The ideal operation would have the US move into an area and try to fix the enemy position and destroy it. When the US were unable to completely blocked all the retreat routes out of the battle area, the communists seemed to inevitably find a way to escape the trap. In this, the TOAW mechanic, which often requires that all six hexes surrounding a unit be occupied in order to win a battle decisively, seems to capture the necessity, in Vietnam’s operations, to thoroughly engulf the enemy before an attack.
In terms of capturing the right feeling, it works better than I expected it would have.
The Bong Son 1966 scenario also provides another segue, allowing us to drop down one more level of detail into Squad Battles: Tour of Duty‘s depiction of this operation.
The Squad Battles scenario, called The Battle at Kim Son, is configured to take place on February 16th. The scenario notes don’t make it clear whether this is to recreate an actual portion of the battle from detailed reports or just be representative of the type of encounters that were occurring in this time and place. Trying to match up with the narrative in Stemming the Tide, it is possible that this reproduces an encounter that 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry had while trying to set up blocking positions during a sweep of an area called the “Iron Triangle.” Certainly this designation is to be confused, by future generations, with the other Iron Triangle, north and west of Saigon. But in this “Iron Triangle” battle, a company of the 2/5 encountered NVA forces entrenched on high ground while attempting to move into their assigned position.
Once again, this scenario seems to be lacking the available artillery support that proved decisive in so many fights. At least, this time, you have access to the U.S. command’s mortar support. The battle also has a large enough force and the tactical decisions that I noted are needed to make these scenarios work.
I didn’t do all that well in my play-through, getting my effort scored as a minor defeat. I did manage to take two out of three objectives (often enough for a win in Squad Battles) but I also took more losses than I inflicted. In a war where victory was determined by kill ratios, this is a significant failure. I think my biggest mistake is that I should have used smoke, from my mortars, to help close in on the enemy without taking losses. Alas, smoke it rarely (if ever) included as a mortar option in Squad Battles setups.
Part of me wouldn’t mind retrying the scenario with a better strategy in mind. However, I’d run into that problem with so many of these scenarios. A large part of the challenge is that I didn’t know what I was facing. Do I need to hold a force in reserve for defensive purposes? Where is the strongest portion of the enemy force? Having played once, I now know the answers and the joy of discovering that is lost. It also is much easier to win a scenario if you know where all the surprises are waiting.