IV. MINE WARFARE IN VIETNAM
Assumed you've heard what happened to me...To make matters short, I was walking point for my platoon on the 6th of August somewhere around 10 in the morning. I hit a booby trap. It was a pressure release type mine, therefore it was easily camouflaged and rough to spot. I lost most of my left leg and my left hand... I'll write when I have the chance.
-Twenty-year-old Gordon S. Wise of Minneapolis, MN, who dictated this last letter to his family from his hospital bed in Chu Lai, Vietnam, August 11, 1970. He died two days later.27
The first U.S. soldier to die in battle in Vietnam was killed by an antipersonnel mine.28 A mine awareness pamphlet distributed by the Army reminded its readers: "Mines and booby traps have been employed so often and effectively by the Viet Cong that the war has often been referred to as the `War of Mines and Booby Traps.'"29 Mines had a major influence in the way the ground war was fought, but conditions were very different from those encountered in Korea. Noted an Army official in 1967: "The biggest problem in fighting the enemy in Vietnam is finding him in order to fight him."30
In a July 1969 letter to the Army's Chief of Research and Development, the Deputy Commanding General in Vietnam summed up the scale of the problem facing his troops: "Our experience in Vietnam with mines and booby traps has not been pleasant. Mining incidents... are a major source of personnel casualties. The hardware available to detect mines or booby traps has been of limited value. Mine detectors are unacceptably slow or practically useless particularly when operating against non-metallic mines."31
The letter continued: "The increasing use of non-metallic mines, both home-made and factory produced items...has essentially thrown us back upon visual means as the primary mode of detection. The lessons we have learned here in Vietnam should not be interpreted as an isolated problem peculiar to this war only," and Vietnamese use of mines has "outstripped the capability of our counter systems to detect and destroy them. Vietnam has seen the emergence of mines as a major weapons system, used on a scale, relatively speaking, never before encountered."
The Vietnam volumes of Landmine and Countermine Warfare reveal that the National Liberation Front (N.L.F.) was not reliant on Hanoi, Moscow or Beijing to supply it with antipersonnel mines. If anything, the Department of Defense knew that N.L.F. supply lines were modest and unsophisticated.32 In fact, as the Pentagon knew for years, the enemy depended on U.S. mines to inflict heavy damage against U.S. troops and their equipment. By 1969 the Pentagon had conceded, at least internally, that the mine problem stemmed from the U.S. military's own unstable supply lines: "The enemy uses a very limited number of factory produced Soviet and Chinese Communist mines. The majority are fabricated locally in village or district munition factories from U.S. duds and refuse. Ninety percent of all mine and booby trap components are U.S. origin [emphasis added]."33
As in Korea, the Pentagon's decision to flood a war zone with antipersonnel mines led to a devastating "blow-back" effect that cost many U.S. lives. Landmines caused thirty-three percent of all U.S. casualties in Vietnam; twenty-eight percent of U.S. deaths were officially attributed to mines.34 Individual units in the field suffered even higher percentage losses. The First Marine Division reported that during the last half of 1968, "57 percent of all casualties were from mines and booby-traps with a trend toward more injuries sustained by those men newly arrived in country."35 One unidentified division reported that in one clash, 89.6 percent of its casualties were caused by mines and booby traps.36
During 1967 mines and booby traps caused 4,300 U.S. casualties. The following year the casualty figure ratcheted up to 5,800.37 By 1969 the Chief of the U.S. Mine Warfare Center conceded that official casualty figures were almost certainly too conservative: "We suspect that the figures attributed to mines are low. It is probable that the classification `fragmentation casualties,' which we have not counted, contains the results of many mines and booby traps incidents. Several divisions have reported, for example, that about half of their hostile casualties are inflicted by mines and booby traps."38
Douglas Kinnard, then commanding general of Second Field Force Artillery, had two tours of duty in Vietnam. He recalls that in late summer 1969 the New Hampshire National Guard Battalion lost five men from thetown of Manchester in a mine blast on their last day of active duty. The mine, says Kinnard, was U.S.-made but relaid by the enemy: "You can imagine the effect on the unit and the people of New Hampshire."39
In one of the most audacious examples of minefield stripping recorded in Vietnam, rebels lifted 10,000 of 30,000 M-16 antipersonnel mines laid to form a protective minefield barrier in Phuoc Tuy Province. The mines were later used against the Australian troops who had laid them.40 Even mines fitted with anti-handling devices were lifted for later use against U.S. troops.41
U.S. commanders constantly had to reassure their troops that antipersonnel mines, when properly employed, could be an asset in the field.42 But faced with the reality that everything from dead bodies to their own discarded ration containers might be mined,43 some U.S. troops even refused to use command detonated Claymore mines.44 Their fears were apparently well-grounded. In December 1969 the Mine Warfare Center warned that "a review of casualty reports reveals an alarming number of incidents involving U.S. troops being injured by the untimely detonations of M18A1 Claymores or the blasting caps. An increased emphasis by small unit leaders on proper testing and handling procedures is needed to reduce unnecessary deaths and injuries."45
Several weeks before he stepped on an antipersonnel mine in Vietnam, Private Gordon S. Wise described the terror of fighting in mine-infested terrain in a letter to his family: "[Mines] are a horrible, senseless device that do nothing more than slow us down. We'd rather take on a thousand [enemy] in a firefight than have to walk through a known minefield."46 Wise died from mine injuries received in a blast on August 11, 1970.
"Minefields should only be planted after careful consideration. They often do more damage to friends than to enemies," cautioned Colonel Sidney Berry, commanding officer of a brigade of the 4th Infantry Division.47 "The Division does not normally employ any type of mine. Mines constitute an obstacle and to be effective must be covered by fire and/or observation. Without cover, innocent civilians may be injured in minefields and an uncovered minefield will provide the enemy a source of mine supply. Mine warfare as envisioned in FM 20-32, Land Mine Warfare, is directed toward the conventional war and is not meant for the mobile, fast changing situations encountered by the 4th Infantry Division in the Central Highlands."48
As in Korea, frustrated engineers experimented with a variety of mine clearance techniques, even copying the Korean examples of using tanks and napalm to explode mines.49 And as in Korea, war conditions encouraged the manufacture of new types of antipersonnel mines, specifically a `flame mine', and the M23 chemical mine, an antipersonnel mine that dispersed a nerve agent. Although the EARI did not cite specific instances where chemical mines were used in Vietnam, it is important to note what the Department of the Army's Field Manual 20-32 said on the subject of nuisance minefields in that conflict: "All types of antitank and antipersonnel mines are used where appropriate, and when authorized, chemical mines may be laid."50
The 18th Engineer Brigade acknowledged in January 1970 that: "The enemy deploys such a large variety of mines with such a variety of techniques that it is almost impossible to reach any worthwhile conclusion. An intensive study of local enemy techniques could be helpful but not significant to the point where it would reduce man-power requirements presently spent on mine-sweeping or radically improve the present mine detection rate."5127 Gordon S. Wise, Letters From Vietnam (Minneapolis: Mr. and Mrs. G.V.Wise, 1971), p. 125. 28 Engineer School, Viet Cong Mine Warfare (Fort Belvoir: undated), p. 1. Republished in Smith, Landmines/Vietnam, p. F-7. 29 Ibid. 30 U.S. Army, 1/101 Airborne Brigade, APO, Combat Operations After Action Report, Operation Wheeler, September 11-November 25, 1967 (San Francisco: 1967), p. 13. 31 Letter from Deputy Commanding General, Vietnam, to the Chief of Research and Development, Department of the Army, July 29, 1969, as republished by Smith in Landmines/Vietnam, p. 36. Two years earlier the 2/34 Armor Battalion had reported: "The VC [Viet Cong] are capable of interdicting any route, regardless of size, by the use of mines. They are also capable of mining jungle areas which they desire to protect." U.S. Army, 2/34 Armor Battalion, Operational Report: Lessons Learned For Quarterly Period Ending January 31, 1967, San Francisco, 1967, p. 12. 32 "The enemy supply system is at best, poor, and he has many shortages. Therefore he is a scavenger and is prone to police-up everything left behind by the U.S. soldier. Just the opposite is true of the U.S. soldier who seldom wants for supplies. This unit has moved into areas vacated by other units and found Claymores, 105 mm rounds, M-79 rounds and thousands of rounds of small arms ammo plus assorted types of other equipment." U.S. Army, 3/25 Infantry Brigade Task Force, Operational Report: Lessons Learned, Quarterly Period Ending April 30, 1967 (San Francisco: 1967), p. 27. 33 H.E. Dickenson, Chief of Staff, First Marine Division (Rein), Division Order P3820.2A, Standard Operating Procedures for the First Marine Division: Countermeasures Against Mines and Booby-Traps (San Francisco: Department of the Army Office, Chief of Engineers, February 1, 1969), p. 1-1, as republished in Smith, Landmines/Vietnam (1972), p. H-39. 34 Harry N. Hambric and William C. Schneck, The Antipersonnel Mine Threat: A Historical Perspective, Symposium on Technology and the Mine Problem, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA, November 18-22, 1996, p. 15. 35 Dickenson, 1969, p. 1-1. 36 Department of the Army, Vietnam, Battlefield Reports: A Summary of Lessons Learned, Appendix I, vol. 2 (San Francisco: 1966), p. 181. 37 Smith, Landmines/Vietnam (1972), p. 1. 38 Ibid., p. 28. 39 Letter from Douglas Kinnard, Brigadier General (Ret.), former commanding general of Second Field Force Artillery, Vietnam, 1969, to Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, May 30, 1997. 40 Smith, Landmines/Vietnam, p. 22. 41 The August 1969 edition of Mine Warfare Notes carried a detailed account of what a captured North Vietnamese fighter told his interrogators about his experience of entering a U.S.-laid minefield of M-16 antipersonnel mines. The mines had been fitted with anti-handling M5 "mousetrap" firing devices: " I would approach the mine area on my hands and knees, palms down, fingers spread, and thumbs touching. Then I would feel carefully through the grass for the prongs of the firing device. When I located one, I dug around the mine and slipped a flat stick under the mine and on top of the `mousetrap'. Holding the lid of the `mousetrap' down, I removed the M-16, inserted a safety wire in the `mousetrap', then placed a safety wire in the M-16." The Mine Warfare Center reported that "these recovery procedures provided the enemy with hundreds of mines." U.S. Mine Warfare Center, U.S. A.R.V., Mine Warfare Notes, vol. 1, No. 7 (August 1969), p. 3. 42 In one instance mine warfare was compared by the Army to "vehicular safety. It requires continuing emphasis to insure individual awareness, alertness, mature judgement, and use of common sense." U.S. Mine Warfare Center, USAECV(P), Mine Warfare Notes, vol. 2, no. 2 (February 1970), p. 3. 43 U.S. Army, 5/1 Special Forces (Airborne), Operational Report: Lessons Learned For Quarterly Period Ending January 31, 1968 (San Francisco: 1968), p. 71. 44 "This unit has found that individuals are afraid to detonate Claymores. They know how to set them up but they are hesitant about them because of numerous accidents that have been reported about personnel who have detonated Claymores that have been turned around by the Viet Cong, resulting in serious injuries to the friendly forces." U.S. Army, 27th Engineer Battalion (Combat), Operational Report: Lessons Learned For Quarterly Period Ending October 31, 1967 (San Francisco: 1967), p. 22. 45 Mine Warfare Center ASARV 96375, Mine Warfare Notes, vol. I, no. 2 (December 1969), published in Smith, Landmines/Vietnam, p. G-35. 46 Wise, p. 114. 47 Col. Sidney Berry, Observations of a Brigade Commander, Lessons Learned Report 1966-67, (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Adjutant General, 1967), published in Smith, Landmines/Vietnam, p. 54. 48 Ibid. 49 Said Col. Berry: "The Armor School probably disapproves of using tanks in this manner, but tanks and their crews survive mine explosions far better than bulldozers and their operators." Ibid., p. 50. 50 Department of the Army, Field Manual 20-32: Landmine Warfare (Washington, D.C.: August 12, 1966), pp. 2-8. 51 Minesweep Operation SOP, Appendix 3, U.S.A.R.V. Mine Warfare Center, November 1970.