1st MIBARS In Vietnam!

The A Shau Valley

Photo: aerial view entering the A Shau Valley in 1967

Photo Credit: MIV

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil -- for I am the meanest son-of-a-bitch in the valley."

-- Popular Inscription for Engraving on  Zippo Cigarette Lighters In Vietnam, 1966-1967


The A Shau Valley:  A view entering the southernmost approach to the A Shau Valley of South Vietnam in late 1967.  The light areas in the lower center of the photograph mark the first glimpse of  disturbed earth due to artillery or bomb damage around military small unit operations sites, segments of the Ho Chi Minh trail network, or one of the valley's three abandoned U.S. Army Special Forces camps.  

Snippets of History From the World Wide Web . . .

In February 1966, forces of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) overran the A Shau Special Forces Camp which was located in the A Shau Valley, in the northwest corner of I Corps.  Camp A Shau, established in 1964, was one of three such camps in the valley. The other two – Ta Bat and A Loui – were abandoned before 1966.  Being located only two miles from the Laotian border, the Green Berets manning Camp A Shau were able to monitor NVA activity along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  The camp also lay along a favored NVA infiltration route to the cities of Hue and Da Nang. The valley itself was about six miles long and a mile wide.  The bordering hills reached some 1500 feet above the valley floor.  Pilots flying up the valley referred to it as "The Tube." Camps in the A Shau were reliant solely on support by air.  Material to build the camps had been carried in by US Air Force C-123 Provider twin-engine transports, an all purpose tactical cargo aircraft that often worked with the special forces.  Everything needed was flown in, including food and ammunition.  Due to surrounding mountains and low-lying clouds and fog, access to the valley by air could be difficult. When the camp fell, rescue helicopters were sent in to pick up the survivors air in between suppressive air strikes against the NVA attackers.  Once in possession of the A Shau, the NVA established a major logistical base and a holding area for forces infiltrating eastward.

. . . and Those Who Flew There

"There was a mayday call from an F-4, call sign Gunfighter 42.  The lead jet -- Gunfighter 41, with two pilots on board -- had been shot down in the A Shau Valley, a narrow, twenty-five-mile strip of terrain that was a strategic focal point of the war for the Trail.  The valley straddled the border between South Vietnam and Laos just south of Khe Sanh and was a key arm of the Trail network.  A major NVA staging post known as Base Area 611 sat at the north end of the valley, which had made it a major battleground from the earliest days of the war."

Rick Newman and Don Shepperd, Bury Us Upside Down: The Misty Pilots and the Secret Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail, 2007, Presidio Press

"B" Detachment photo-observers flew the valley numerous times, generally as part of a two-ship formation.  The low ship, flying at 3000 feet, carried the photo-observer.  The high ship flew behind and above at 5000 feet.  Although the NVA was believed to have 37-mm antiaircraft guns concealed on both sides of the valley that could have made short work of the low ship, it generally did not fire.  Firing would have revealed their presence, exposed their positions and brought down an air strike directed by the high ship -- a large price to pay for a minor target like an 0-1.

"B" Detachment -- Working In the A Shau Valley

Photo: aerial view of the floor of the A Shau Valley showing portions of the Ho Chi Minh Trail network and bomb craters

Photo Credit: MIV

Above:  Bomb craters cover the floor of the A Shau Valley in 1967.  Barely visible, extending upward at about a 45-degree angle in the circle, is a portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the major NVA/VC thoroughfare that was the target of repeated heavy bombing by USAF B-52s.
Moonscapes and Mission Memories

The A Shau Valley was a major infiltration route in I Corps, situated in [the] western portion of the Corps area next to Laos, if I recall correctly. A dirt road ran through the valley. B-52 raids all up and down the valley turned it into a cratered moonscape – yet it didn’t stop the infiltration. You could always see a recent trail winding around the individual craters.

We saw the same thing in early 1968 when the ["B" Detachment] was reading a lot of missions around Khe Sanh. [Bomb craters] surrounded the base but you’d still see new trails skirting around craters, and a trench line or two coming closer to the base perimeter every day. At the end of the trench line you’d see a donut-shaped machine gun emplacement. Obviously, the other side did a lot of their work on the night shift. When it was decided to relieve the Marines at Khe Sanh, we could watch the relief, [by way of the successive updates of aerial photography that we were evaluating] making its way along Rte 9, to the base. TET brought on longer hours – 18 on and 12 off, if I remember correctly, a lot more missions and additional staffing.

The additional staffing was provided by a National Guard or reserve unit. I believe they were from Michigan. Missions were brought in from the airport both during the day and on the mid-night run up from Saigon, and there were enough of them to fill up a small trailer that was towed behind a jeep.

It was during this time that Detachment B sent staff up to help out at Phu Bai. We saw a lot of missions over Hue when the fighting was going on there. The City looked quite nice from the air but I’ve read that, from the ground level, those who were there weren’t appreciating its beauty.

Gene Pianka, "B" Detachment, Imagery Interpretation Section, 1967 -1968

More Background From the World Wide Web . . .

With the 1968 Tet offensive, the NVA restocked the A Shau valley with food and equipment. US Forces returned to the valley in April 1968, the 1st Air Cavalry Division conducting Operation Delaware, with the 3rd Marine Regiment entering with Operation Dewey Canyon in January 1969. But when aerial and on-the-ground reconnaissance detected continuing activity in the A Shau in the early months of 1969, the possibility of a new NVA offensive emerged.  Army operations were launched in the valley and faced strong resistance, especially from anti-aircraft guns. On May 11, 1969, a battalion of the 101st Airborne Division climbing Hill 937 in the A Shau engaged the NVA’s 28th Regiment.  This fight extended for a period of over ten days.

Hill 937 was more formally known as Ap Bia Mountain and may be the area to the left side of the photograph at the top of this page.  But "Hamburger Hill" was the label affixed by the news media, apparently to suggest that American troops had been thoughtlessly chewed up in a meat grinder.  This was derived from the fact that after substantial casualties – 56 killed and 420 wounded – the decision was made to abandon the mountain shortly after it was captured with the explanation that the rationale for the operation was to harass the NVA and not to capture and hold territory.  In fact, he NVA soon reoccupied Hill 937.  Publicity over what appeared to be a senseless sacrifice of American lives caused the US to shift its emphasis to a policy of "Vietnamization." This meant that the US would turn the war over to the South Vietnamese forces and avoid future involvement direct combat operations.

"B" Detachment -- Back In the Valley . . . 

Right:  The photo at right shows a U.S. Army Special Forces camp in the A Shau Valley in late 1966.  This camp, with adjacent long and short airstrips, was one of the three abandoned such camps in the valley -- either Camp A Shau, Ta Bat or A Luoi.  The triangular shape pointing upward from the center of the photograph marks the earthworks that formed the defensive perimeter of the camp.  This characteristic shape, with circular trenched corners, allowed defenders clear and close fields of defensive fire along all of the camp's boundaries.  Taken from the Greek term for a triangle -- "delta" -- this configuration was said to have given elements of the special forces -- its Delta Force units -- their name.

When this picture was taken, the airstrip surface had been converted by the NVA or the VC for use as a segment of the road system that ran through the center of the valley.   The multiple bomb craters suggest attempts defend the camp against attack or interdict this segment of the Ho Chi Minh Trail network.  It was rumored that the NVA had bulldozers secreted in the nearby jungle.  In any event, by the day following most air strikes, craters that had cut the road were often found to have been filled in or a new road segment constructed around them. 

Photo: footprint of an abandoned US Army Special Forces Camp in the A Shau Valley, either Ta Bat or A Luoi, stripped by the Viet Cong and/or the North Vietnamese Army

Photo Credit: MIV

Photo: for comparison purposes, a photo of a staffed and operating Special Forces Camp in the A Shau Valley

Photo Credit: Kelly Lea As Posted On www(dot)Popasmoke (dot) com, website of The Marine Helicopter Association.

Left:  This photograph, included for comparison purposes, shows what appears to be a secure and functioning, but otherwise unidentified, outpost in the A Shau Valley of Vietnam  in 1963.  It seems to be fully fitted out with structures and building materials, including the corrugated aluminum sheeting that was used extensively in Vietnam for roofing, both in permanent installations and in static field encampments.  Contrast this camp with the stripped installation pictured above -- which may or may not be the same locationConventional aerial imagery of Camp A Shau, taken by the Air Force and evaluated by "B" Detachment after the camp was abandoned, showed extensive battle damage, with unidentifiable bodies scattered around the perimeter of the camp, left-behind equipment, and building materials such as lumber and sheeting.  Like the photograph at left, subsequent U.S. Air Force aerial photography taken over the course of 1967 documented the gradual disassembly of the camp, as the NVA systematically stripped it of anything and everything usable.  By November 1967, there was little evidence of the three camps but scarred ground. 

Photo: footprint of Camp A Shau, abandoned by the US Army and stripped by the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army

Photo Credit: MIV 

Left:  This is a photograph of the remnants of the actual Camp A Shau in the A Shau Valley.  The perimeter follows the similar delta-shaped defensive construction, although in this photograph the arrow-like shape is pointing downward.  In over-flying the valley, the same road that ran through the abandoned camp pictured above could be observed continuing to this camp and running through the airstrip surface before southward moving southward.  

A Short-Timer's Last Mission In 1967 -- Into the A Shau

One of "B" Detachment's last Hand-held Camera missions in 1967 was to gather intelligence for a future American offensive to go back into the A Shau Valley.  The mission required flying straight up the valley and taking overlapping photographs of the air strips at each of the abandoned Special Forces camps.  The imagery was intended to assist operational planners in determining the extent to which existing runways could be used by fixed-wing aircraft during a return to the valley floor.  Overlapping photographs were requested because they could be used, side-by-side, with a stereoscope, to produce a three-dimensional effect that helped with object identification and height and depth estimates.  While the two-ship mission was considered to be relatively safe, the Army FAC carrying "B" Detachment's photo-observer adamantly refused to fly at the requested altitude of 1500 feet, venturing no lower than 3000 feet, and he declined to make a second pass over the area from the opposite direction.  Nevertheless, several rolls of film were exposed and forwarded to the requester for processing and analysis.  It is unknown as to what extent, if any, this mission conducted by "B" Detachment's Hand-held Camera Program contributed to subsequent operations in the A Shau Valley in 1968 and 1969.

. . . With a Pilot Who Had More Sense than His Passenger

"The real dangers, though, came from 37mm and and 57mm guns.  These were big.  The 37s were as large as a big pickup truck and were usually towed on wheeled trailers.  . . . These guns could knock down a plane at up to 8,000 feet, and inflict damage at over 15,000 feet.  . . . One of the golden rules of experienced FACs was no second passes."

Rick Newman and Don Shepperd, Bury Us Upside Down: The Misty Pilots and the Secret Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail, 2007, Presidio Press

Hand-held Camera ORIGINS

First Mission

First Results

Flying With the FACS

Instructions From The Pilot

On Patrol With the 21st RAC

Wings Over DaNang

Recollections From the Back Seat

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