Tuesday, June 2, 2020

ROK Tiger Division in Vietnam: “Hold your position or die in it”

The Republic of Korea (ROK) participated in America’s Indochina War in Vietnam for many reasons, still debated to this date. Whatever the reasons, all together, the ROK Army (ROKA) sent two  infantry divisions and the ROK Marines one brigade.

This report focuses on one of those ROKA divisions, the Capital “Tiger” Division. This division formed from the Capital Security Command in February 1949, having evolved from the 1st Regiment of the Korean Constabulary, responsible for Seoul.

The Tiger Division began its deployment to Vietnam in September 1965.

The Tigers came ashore at Qui Nhon in Binh Din province, located in the Republic of Vietnam’s (RVN) South Central Coast region in eastern RVN. The opening photo shows them coming ashore.

The USS Vernon County, Landing Ship Tank (LST) 1161, was among those US 7th Fleet vessels bringing the Tigers to Vietnam, directly from Korean waters. The USS Terrell was another.

This is a ROK Tiger "Compound" at Qui Nhon in 1965 shortly after arrival.

The division settled in at a place called ROK Camp Thunderbolt, RVN, near the city of Binh Khe and the An Khe pass, and not far from the city of Qui Nhon, in northern II Corps.

The US Army’s 161st Aviation Co. arrived at the port of Qui Nhon in late November 1965. They set up camp on a hill in the An Sou Valley, about 12 miles west of Qui Nhon. This would be re-named Lane Army Airfield (LAAF). This 1965 photo shows the beginnings of Lane AAF.

The Koreans provided security for Lane AAF. Members of the 161st have commented that they rested easy knowing the Koreans had that responsibility. They have said that whenever the Viet Cong (VC) tried to attack the field, the Koreans would retaliate quickly and lethally.

The Tiger area of responsibility (AOR) was Binh Dinh Province, northern II Corps, RVN, colored pale red on the map.

Regarding the An Khe Pass, this is a photo of the  ROK Tiger Division Fire Support Base (FSB) set up near An Khe Pass. Most of their FSBs looked like this. FSB means artillery.

A declassified CIA document created on March 3, 1965 said this about Binh Dinh Province, several months before the Tigers arrived:

"The Viet Cong are continuing to make significant gains in the northern and central provinces of South Vietnam, particularly along the low coastal regions. Viet Cong effectiveness in Binh Dinh Province was manifested in their ability to isolate the coastal districts and to restrict government control to all but the district towns and heavily populated areas."

There was a fear that the Army of RVN (ARVN) might not be able to prevail in Binh Dinh, and the VC might be able to split II Corps. Splitting the corps was a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) objective. The NVA thought it could dominate the area if the province were split in two.

In August 1965, when the first US Army combat units arrived in Vietnam, virtually the entire Binh Dinh Province, the most populous coastal province, was controlled by the NVA and VC. The same held true for Pleiku Province to the west.

 In 1965, the city of Qui Nhon was the only secure town in the province.

Much of Binh Dinh province had been a hotbed for VC activity for nearly two decades before the Americans or Koreans ever arrived. It was one of 11 provinces that formed the most central military region of the RVN, known as the II Corps Tactical Zone, and among the most strategic.

Route 1 ran north-south from Saigon along the coast all the way to Hanoi, North Vietnam. It intersected with Hwy 19 in the southern part of Binh Dinh Province, which ran east-west through neighboring Pleiku Province all the way to the Cambodian border.

 Key markers included Hwys 1 and 19, Qui Nhon (red dot), Phu Cat Mountains and Phu Cat Air Base (AB) (blue dot), and An Khe (green dot).

The main task for the Tigers was to clear the province of the enemy.

The Tigers did not come to Vietnam to fool around. Hwy 19 was high on their list of "things to do." It was a lifeline for allied forces, especially American, operating in Pleiku and Kontum provinces to the west.

The Tiger Division quickly took positions on Hwy 19 (QL19) from Qui Nhon to An Khe. This allowed the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division "Screaming Eagles" to hold its position in and around An Khe. About a month later, the brigade turned over its AOR to the Koreans. Within two months the Tigers had moved north out of Qui Nhon and made it halfway to Phu Cat Mountain as well.

Joseph Galloway wrote the following in March 2003:

“South Vietnam had Route 19, which ran from the coast up into the Central Highlands. It was garrisoned from beginning to end by American and Korean soldiers guarding the bridges and the high mountain passes.”

In January 1966, the Tigers hooked up with the 1st Cavalry and ARVN units to launch Operation White Wing-Masher-Thang where they cleared the northern half of Binh Dinh Province of the enemy. The operation terminated in March. Together, they destroyed the NVA 3rd "Sao Vang" (Gold Star) Division. This in turn enabled the US Marine 3rd Division to move into position to conduct Operation Hastings against enemy infiltrators through the DMZ father north.

The 174th Assault Helicopter Company (AHC) “Sharks” arrived at Lane AAF during April 1966. The 161st AHC, mentioned previously, had been there and was located on the other side of the hill.

The 174th spent most of 1966 supporting the ROK Tigers. The company was primarily assigned to support the ROKs and the 22nd ARVN Division. 

The 174th airlifted Tigers to battles, escorted resupply missions, and conducted combat assaults with the Tigers. This photo shows Tiger troops ready for a combat assault with the 174th. Aaron Foster was one of the original door gunners for the 174th and sent me this background:

“From 24 May - 22 September, 1966 we flew combat assaults with the Tiger Division and other units ... We took the Koreans into the Phu Cat Mountains .... From 23 Sep-30 Sep 1966, on Meng Ho 6, the 174th conducted eight combat assaults with Tiger Division troops into the Phu Cats. Elements of the E210B Viet Cong Division were scattered and destroyed. The 174th also supported the Tiger Division on (multiple operations throughout 1966) ... Operations with the Korean Tiger Division continued into the Spring of 1967."

By June 1966, the Capital Division controlled all the area north of Qui Nhon to the east of Hwy 1 and up to the base at Phu Cat Mountain.

The Tigers extended their control to the north and south of Hwy 19 all the way into the An Khe pass, and south along Hwy 1 to the border between the adjacent province. This is a feat neither the French or the ARVN were able to accomplish in over 20 years fighting.

The moral of the story is the Korean Tigers quickly set up shop and took control.

In October 1966, within the span of 22 days, the 22nd ARVN Division, the ROK Tiger Division, and the US 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) conducted three closely coordinated operations to destroy the enemy in the central and eastern portions of Binh Dinh province.

Overall, the operation was best known as Operation Irving. They started by pushing various enemy forces out of their hideouts and toward the sea. They uprooted elements of the NVA 610th Division from mountain sanctuaries and then forced the enemy into a geographically contained pocket. The 1st Cav air assaulted into the pocket, the ARVN and ROKs attacked from the south, the ARVN heading to the northeast, the Tigers to the north through the Phu Cat Mountains. The ARVN and US Navy prevented any escapes to the sea and provided fire support. Artillery, USAF AC-47 gunships, Army helicopter gunships, and USAF B-52s all took part.

The Koreans and ARVN both learned first hand the value of air mobile combat operations.

The Tiger Division employed a cordon technique wherein they would encircle an enemy stronghold in a strangle-hold. They would destroy enemy attempting to break out, and eventually starve them out. Some commanders complained that all this took too long, but ROK kill ratios demonstrated the pay-off to be lots and lots of dead enemy.

Lt. General William R. Peers, USA, then the commander, US 4th infantry Division has said this about the Korean technique:

"There were several key elements in their conduct of this type of operation. First, they are thorough in every detail in their planning. Secondly, their cordon involves a comparatively small area, probably not in excess of 9 to 10 square kilometers for a regimental size force. Third, the maximum force is employed, generally consisting of a regiment up to something in excess of a division. And finally, the operation is rehearsed and critiqued before it is begun.

“Units are moved into locations around the periphery of the cordon by a variety of means, including helicopters, trucks and by foot, but so timed that all arrive in position simultaneously to complete the encirclement. The density of the troops is such that the distance between individuals on the cordon is less than 10 meters. They leave little opportunity for the enemy to ex-filtrate in small numbers. Areas, such as streams and gullies, are barricaded with barbed wire and other barrier materials, reinforced by troops who may remain in water chest deep over night.

“The closing of the cordon is very slow and deliberate, not a rock is left unturned or piece of ground not probed. When the area has been cleared, they will surge back and forth through it to flush out any of the remnants. Another critical feature of their operation is the availability of reaction forces. The enemy soon knows when such a cordon is put around him. If he cannot ex-filtrate by individuals or in small numbers, he may attempt to mass his forces and break out at one point.

"Against such contingencies the ROKs utilize several reaction forces to reinforce critical areas. They have found that the enemy may make one or even several feints at various points around the cordon prior to making the main effort to breach the encirclement. Hence, the ROK deployment of reaction forces is by small incremental elements until such time as the main effort is located, and then the action becomes rapid and positive. Through the use of these tactics, the ROKs have developed the cordon and search operation to a fine state of art. The ratio of enemy to friendly casualties has been phenomenal, on one occasion in excess of 100 to 1."

In their examination of "Allied Participation in Vietnam," Generals Robert Larsen and James Collins said this about a cordon operation conducted by a Tiger Division unit:

"An analysis of an action by Korean Capital Division forces during the period 23-29 January 1968 clearly illustrates the Korean technique. After contact with an enemy force near Phu Cat, the Koreans 'reacting swiftly ... deployed six companies in an encircling maneuver and trapped the enemy force in their cordon. The Korean troops gradually tightened the circle, fighting the enemy during the day and maintaining their tight cordon at night, thus preventing the enemy's escape. At the conclusion of the sixth day of fighting, 278 NVA had been KIA with the loss of just 11 Koreans, a kill ratio of 25.3 to one.'" 

Binh Dinh Province, especially the area north of Qui Nhon, was a rice-rich area. Despite the Tigers' best efforts, the enemy, especially the VC, would return, over and over. On April 23, 1968, following the defeat of the NVA in Tet 1968, the US 1st Battalion, 69th Armor, 4th Infantry Division married up with B Company 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry (Mechanized) and elements of the Tigers' 26th Infantry in an operation called Maeng Ho 11, or Brave Tiger 11.

The NVA had built 50 two-man bunkers in a tight semi-circle around a place called Ky Son, close to the coast. The enemy put its entire force inside the Ky Son area.

The Tigers came in and surrounded the area, setting up their famed cordon. Air strikes and naval fire were brought in to prepare the battlefield. Then B Co., 1/69th Armor and ROK and US infantry moved into the cordon. The fighting was intense, the enemy tried a breakout, but B Company's tanks were positioned with a clear field of fire and together with the ROK infantry waiting for the breakout attempt, they destroyed 80 percent of the NVA force; 201 enemy dead for a 100:1 kill ratio.

The US 161st Aviation Company "Pelicans" and "Scorpians" and the 129th Assault Helicopter Company "Bite and Strike" did quite a bit of business with the Tigers. The name of the game here was combat air assault. The 161st's area of operation throughout the first half of 1966 was in and around the Phu Cat Mountains. This is a photo of a 161st Huey at a Tiger outpost.

In April 1967, the 129th AHC, the "Bite and Strike," was assigned the mission to support the Tiger Division at Qui Nhon. As a result, the 129th moved from Khanh Duong to Lane AAF. During the 129th's first month flying for the Tigers, its men flew 12,908 sorties, to that point, an all time record for the company. This was a good combo.

The Tiger Division quickly earned a reputation for being one bunch of tough cookies. The 129th pilots and gunners liked that, creating a business card that read, "You call, We kill," with the message, "Call us for death and destruction night or day."

One of the first issues the 129th and Tigers had to deal with was providing the Tigers greater gunship support. The Koreans were reluctant to call for such support because of language problems, and some concern about gunship accuracy. To get by this, the 129th carried a ROK interpreter aboard. The 129th also demonstrated the accuracy of its fire to alleviate ROK concerns about fratricide.

The 129th also found the Koreans operated their three regiments in a large area, occupying semi-permanent areas, maneuvering at mostly platoon and company levels, mostly by ground. Together, the Tigers and 129th worked out plans to conduct assault operations by air, moving these forces around more quickly to more areas of hostile activity.

The terrain in their area was rough, and landing zones (LZs) could usually only handle 2-3 helicopters at a time. Not all air assault landings were easy.
 Soldiers here are being air-dropped for Operation Maeng Ho #10 from a chopper (I believe 129th AHC) at a vulnerable spot. The helicopter could hardly land on the ground due to various difficult conditions.

The Americans and Koreans worked together and started inserting Korean combat troops into blocking and attacking positions simultaneously. The Koreans grew to like the whole concept, as they were able to improve their performance against the enemy.

The Koreans were known not only for their uncanny ability to hunt down and kill enemy, they were also well known for a special capacity to uncover enemy arms caches, discover tunnels, and underground weapons storage areas. It was like they had radar in their noses.

Back in May 1972, the Pacific Stars and Stripes featured Tiger Pfc. Hong Moon Hee, recipient of the prestigious Order of Im Hyon, for actions on March 11, 1972 on Hill 638 in the An Khe Pass, RVN.

The title of the story by Hal Drake tells this private's story: "Hold your position, or die in it." That's the way he was trained, and that's what he did.

It was night, Pfc. Hong Moon Hee was in his assigned trench position, and at least five enemy were approaching, now about 10 feet away. He quickly identified them as an enemy sapper team. He promptly lit a flare, then tripped a claymore and blew some of the enemy to pieces. He then threw a grenade, and then fired his M-16 to finish the job. But the enemy now knew where he was. His position was now the target of enemy rocket propelled grenades.

Seemingly all at once, Hee's Tiger Cavalry Company came under full attack by a North Vietnamese regiment that wanted Hill 638 because of its strategic view over both sides of Hwy 19. The photo shows the Tiger outpost on Hill 638.

The enemy had dug its own trench and foxhole lines all around the hill, most notably on top of the slopes, and had worked hard to camouflage their positions.

The ROKs committed 12 more companies to the battle. The Tigers fought for 16 days to hold the hill. They killed 705 enemy, lost 41 of their own, often in hand-to-hand combat, bayonets fixed to their M-16s.

Lt. Lee My Pyo, described as a little guy, led a 24-man attack through a line of broken trees the day the hill was secured, March 24, and received the Order of Taegeug, the country's highest military decoration for valor in combat (shown in photo, presented by Orders, Medals, Decorations of the ROK, a very informative site).

Well over 700 enemy died in the fight for Hill 638. The enemy did not take the hill and was forced back away.

Airman Robert "Robin" C. Michael II, pictured here, a combat forward air controller (CFAC) known as a Recon, Observe, Mark and Destroy, or ROMAD, was reassigned from Osan AB, ROK, to Camp Thunderbolt in late September 1965. He was part of a two-team Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) that moved from Korea to the RVN.

His FAC leader was Capt. Nicholson. Michael's callsign was “Ragged Scooper Two Alpha.”

Airman Michael has said:

"The Korean and Vietnamese Flags flew over my compound in Vietnam. No American Flag ever flew over this compound when I was assigned to this Korean Tiger Division Compound named Camp Thunderbolt." 

Nicholson and Michael went with the Tigers on sweeps, raids and ambushes. They normally wore RVN uniforms, so they would not stand out to the enemy as Americans. If they could, they would take the jeep as far as they could, and then strap the radios on and go on the sweep with the ROK soldiers. Or, they would simply strap on their radios and go with the ROKs directly.

When required, Nicholson and Michael worked with a Bird Dog O-1E FAC above to bring in air support, usually napalm followed by 500-1000 lb "blockbusters," as he called them. Capt. Nicholson did not limit himself to FAC work on the ground, though. An USAF pilot, he also flew the ROK O-1E Bird Dog FAC aircraft such as the ones shown here.

Michael said all the FACs, and the Koreans, preferred A-1E fighter-bombers to the jets, because they did better hitting their targets and they could loiter around waiting to do it again.

The photo above shows Airman Michael on a sweep with the Tigers. A group of Tiger troops was pinned down by enemy fire, just below this ridge. Michael brought in an A-1E air strike on enemy positions and that was the end of that. This sweep took place near the coast line in September - October 1965. 

Michael and the others received the Tiger Patch from the ROKs. Michael has said the patch was awarded to him and it was an honor and privilege to wear it. Michael stayed in Vietnam until the Tet offensive, served out his enlistment, and left the Air Force at the rank of staff sergeant.

Today, the Capital Infantry Division is a mechanized division.

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