Vietnam Will Win: Building an Army

NLF troops in training, 1964-65. Photo: Wilfred Burchett.

How does one build a modern army from scratch without holding state power and without arms or money, and with only a handful of dedicated men with faith to form the first nucleus? Fidel Castro did it by secretly training a few devoted followers in the jungles of Latin America, disembarking 82 strong from the dilapidated boat Granma on Cuban shores on December 2, 1956, in a seemingly hopeless venture – losing almost all equipment in getting ashore – reduced to 12 men after a few days of murderous combat. But in two years and one month, Fidel’s band had expanded into a powerful force that smashed the U.S.-equipped 50,000-man army of dictator Batista and took over state power in Havana.

Ben Bella began in November 1954 with half a dozen conspirators, inspired by the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, meeting secretly in the Aures region of Algeria with hardly a weapon among them. Yet they decided to take on the French colonial army and fought to victory nearly eight years later.

In Vietnam on December 22, 1944, Vo Nguyen Giap organized the famous Tran Hung Dao platoon of 34 men. From this tiny nucleus was born the formidable Vietnam People’s Army which within ten years had paralyzed the French colonial army and won an historic victory at Dien Bien Phu.

In these three struggles, the armed forces were formed around the personification of the military and political leadership of the liberation movement. Fidel Castro chose as his original instrument of armed struggle the autonomous military column under his personal leadership. After it had been built up to full strength and developed into a hardened, experienced military unit, tempered in the crucible of dozens of fierce battles, a second column was detached from the mother unit under Che Guevara to “go and do likewise” – to open another front. Then a third was formed under Raul Castro and so on, coordination of action being achieved in the beginning only by the complete identity of aims, methods and tactics. Once the struggle in Cuba was victorious, one can say a similar “growth and split” principle of development was applied on a hemispheric scale, when Che went off to Bolivia to head a new column, to open up a new front with the tragic result that was mourned by progressive human beings the world over.

In South Vietnam the armed struggle was also shaped by the “growth and split” principle, but in a very different form, because of the great experience acquired by the South Vietnamese people during the anti-French resistance war, and because of the long years of political struggle against the fascist regime of Diem. After the first sparks of spontaneous resistance in widely separated areas of the country had led to a decision to launch generalized armed resistance, armed groups of differing size and quality sprang into being virtually simultaneously all over the country. From these initial groups the “growth and split” process developed on a nationwide scale right from the beginning. There was not just a single unit as Giap had in 1944, but hundreds of platoons, although many were armed only with hoes, knives and other rudimentary weapons.

During one of my visits to the liberated areas in late 1964, I asked Le Van Muong, chief of staff of a Liberation Army regiment, to explain how it had been built up to its present size. “Soon after the Front issued its call for an armed uprising and the formation of regular, full-time forces,” he explained, “two platoons were formed in our district. I was in charge of one and Thuong Chien, the regiment political officer, was in charge of the other. We met and agreed to expand each of our platoons (around 30 men) into a company (100 men). It took quite a while to do this, not for lack of recruits but for lack of arms. Even when we started to expand, we had only about 10 firearms for each platoon. Sometimes a platoon member would lend his weapon to his comrade and the latter would come back a few hours later with two weapons, returning the one he had borrowed. During the first months when we made attacks, for every man with a weapon there was always at least one unarmed man ready to snatch a rifle from the enemy or from our own dead or wounded. When we had two under-strength companies, we fused them as a nucleus for a battalion. With this bigger unit, we could increase the scale of our attacks which in the beginning were almost exclusively to get arms. When we had appreciably increased our stock of weapons, we armed a third incomplete company and with a fourth company of reserves for whom we had no arms at all, we formed our first battalion.

“Later on, to form a second battalion, we took our first company away from the first battalion and used this as a nucleus for the second battalion. But growth this time was very slow, so we detached some cadres from the first battalion and incorporated some regional troops and called this the second battalion. In fact it was only at company strength, but as it was partly formed from regional troops, we gave it a fairly free hand. It started its own recruiting campaign among the young people of the region and fairly soon it was expanded and we really had a second battalion. Then we pooled the two battalions and called ourselves a regiment. We took ten cadres from the first and second battalions and incorporated the reserve companies for whom we had gradually been securing arms to form a third battalion, which grew much quicker than the lust two.

“When we first started operating as a regiment, we had plenty of problems. Enemy regiments, even battalions, had far greater fire power. Although by the time we called ourselves a regiment every man had a weapon, these were mainly an odd assortment of rifles and a few light machine guns. The NLF sent us a few heavier weapons and other supplies, but we were supposed to be as self-supporting as possible. We decided to try to add a medium-weapons support platoon to each company with medium machine guns and 40mm or 60mm mortars, and a heavy-weapons company to each battalion with heavy machine guns, 81-mm mortars and bazookas. This meant concentrating attention on capturing these types of weapons. Each company was supposed to try to get similar rifles, American carbines at that time, otherwise we would have problems with standardizing munitions. By and large, we have now achieved standardization of equipment and have built up our medium –  and heavy – support units. Our firepower up to company level is now at least equal to that of the Saigon troops [our discussion took place before U.S. troops were directly committed in South Vietnam]. Only at battalion level do they have the advantage of artillery and can call in air support.”

“We have the advantage that every man in our unit is a combatant,” interjected Thuong Chien. “The local population brings us food, right up to the battle lines; they evacuate our wounded and help us carry captured equipment back from the battlefield.”

“Without the help of the local population we would be in difficulties all the time,” Le Van Muong continued. “On October 10, 1964, we attacked an important enemy post at Go Dau [Tay Ninh Province]. We were operating far from our base and in what we considered a ‘weak’ area, politically speaking. But we knew there was a big stock of weapons there which we needed for our heavy-weapons support companies. At first it was impossible to get information about enemy dispositions. But a wonderful woman contacted us and asked what we wanted to know. She was the wife of a well-known former resistance cadre who we all knew had been killed by the Diemists. Within 24 hours of our meeting, she gave us exact information on enemy emplacements, how many effectives and their disposition, where the machine-gun nests and artillery positions were located. She brought along her two daughters and each guided one wave of our assault troops right to the starting point. There the question of tending our wounded and burying our dead – it was a big battle – was solved by the local population, organized by this one woman. In a night attack we wiped out 400 enemy troops and seized everything we needed and far more besides. Local people carried off our lightly wounded on Lambretta scooters and the more seriously wounded on stretchers. Practically everyone turned out to help, but the women were particularly active. We had to withdraw quickly after the engagement to avoid enemy planes early next morning. There was no time to prepare anything to eat that night. But people brought food for the whole unit, better food than we normally eat. Many of them even risked breaking out of their ‘strategic hamlets’ to bring us something to eat and drink.”

“Normally we would have refused this,” the political officer explained, “but as it was a new area for us, it gave us a chance to get to know the people and exchange views. They would have been offended had we refused.. People around our own base areas know that we have strict rules not to accept anything from the local population. We are self-supporting and what we lack, the Front provides us from its reserves.

“When we are not on operations, we cultivate the land for ourselves and also to help the population. We are all former peasants so it comes naturally. During attacks around enemy posts to liberate ‘strategic hamlets,’ we dig trenches for ourselves but also for the population, to protect them against the enemy’s counteraction. When it starts, the troops cede their shelters to the civilians, and if the enemy begins an action against a village, our troops fight back. Even under fire they rush to the aid of the inhabitants, putting out fires and rescuing private belongings.”

I inspected the arms of several of the support companies and platoons. There were medium and heavy machine guns, mortars and bazookas, all of U.S. manufacture. At that time (late 1964), apart from a few old rifles and fight machine guns of French make, everything one saw – webbing belts and water canteens and even “flour bag” knapsacks – along the jungle trails and at the base camps was “Made in U.SA” exclusively.

“Many of our first battles we waged just to get arms,” said Le Van Muong, “but what we discovered, especially once we started large-unit operations, was that after every operation we got lots of new recruits. Some of them told us quite frankly that if they stayed on in the area there would be a reprisal raid and all the youth would be press ganged into the Saigon army. They preferred to join us. They considered their chance for survival was better with us. But the majority said they wanted to throw in their lot with us to defend their own homes and families. In many cases we took them with us for a while and then sent them back to organize self-defense units in their own villages. But it was due to popular support that we had a continuous stream of recruits with very high morale.

“As our regiment gathers strength, we have to develop tactics which correspond to our capacities and the enemy’s strength. The NLF leadership sent us veteran cadres, but their knowledge was based on the anti-French war. Things have developed since then, such as the use of helicopters, and we have all sorts of complicated arms that they had never had. The old cadres cannot cope with these problems.”

I asked about material support from the North and whether it was not practical to send cadres experienced in modern arms and tactics down to help them. “It would take almost a year to get anyone from the North down to this area,” replied political officer Thuong Chien. “And in fact it is not necessary. They have other ways of helping us. Radio Hanoi, for instance, recently gave a commentary by a military expert on how its army is preparing to counter a helicopter-borne invasion of the North, describing what sort of tactics would be effective. There was not a word about the South, of course, but this advice was very precious for us. It seems it was based on the experience of the Algerian FLN in countering French helicopter tactics which our friends in the Algerian FLN leadership passed on to the North with the idea that it would be useful for us. Of course, all our units have transistor radios and listen regularly to Radio Hanoi.

“Apart from helicopters, the other major U.S. innovation is the M-113 tank. We salvaged one which had been abandoned after it hit one of our mines, and we studied it very carefully to find its weak points, how best to destroy it with the sort of weapons at our disposal and where to concentrate our fire. We had difficulty with our first bazooka because we didn’t know how to aim it. The first one we used was against an enemy river craft. We lashed a rifle to it so that the barrels were exactly parallel. We sighted with the rifle and fired the bazooka. The shell hit just below the water as we wanted and we sank an enemy boat with our very first shot. Then we understood that the bazooka sights should be used like ordinary rifle sights. The mortars had scales in meters but we had no instruments to judge the distance of enemy positions. In preparing our first attack we had to send scouts with balls of string, unrolling the string as they crawled in as straight a line as possible to the targets. When they came back we counted off the meters, adding five, 10, 20 or 50 meters according to how close the scout got to the target and adjusting the scales accordingly. It worked well.

“There would be enormous difficulties in moving material down from the North,” Thuong Chien continued, “but it would also be suicidal for us at this stage to have to depend on weapons and munitions from so far away or to have weapons for which supplies of shells and cartridges are not easily available. That is why we prefer captured American weapons for which there are ample supplies of local munitions. Our great difficulties were in the early stages when we literally had to wrest guns from the hands of the enemy.  Once we had built up sufficient strength to attack enemy posts and depots and ambush big convoys, weapons supply was no longer a real problem. When we reached the point at which everyone had a weapon of some sort, then we started to standardize, and there was a curious phase during which we grabbed American weapons during a battle and began using them right away, discarding our outmoded ones. We sometimes laughed at enemy communiqués saying they had ‘captured’ so many firearms from us during a battle. These were weapons we had ‘exchanged’ on the battlefield. Now we have reached the point where rifles, sidearms and light automatic weapons captured during a battle or an attack, are distributed to the local guerrillas. We have everything we need, everything we can carry, and this equipment is supplemented by what we make in our own workshops, mainly mines and hand and rifle grenades.

“We can’t expend masses of ammunition like the enemy. We have to make every shot count and one can say that our troops have become very expert in the weapons they use, especially the mortars and bazookas. The enemy has very great respect for the way we handle these weapons.”

In fact, when I spoke to the bazooka crews, they were able to tell me the result of every single shot fired by each of their weapons. Other soldiers spoke of the number of engagements they had taken part in, but the bazooka crews spoke of the result of every shell fired. At first they used them only at such close range that they were endangered by the explosion of the shells. Bit by bit they were able to increase the distance between themselves and the target without loss of accuracy. Apart from an occasional shell that failed to explode, they claimed 100% hits. (And this was the case at a much later period when NLF units started receiving the B-40 light Chinese-made, small caliber bazooka-type weapon, the shell of which released a temperature of 6,300 degrees F., sufficient to melt the steel on the most heavily armored U.S. tanks. Accurate up to 130 yards, they are fired by NLF troops from about 30 to 55 yards with what they claimed was 100% efficiency. “One shell, one tank,” as a B-40 expert expressed it.)

I asked about instruction in using heavy machine guns and mortars, and such techniques as the most efficient disposition of men and weapons in ambushes, the use of demolition charges in battles and other complicated, specialized techniques.

“I can tell you that in the anti-French war we knew little about such matters,” said Le Van Muong. “If we captured mortars, we usually greased them and buried them somewhere in the hope that someone would turn up one day who knew how to use them. That’s why the old resistance cadres sent from the center are not much help in weapons technique. But we have solved this in different ways. When the decision to wage armed struggle was taken, the NLF sent some young cadres into the ranks of the enemy to learn weapons techniques. When they had learned all they could, they returned to our ranks and became instructors. A few were discovered by the enemy, one or two turned traitor for material reasons, but the great majority came back to us. A certain number of specialists deserted from the enemy ranks to us and begged to be sent straight into the front line. But we used them to train our own specialists. Gradually our technique improved. In one of the first battles, after we had taken an important post but suffered rather heavy losses ourselves, we found a scrawled note written on blood-stained paper and thrust in between some bricks. It was written by some anonymous patriot. ‘You used your heavy machine guns badly,’ he wrote, ‘the bullets all fell short. You should use trajectory fire instead of shooting like with rifles.’ We immediately took steps to improve the technique of our heavy machine gun crews. It was their lack of proficiency on that occasion which caused us heavy casualties. There were several instances of this sort of advice. On another occasion we found a note saying: ‘Comrades, you hit all the helicopters and could have brought them all down. But you should aim at…’ and he told us the weak points of various types of helicopters, complete with sketches. This, together with the Hanoi radio commentary, made us much more efficient in dealing with helicopters.”

“Another of our difficulties,” explained Thuong Chien, “is that almost all of our troops are illiterate and even when we have captured enemy weapon manuals we have only been able to make limited use of them, especially since they are mostly in English. But – and this is not limited only to weapons’ techniques but to all other branches of our struggle, medicine, education and so forth – we organize exchange-of-experience classes between specialists of different regiments and regions. In this way the most advanced techniques learned or developed in one unit or even by some individual quickly become generalized by word of mouth and some simple diagrams which even the illiterate can understand. We have found this the most effective way of raising technical level, but we can usually organize such interregional classes only in the rainy season when there is not much combat activity. There are classes not only for questions of general tactics and techniques, but also for the specialties – weapons, demolitions, communications, assault techniques. Our aim is to make each of our men expert in handling various types of weapons. We can already say that, as distinct from the anti-French war, even at company level our men are already competent to handle any type of weapon that we can capture and carry off the battlefield. Of course, we can’t handle artillery pieces. When we capture them we spike their barrels or blow them up. Our weapons , are limited to those that can be carried on human shoulders, or several pairs of shoulders for some of the heavy mortars.”

By the time I made my fourth visit to the NLF areas in the second half of 1966, the regiment had become a division, its battalions having been transformed into regiments, companies into battalions, platoons into companies by almost the same biological growth-and-split process by which the regiment itself had been formed. In most cases platoons had been formed around the nucleus of local self-defense guerrillas, the men having been replaced in the self-defense units by young women who then constituted an important part of the village guerrilla units.

As far as I know this was one of the first NLF divisions formed, but a similar process was going on all over the country from 1965 onward when it was decided that long-range preparations had to be made to deal with U.S. combat divisions. Like other regular NLF units, this division was largely withdrawn from combat for consolidation and training and “stock-piling” until the time came for the NLF counteroffensive. In the meantime regional troops had acquired the sort of armaments, including medium-weapons support units plentifully equipped with B-40’s, that they needed to enable them to deal with U.S. offensives in the area. This was in coordination with the local guerrillas whose equipment had been improved by early 1965 to about the standards of regional troops.

The fact that U.S. forces hardly ever met the regular NLF forces during the 1966-67 dry season offensives was something I drew attention to at the time, especially in a “Post Scriptum” dated December 1966 to my book, Hanoi sous les Bombes,[1] in which I wrote in relation to the operational season:

“None of the three stated American strategic aims had been achieved – that is,  to open up communications, regain territory and return it to Saigon control, destroy NLF main forces. The various offensives had been repelled almost exclusively by local guerrilla and regional forces, while the NLF main force units continued their steady buildup for more efficient use later. I found the NLF leaders more confident than ever precisely because what they had been expecting for years had come about – the direct clash with elite U.S. combat divisions – and the NLF forces had come off best in every major encounter …”

The light NLF divisions formed along the lines of the regiment I have described are about as perfect a military instrument as could be conceived for Vietnam. If U.S. units are highly mobile when it comes to being airlifted from their bases to a battlefield, once they get on the ground they are incomparably less mobile than the equivalent NLF units. The latter move equipment that time and again has silenced the adversary’s artillery and wreaked havoc among his helicopters, and yet which can be carried on human backs and shoulders.

The lighter-equipped NLF units can run rings around U.S. units in mobility, bringing shattering firepower to bear on selected targets. Because of their intimate knowledge of terrain and their relations with the local population, they can maneuver around to launch surprise attacks against the slow-moving U.S. troops at times and places of their own choosing.

Although numerically an NLF division is perhaps less than half the size of a full U.S. division, because every man is a combatant and because they do not have to leave something like a third of their effectives to guard bases and storage areas, in actual combat and unit for unit they were meeting U.S. forces by the end of 1967 on something like equal terms in numbers and fire power, if one excepts the U.S. monopoly of heavy artillery and air power. But this latter advantage was often neutralized because of NLF close-in tactics, “grabbing the enemy by the belt” as they express it. Since the direct commitment of U.S. combat forces, new types of arms from North Vietnam and elsewhere in the socialist world started filtering down into NLF regular forces, including an ultra-rapid firing automatic rifle, the Soviet-made AK-47 and AK-50 which the NLF troops prefer to the American M-16.

An incredible aspect of the buildup of NLF regular forces, their training and even their movements, is that the U.S.-Saigon Command is constantly being surprised by the existence of such units and their deployment in any given area. Despite “spy in the sky” satellites and infrared sensors said to be able to detect troop concentrations in the heat given off by human bodies; despite round-the-clock air reconnaissance including night photography and everything else the Pentagon has in the way of scientific detection equipment; and despite the infiltration of “special forces” teams into NLF areas, the existence of Liberation Army regiments was neither detected nor suspected right up to the moment when, after years of training, the first battle-ready units were set to strike at full strength. Less than 44 miles from Saigon, I once witnessed maneuvers of a whole regiment, carried out in broad daylight for several days on end. At the critical Binh Gia battle at the end of December 1964, I encountered another regiment in an area where the Americans up till a few weeks previous had never suspected the presence of even a guerrilla unit. It is perhaps understandable that the Americans were taken by surprise in the early days of their intervention, but this problem has continued to frustrate the U.S. forces. In late October 1967, General Westmoreland [2] told some selected Saigon correspondents that the NLF had been forced back to small-scale guerrilla tactics and would no longer be able to launch attacks at greater than battalion strength, and attacks were doubtful even at battalion strength.

Within days of this prediction, the NLF launched an attack of at least regimental strength at Loc Ninh – Westmoreland claimed that a full division had been employed – and within a few days there was another attack at Dak To, nearly 240 miles to the north, which was certainly of divisional strength.

At the end of November 1967, after the two top-ranking U.S. colonels in the Dalat area were killed when they were sent to investigate a “Vietcong” attack on a nearby village, the whole CIA staff in Dalat was replaced because they had informed General Westmoreland that at most 60 to 80 guerrillas were operating in the Dalat area. Actually, when the remainder of the Dalat Command tried to send a relief force to recover the bodies of the colonels and their two downed helicopters, they discovered the presence of at least an NLF regiment, enough to “eat” all the forces at Westmoreland’s disposal in the Dalat region, as indeed happened two months later when the NLF took over Dalat completely.

Of course, the best example of a surprise operation was the simultaneous attack on the night of January 30, 1968, against the major cities in which a minimum of one battalion was used against each of about 140 objectives. Every battalion was supported by several hundred local inhabitants from each of the respective towns. The U.S.-Saigon Command was taken by such complete surprise that President Nguyen Van Thieu was away from Saigon celebrating the Lunar New Year with his family. Only routine guards were placed around the presidential palace and the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, and the NLF commandos succeeded in penetrating the command posts of almost all provincial headquarters. In an operation that involved at least 200,000 people, including the local inhabitants of the towns attacked, and extending over the whole of South Vietnam, complete secrecy was maintained despite the electronic devices that American commanders in Saigon assured journalists and visiting senators were so efficient that no Vietcong could even boil a pot of rice without being detected. This is eloquent tribute to the relations of mutual trust between NLF and the people, and a harsh commentary on American detection technique, to say the least. The U.S.-Saigon Command had to admit that its acoustic devices had failed even to detect the tanks that the Vietnamese used to overcome the “Special Forces” outpost at Lang Vei, protecting the big U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh.

As for Le Van Huong’s regiment, it took just six months from the merging of the two platoons until the third battalion was formed and the regiment was a going concern, a month or two less than the time taken to build up other regiments that I visited. From the time it started to operate as a regiment until it was withdrawn from operations during the big buildup period, this unit carried out an average of one operation a month, except for a period starting at the end of October 1963, when the whole regiment took time off from fighting to participate in a three month “summing-up course,” as Thuong Chien expressed it, “so that we could sum up our good and bad experiences, have a clearer idea of our task, heighten morale and acquire a firmer political outlook.”

It was indicative of the extent to which the NLF held the initiative, even in those days, that a whole regiment could decide to take three months off just at the beginning of the dry season. And this was also indicative of the vital importance attached to the political aspect of the struggle by the NLF leaders. Once the course was over, the regiment went back to its one-a-month operations with “heightened success because of a sharp uplift in morale,” to quote Chien. What is clear is that such units could never have been built up at such speed if the country had not been ripe for transforming political struggle into armed struggle.


[1] Hanoi sous les Bombes, François Maspero, Paris, 1967

[2] General William C. Westmorland succeeded Paul Harkins as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. “Military Assistance Command” in South Vietnam in June 1964.

NEXT: Chapter 4 – Leadership and Democracy

Wilfred Burchett was an Australian journalist, who covered World War II, the Korean War and the war in Vietnam. His many books include Shadows of Hiroshima, Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist and Vietnam Will Win. Burchett died in 1983.