H-059-2: U.S. Navy in Vietnam–Late 1970 to December 1971
Samuel J. Cox, Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
28 January 2021
National Vietnam War Veterans Day is observed annually on 29 March (29 March 1973 is the date the last U.S. troops were withdrawn from Vietnam). It was first observed in 2012, when President Barack Obama issued a proclamation calling on “all Americans to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities.” The Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act was passed by Congress and signed into law in 2017 by President Donald Trump, making it an annual national day of observance.
Operation Market Time, Painting, Watercolor on Paper; by Gene Klebe; 1965; Framed Dimensions 31H X 39W. (88-162-K)
50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War
Operation Ivory Coast/Kingpin–The Son Tay POW Camp Rescue Attempt–22 November 1970
During the Vietnam War the North Vietnamese operated 13 prisoner-of-war (POW) camps, five in Hanoi and eight elsewhere in the country, although not all at once. The vast majority of prisoners held by the North Vietnamese were U.S. Navy and Air Force aviators shot down during strike missions over North Vietnam dating to 1964 (Lieutenant (junior grade) Everett Alvarez, Jr.─downed 5 August 1964─was the first). By late 1969, U.S. leaders were well aware that U.S. POWs were being tortured and abused in captivity, thanks to the heroic actions of Commander Jeremiah Denton, Captain James Stockdale, Seaman Apprentice Douglas Hegdahl, and others (see H-Gram 043). There were also reports of an increasing number of Americans dying in North Vietnamese captivity. At that time, U.S. POWs were kept in small groups (isolated from each other) spread amongst multiple camps. In the spring of 1970, planning commenced in Washington under the strictest secrecy for a mission to rescue at least some U.S. POWs, eventually code-named Operation Ivory Coast with the execution phase termed Operation Kingpin. This was the first operation to be conducted directly under the control of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The camp selected for the operation was Son Tay, estimated to hold about 70 POWs and located about 23 miles west of the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. The camp was relatively isolated compared to the others, which made it a viable target, although it was still in an area with heavy air defenses and about 12,000 North Vietnamese troops within a five-mile radius. The operation was meticulously planned as a joint U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army effort. The Navy was not brought in until much later. In order to execute the dangerous operation, the amount and direction of moonlight was critical, along with the weather, resulting in only a very few opportunities to execute.
The raid force consisted of all volunteers (although they did not know what they were volunteering for), 56 U.S. Army (mostly Special Forces/Green Beret), and 92 U.S. Air Force personnel. The commander was Brigadier General LeRoy J. Manor, USAF, and the deputy commander was Colonel Arthur D. “Bull” Simons, USA. The aircraft for the mission were staged to five bases in Thailand and one in South Vietnam. The plan called for one C-130E(I) Combat Talon aircraft to navigate and lead a flight of 5 HH-53C Super Jolly helicopters (one a gunship), and one HH-3E Jolly Green helicopter (that would deliberately crash land in the center of the compound with a 14-man assault force on board). With a maximum speed of 105 knots, this raid element would be very vulnerable penetrating so far into North Vietnamese air space. A second Combat Talon would lead five USAF A-1E Skyraiders to provide close air support, but also slow due to heavy ordnance load. Two HC-130P Hercules would provide tanking and back-up navigation support. The two main elements would proceed separately to the target. In addition, ten F-4D Phantom fighter-bombers would provide high cover and five F-105G Wild Weasel III fighter-bombers would distract and suppress North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile defenses.
On 5 November 1970, BG Manor and COL Simons flew out to the carrier task force (TF 77) flagship America (CVA-66) to meet with TF 77/Carrier Division FIVE commander, Vice Admiral Frederic A. Bardshar, to request that the Navy conduct a diversion in support of the Son Tay raid. Bardshar was a WWII Navy ace with eight kills as a F6F Hellcat pilot in command of Carrier Air Group 27 embarked on light carrier Princeton (CVL-23) before she was sunk from under him at the Battle of Leyte Gulf (Silver Star and three Distinguished Flying Crosses). He had also been in command of carrier Constellation (CVA-64) during the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964, launching the first U.S. Navy strikes into North Vietnam in retaliation. As a rear admiral, he also led the investigation into the severe fire on carrier Enterprise (CVAN-65) that killed 27 and injured 314 crewmen in January 1969. VADM Bardshar agreed to execute the diversion, a simulated strike on the port of Haiphong, which would result in the largest U.S. Navy night carrier air operation of the war.
Originally planned for the night of 22-23 November, the raid had to be moved forward a day due to approaching Typhoon Patsy. The raid group began launching from Thailand at 2200 21 November for a time over target at 0219 22 November. The Navy diversion began launching from carriers Ranger (CVA-61), which had relieved America, and Oriskany (CVA-34) at 0100 22 November. It was Oriskany’s last night on Yankee Station of the deployment. A total of 59 Navy aircraft were launched or served as spares during the operation. Oriskany launched 25 aircraft of Carrier Air Wing NINETEEN (CVW-19) and Ranger launched 26 aircraft of CVW-2. Hancock (CVA-19), which had arrived on station that day, contributed two EKA-3B tanker aircraft that had pre-deployed and launched from Da Nang, South Vietnam.
USS Sacramento (AOE-1) crewmen use a burton rig to transfer 500-pound bombs to USS Hancock (CVA-19) whose aircraft participate in airstrikes over Vietnam. (K-31354)
At 0152 22 November, 20 A-7 Corsair IIs and A-6 Intruders from Oriskany (14 aircraft) and Ranger (six aircraft) entered North Vietnamese airspace along three tracks near Haiphong. One Ranger A-7 that was part of a six-plane Shrike Surface-to-Air Missile suppression package was a deck abort. The aircraft flew in pairs at stepped up altitudes to deconflict. Another 24 aircraft in 13 orbits remained just off the coast to provide support and additional diversion. Due to the restrictive rules of engagement at the time stemming from the bombing halt (since November 1968), most of the Navy aircraft were unarmed except for several that were part of a combat search and rescue package. The first two tracks dropped flares to simulate bombing missions while the third track dropped chaff to simulate minelaying near Haiphong. None of the pilots knew the true purpose of why they were flying unarmed over North Vietnam yet they did their duty as ordered. Nevertheless, the diversion proved highly effective, resulting in saturation of the North Vietnamese air defense system and leading to a desperate reaction at 0217 during which the North Vietnamese launched 20 missiles at the U.S. Navy aircraft, all of which missed, and all in the opposite direction from where the raid forces were coming in from Thailand through Laos.
The raid force reached Son Tay without being detected. Although there was some initial confusion with another nearby compound, the raid landed at the target on time and executed the mission with exceptional precision exactly as planned, suffering only two minor injuries and leaving behind the one helicopter that had been deliberately crash landed (and then destroyed by demolition). Accounts vary widely as to how many North Vietnamese were killed. Unfortunately, no POWs were at Son Tay. All 65 POWs at Son Tay had been moved on 14 July 1970 to a compound about 15 miles closer to Hanoi, named by the POWs, “Camp Faith.” This was actually a routine move as the North Vietnamese started consolidating POWs in to larger, more-centralized camps. The raid force was off the target in 28 minutes as planned.
By the time the raid was on the way back to Thailand, North Vietnamese air defenses were engaging the F-105G Wild Weasels, launching 36 SAMs starting about 0235. One F-105 was damaged by a missile. The F-105 that replaced the damaged aircraft was in turn severely damaged but still flyable; unfortunately, that jet ran out of fuel just as it reached the tanker and the crew had to eject (and were rescued). Two North Vietnamese Mig-21 Fishbed fighters were on alert at the airfield near Son Tay but did not launch despite repeated requests.
The daring Son Tay rescue attempt was quickly billed as a “tactical success” and “Intelligence failure.” The participants were awarded six Distinguished Service Crosses (Army), five Air Force Crosses, and at least 85 Silver Star medals. Outside of the military however, the raid was severely criticized as a total failure by the media and opponents of the war.
As for the “Intelligence failure,” detailed Intelligence about North Vietnamese POW camps was extremely difficult to come by. Using SR-71 Blackbird imagery to determine the presence of POWs, who were almost always kept indoors anyway, was a serious challenge due to insufficient resolution. Nevertheless, multiple reconnaissance flights over the summer and fall suggested the camp was occupied by “someone.”
A cryptic human intelligence report of uncertain reliability from a North Vietnamese source was received on 19 November. This report listed all known North Vietnamese prison camps (including the new “Camp Faith”) but did not list Son Tay. The absence of Son Tay from this list was the only indication that Son Tay might be empty. There is no indication to this day that anyone in any Intelligence agency knew the camp had been vacated. However, given the extreme secrecy of the planning, it would be conceivable that anyone who had such Intelligence would not have known a mission was being planned. Nevertheless, this last human Intelligence report was discussed all the way up to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Consideration was given to shifting the operation to Camp Faith, but there was insufficient time to do that and still meet the narrow operational window, which was further precluded when the operation was advanced a day due to the oncoming typhoon. Waiting to the next window significantly increased the risk of operational compromise. The “go” order was given by the Chairman with the knowledge of the HUMINT report and in the hope that POWs might still be at the camp. (Some accounts attribute the inability to quickly adapt as an example of the effect of “groupthink” – although there may be some truth to that, hindsight is always a big help).
In the torrent of criticism directed at the U.S. military for the failure of the raid (or for “violating” North Vietnamese air space and “expanding the war” for even attempting the raid─by 1971 there was no way to win this argument) some critics claimed that the failed raid would result in more suffering for the POWs. In fact, the effect was exactly the opposite. When news of the raid was smuggled into the camps (the method is in open source, but I’d prefer not to discuss it) it was a major boost to the morale of the POWs, knowing that they had not been forgotten. The Vietnamese accelerated the consolidation of the POWs, easing their isolation and enabling greater contact with other POWs, also a major psychological boost. POWs debriefed after the war said that abuse decreased and treatment, including medical care and even food, greatly improved in the aftermath of the raid.
Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird at microphones in Saigon as he arrived 8 January 1971 for a 4-day visit, with Nguyen Van Vy, South Vietnam's Minister of defense; U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker; General Creighton W. Abrams, Command of U.S. Forces in Vietnam; Secretary Laird; and Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.
By 1971, the war in Vietnam had become America’s longest war (to that point), with forces engaged in heavy combat since 1964. The Paris “Peace Talks” entered their fourth year with almost nothing except the shape of the table to show for it. Most Americans still supported the war effort as well as President Richard Nixon’s “Vietnamization” strategy. U.S. combat forces were rapidly drawing down (250,900 in 1970 to 156,800 at the end of 1971) as were casualties, but nevertheless 2,357 U.S. military personnel would be killed in Vietnam in 1971.
Despite this decrease in U.S. combat and casualties, opposition to the war in the United States only continued to increase, and in some cases became increasingly violent and definitely polarizing. For example on 1 March 1971, a bomb claimed by the anti-war group “Weather Underground” exploded inside the U.S. Capitol in the middle of the night, injuring no one, but causing over 300,000 dollars (about 2 million in today’s dollars) worth of damage. During a three-day period in May 1971, over 12,000 protesters were arrested on the Capitol grounds while attempting to disrupt Congress. Over 500,000 protesters marched in April 1971 in Washington D.C. in opposition to the war, the largest crowd since 1969. The publishing of the “Pentagon Papers” by the New York Times in June 1971 showed a major difference between what senior officials in four administrations (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon) were telling the American people about the war in Vietnam (overly optimistic) and what was really happening, blowing an even bigger hole in the already existing “credibility gap” of official government pronouncements.
Opposition to the war also increasing crept into the U.S. military and Navy ranks, to include even acts of sabotage that disrupted ships from getting underway for Vietnam (opposition on ships became much more pronounced starting in 1972). Between 1969 and 1971, the “Vietnam Veterans Against the War” grew from about 1,500 to as many as 20,000 members. On 23 April 1971, over 1,000 veterans threw their medals and other military paraphernalia over a fence at the U.S. Capitol in a very public demonstration of opposition to the war. One of these veterans was Lieutenant (and future Senator and Presidential candidate) John Kerry, who was off active duty but still in the U.S. Naval Reserve at the time. Kerry had served on active duty from 1966 to 1970 including several months as the skipper of a swift boat in Vietnam, during which he was awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with Combat “V” and three Purple Hearts. The day prior to the medal-throwing demonstration, Kerry had testified before a Senate committee and his words galvanized the anti-war groups even further, saying “Someone has to die so that President Nixon won’t be─and these are his words─the first president to lose a war. How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” The Navy tried to have Kerry court-martialed twice, but Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird refused. Kerry’s war record became very controversial during the 2004 presidential campaign, which is beyond the scope of this H-Gram, other than to note that a 2004 U.S. Navy Inspector General investigation determined that Kerry’s awards were “properly approved.”
As opposition to the war mounted, many other U.S. military and Navy personnel continued to lay their lives on the line to do what their country asked of them to the utmost of their ability. For example, due to extreme operational security concerns, the volunteers for the Son Tay rescue mission were not told what their real target was until almost the last day. When informed that they would be flying hundreds of miles deep into North Vietnam air defenses to rescue U.S. Prisoners of War, the group leapt to their feet with a rousing cheer. The Navy deception pilots weren’t told the purpose until after the fact, yet they still did their duty with extraordinary valor and dedication.
Vietnamization and U.S. Drawdown–1971
The “Vietnamization” strategy implemented by the Nixon Administration after being elected in 1968 proceeded reasonably well through 1971, at least within the Vietnamese Navy (this was much less true in the Vietnamese Army). Vietnamese Navy units had performed credibly well during the incursion into Cambodia in the spring of 1970. On 6 January 1971, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird announced that Vietnamization was ahead of schedule and the combat mission of U.S. troops would end by the summer of 1971.
The Navy Vietnamization program called for Vietnamese sailors to receive basic training from the U.S. and then to integrate initially as individuals aboard U.S. Navy riverine and coastal patrol boats to gain hands-on experience under close supervision. Gradually, more and more Vietnamese sailors would be integrated on the vessels, replacing U.S. Sailors, who would be sent back to the States. Then entire vessel would be handed over to the Vietnamese navy, then entire formations, and finally logistics and repair facilities as the Vietnamese navy became increasingly (relatively) self-sufficient. The Vietnamese navy grew from 18,000 personnel in 1968 to 32,000 at the end of 1970, while the U.S. Naval Force Vietnam drew down from 38,000 personnel in 1968 to 16,757 at the end of 1970, by which time the Navy had transferred 293 river patrol boats and 225 riverine assault craft to the Vietnamese navy and the U.S. River Patrol Force disestablished.
The USN role in SEALORDS officially ended in April 1971. SEALORDS was an acronym for Southeast Asia Lake, Ocean, River and Delta Strategy, implemented by Vice Admiral Elmo Zumwalt in November 1968 when he became Commander, Naval Forces Vietnam (COMNAVFORV) and Chief of the Naval Advisory Group, U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV). The disestablishment of SEALORDS also coincided with VADM Zumwalt being selected over a host of three and four-star admirals to be the Chief of Naval Operations.
One thing that the USN maintained at strength well into 1972 was direct-support air cover to Vietnamese navy operations. This support was provided by the aggressive operations of Light Attack Helicopter Squadron THREE (HA(L)-3) “Seawolves” primarily flying armed UH-1B helicopters from shore, modified LSTs (landing ship tank), and other mobile afloat platforms. HA(L)-3 was the only helicopter squadron specifically formed for this mission. The Seawolves would be awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for their extraordinary performance during the war, at a significant cost, losing about nine helicopters to enemy fire and operational accidents in 1971 alone. Additional effective air support was provided by Light Attack Squadron FOUR (VA(L)-4) “Black Ponies” flying OV-10A/D Bronco light attack aircraft.
Although the 1968 Communist “Tet” Offensive is generally considered the turning point of the war, it was actually a major defeat for North Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam and especially for the Viet Cong Communists in the South (who frankly never really did recover from their staggering losses). The result was a period of relative calm in much of South Vietnam such that the need for naval gunfire support continually decreased. In 1969, U.S. ships on the gunline typically included one battleship (New Jersey (BB-62), the only battleship re-activated for the war) as well as one cruiser, four-to-ten destroyers, and two “rocket ships” (inshore fire support ships, such as USS Carronade (IFS-1), and later re-designated as LFR amphibious fire support ships (evolved from World War II LSMR rocket-launching amphibious vessels). Carronade in particular had a distinguished record with 13 battle stars, two Navy Unit Commendations and one Meritorious Unit Commendation). By 1971, the average number of gunfire support ships was down to three, one in the north in the I Corps area and two supporting South Vietnamese operations near the southern end of South Vietnam. The drawdown can be seen in the 5-inch ammunition expenditure for naval gunfire support─over 800,000 rounds in 1968, 454,000 rounds in 1969, 234,000 in 1970, and 114,000 in 1971.
The Vietnamization of Operation Market Time (the interdiction of Communist seaborne resupply into South Vietnam) continued with the turnover of the last four of 26 U.S. Coast Guard POINT-class cutters and the first four of seven former Barngate-class small seaplane tenders, used as U.S. Coast Guard cutters during Market Time, and classified as frigates by the South Vietnamese navy (and would be the largest combatants in the South Vietnamese navy). The U.S. Navy turned over the radar picket destroyer escorts Camp (DER-251), and Forester (DER-334). Numerous other harbor craft, mine warfare, and amphibious craft were transferred to the Vietnamese navy (ultimately about 1,400 vessels and craft of all kinds).
Due to the previous success of Market Time, attempts at seaborne infiltration by North Vietnamese trawlers reached a new low in 1971. Of eleven trawlers detected making the attempt, only one made it through to deliver its cargo of supplies and ammunition for the Viet Cong. Nine of those trawlers aborted their mission as soon as they realized they had been detected. One of the trawlers was detected and tracked on 8 April 1971 and then destroyed in action on 11 April by USCGC Morganthau (WHEC-722), USCGC Rush (WHEC-723), USS Antelope (PG-86), and South Vietnamese motor gunboat Kien Vang (PGM-603). The SL-8 type trawler blew up in a massive explosion with the loss of all hands.
With the coast of South Vietnam seemingly increasingly secure, and no U.S. appetite for amphibious operations in North Vietnam, U.S. amphibious ships in Vietnamese waters became increasingly scarce. By mid-1971 both Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) Alpha and ARG Bravo had been withdrawn from Vietnam with some placed on alert status in the Philippines in the event of an evacuation of Americans from Vietnam.
Task Force 77 in formation off North Vietnam, March 1965. (USN 1111484)
Task Force 77 Operations – 1971
Something that could not be “Vietnamized” was air support provided by U.S. Navy aircraft carriers operating in the Gulf of Tonkin on Yankee Station as part of Task Force 77. Although the number of carriers was reduced from the peak of 1965-1969, the effort was still substantial. The average strike sorties per month was down from the 5,000-6,000 in 1968 to about 2,500 per month by 1971. At the beginning of 1971, the Navy kept a three-carrier rotation in the South China Sea, with two carriers conducting strike operations (a day carrier and a “noon-to-midnight” carrier), with the third carrier conducting resupply and rest and recreation, usually at Subic Bay, Philippines. A fourth anti-submarine carrier (Essex-class CVS) was generally on station was well and could conduct limited strikes with a number of embarked A-4 Skyhawks.
Carrier operations were hampered by a number of factors. One factor, which wasn’t new, was the seasonal southwest monsoon from May to September that significantly hampered ability to find targets due to heavy rain and dense cloud cover. A new factor, however, was a decrease in the Navy’s budget. Beginning in 1970, increasing restrictions were implemented to conserve fuel, ammunition and aircraft flight hours. However, the biggest frustration was probably the rules of engagement (ROE) in effect at the time.
The bombing halt imposed by President Johnson in late 1968, ending Operation Rolling Thunder, was still in place, so with few exceptions, no targets could be struck in North Vietnam, while the Paris Peace Talks dragged on and on. This left the Vietnamese free to move their forces and supplies about at will, as well as to continue upgrading the air defense systems with significant Soviet and Communist Chinese assistance, much of it brought in by sea through the port of Haiphong which remained open to international traffic (per the ROE). It also gave the North Vietnamese the opportunity to repair much of the damage inflicted by Rolling Thunder and to ease their pain. The theory was that by not bombing them, the North Vietnamese would be more amenable to negotiating an end to the war in good faith. What they actually did was prepare for a massive conventional invasion of South Vietnam in 1972 (but that will be a future H-Gram).
The Rules of Engagement (ROE) did permit unarmed reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam. Such missions were frequent during this period and constituted the majority of U.S. Navy flight activity over North Vietnam. This was focused on detecting any build-up of North Vietnamese forces along the border with South Vietnam, to warn of potential offensive action. Such build-up was in fact detected and warning provided, but resulted in no response from U.S. political leadership.
On occasions, the North Vietnamese were naughty and fired on U.S. reconnaissance aircraft. In such cases the ROE permitted a response by “Protective Reaction Air Strikes” against enemy missile and anti-aircraft artillery sites south of the 19th Parallel (in the North Vietnamese “pan-handle”─Hanoi/Haiphong and the north remained off-limits to strikes). The use of such strikes was viewed in Washington as part of a strategy to pressure the North Vietnamese to negotiate (and not just reiterate unilateral demands). It had no such effect. However, some of the occasional protective reaction strikes could be fairly sizable in retaliation for North Vietnamese radar tracking or missile launches against the unarmed reconnaissance flights. The morning after the Son Tay raid on 22 November 1970, 200 Navy aircraft from Ranger, Oriskany, and Hancock plus 200 more USAF aircraft struck North Vietnamese targets south of the 19th Parallel. Oriskany contributed 48 strike sorties on her last day on station.
The bombing halt did not apply to the North Vietnamese supply routes through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam, known as the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” (Ho Chi Minh was the leader of North Vietnam from 1945 until his death in 1969 (of natural causes), but the “Le Duan Trail” didn’t have the same ring to it. “Ho Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win” was also a favorite chant of anti-war protesters, the “NLF” being the Vietnamese Communist “National Liberation Front.”) USAF aircraft based in Thailand generally bombed the southern end of the route in Cambodia while U.S. Navy carrier aircraft bombed the northern end in Laos. Although some U.S. carrier strikes in 1971 were in support of South Vietnamese and remaining U.S. troops in South Vietnam, the vast majority of strike sorties were dedicated to the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.
An aerial view of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. This view taken from 4,700 feet shows two camouflaged enemy trucks which appear to be in good condition. A third appears to be damaged or destroyed. Notice the road winding around bomb craters. Location 16° 17' 52" N, 106° 36' 59" E. 16 January 1970. (USN 1144308)
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was actually a very tough target. (It was also in the territory of Cambodia and Laos, countries ostensibly not involved in the war, although both were engaged in fighting against their own Communist insurgencies, aided and abetted by the North Vietnamese. Neither Cambodia nor Laos had the capability to control their own territory and North Vietnamese forces operated in the border areas of Cambodia and Laos at will. The full extent of U.S. involvement in Cambodia and Laos was kept secret from the American public, and would backfire later).
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was actually a complex network of multiple primitive roads and trails through dense jungle and steep hills. Damage to any part of the trail was easily bypassed and often quickly repaired. North Vietnamese vehicle traffic on the trail in 1971 generally consisted of 1,000 to 1,400 truckloads per day, but much of the supplies were carried by foot or pack animal. Antiaircraft artillery and machine guns were easily concealed by the jungle canopy and were frequently moved, popping up in unexpected places. Between 1968 and 1971, 130 U.S. Navy aircraft were lost bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and many of the aircrews were lost due to the difficulty of mounting rescue attempts that far inland in enemy-controlled territory. Nevertheless, carrier aircraft bombed (and dispensed land-mines) that destroyed numerous truck convoys, vehicle parks, ammunition storage sites, bridges, road chokepoints, and AAA positions. Although these strikes were effective in the sense of hitting the targets and inflicting great pain on the North Vietnamese, the overall strategic effect was not so great, as the North Vietnamese supplies kept moving. (Navy aircraft also dispensed numerous “acoubouys,” modified sonobouys intended to detect and report the vibrations of truck traffic – these sensors became increasingly sophisticated and sensitive as the war went on).
At the start of 1971, Ranger, had relieved America, and Hancock had relieved Oriskany, joined by Kitty Hawk (CVA-63) on the three-carrier Yankee Station rotation. Shangri-La (CVS-38) was still on station as the ASW carrier. By the end of January, these three carriers (two on/one off) had flown 3,314 strike sorties that month, with 3,128 devoted to bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail, with the remainder being mostly reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam and electronic warfare missions.
On 8 February 1971, the South Vietnamese Army (Army of the Republic of Vietnam─ARVN) commenced a major offensive operation into Laos (Operation Lam Son 719), with about 20,000 troops, supported by U.S. forces, with intent to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail by land. Hancock provided much of the close air support for the operation (much of it badly coordinated as many lessons learned during the peak of the fighting in 1968-69 had been lost as experienced U.S. air controllers had been withdrawn). Nevertheless, the Navy air support was critical in bombing the mountain passes between Laos and Vietnam, preventing the operation from turning into a worse debacle than it did. The operation would prove an example of the mismatch between official pronouncements and reality that would be exposed in the publication of the Pentagon Papers later in the year. While officials in Washington were extolling the success of the Vietnamization effort, the advance of the ARVN into Laos in their first major offensive operation, and of the high North Vietnamese body count (which was true), the ARVN actually ran into a buzzsaw of intense North Vietnamese resistance. What the TV news cameras were showing were images of bloodied and battered ARVN troops desperately retreating back down the mountains and out of the jungle from Laos, not a successful offensive.
The ARVN suffered over 9,000 casualties including 2,000 soldiers dead, missing or captured in Lam Son 719. The U.S. suffered the loss of 107 helicopters and another 544 helicopters damaged, 54 tanks destroyed, and the death of 253 U.S. military personnel. No matter how Washington tried to spin it, the first major offensive by the new ARVN was a psychological disaster. Some historians contend that this was the real turning point of the Vietnam War, when the rank and file ARVN soldiers became completely disillusioned with their military and political leadership, and lost their confidence in themselves to beat the North Vietnamese army as well as their will to fight in defense of what had clearly become a corrupt government. (South Vietnamese President Thieu would “win” reelection with 94% of the vote in October 1971, after all other candidates had dropped out or been forced out of the running, in an election widely and accurately viewed as rigged).
In the meantime, the carriers on Yankee Station kept bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In late February, the two carriers on station at any one time were averaging a combined pace of 122 sorties per day. On 10 March, Ranger and Kitty Hawk set a single day record of 233 strike sorties, while also credited with a strike effectiveness (hits per sortie) record. In March, the carriers flew 4,535 sorties, with 4,479 against targets on the trails in Laos. A-7 Corsair II bombers also commenced night and all weather (land) minelaying missions previously conducted only by the A-6A Intruders. Carrier aircraft also dropped 680 acoubouy sensors along the trail in March.
In April 1971, Kitty Hawk, Ranger, and Hancock continued a rotation to keep two carriers on Yankee Station for day and night strikes, but the deteriorating monsoon weather conditions reduced strike sorties to 3,648, including 12 protective reaction strike sorties into southern North Vietnam and the rest focused on interdiction in Laos. Ticonderoga (CVS-14) relieved Shangri-La as the ASW carrier.
In May 1971, carrier presence was reduced to one for an extended period, with Hancock remaining on station while Kitty Hawk and Ranger underwent maintenance in Japan. The combination of weather and the conservation measures limited strikes to 60-70 per day and the monthly strike sortie total continued to drop to 2,645. Reconnaissance flights detected increasing North Vietnamese SAM coverage south of the 20th Parallel (where it could affect flights between the demilitarized zone (17th Parallel and the 19th Parallel), but outside where U.S. aircraft were permitted to strike them if fired upon).
In June 1971, Midway (CVA-41) relieved Ranger, which returned to the States. After a very quick turn in the States, Oriskany re-deployed to the Gulf of Tonkin, relieving Hancock. Monsoon conditions continued to affect strike operations. The TF-77 carriers maintained 14 “two carrier days” and 16 “one carrier days” in June, with 2,431 strike sorties. Although the number of “two carrier days” increased to 22 in July, the effects of three consecutive typhoons reduced strike sorties to a new low of 2,001.
On 28 July 1971, Helicopter Squadron HC-7 became the second Navy helo squadron to be awarded a Presidential Unit Citation. Operating multiple kinds of helicopters from carriers and other ships, HC-7 operated from 1967 to 1975, and at the time of the PUC award was credited with rescuing 76 aviators. Some of the earliest rescues were conducted well inland under heavy fire (one resulting in the Medal of Honor for Lieutenant (junior grade) Clyde E. Lassen in June 1968). Most rescues were subsequently conducted in waters along the coast of Vietnam as improving North Vietnamese air defenses made inland rescues prohibitively dangerous.
Although weather began to improve, the increasing effect of budgetary fuel and ammunition conservation began to have the predominant effect on reducing carrier strike sorties. In August, duel-carrier operations were conducted only during the first week. Newly arrived nuclear carrier Enterprise, relieving Kitty Hawk, remained alone on Yankee Station most of the month, and monthly strike sorties declined to 1,915. The reduction continued in September, with only one day of dual-carrier operations, with Midway, Enterprise and Oriskany each operating alone for periods. Sorties dropped to 1,243 per month, including a 21 September protective reaction strike. Through October, Midway, Enterprise, and Oriskany continued to operate one-at-a-time with sorties continuing to drop to 1,024. In a significant development in October, the North Vietnamese deployed two MiG-21 Fishbed fighters to each of three airfields south of the 20th Parallel (the significance of this would play out in early 1972. No North Vietnamese fighters had seriously engaged U.S. aircraft since a Navy VF-142 F-4 Phantom II downed a Mig-21 in March 1970).
In November 1971, U.S. carrier strikes increased somewhat to 1,766 including nine strike sorties into South Vietnam and 12 into North Vietnam including a protective reaction strike on Vinh airfield.
On 2 December 1971, the U.S. Naval Air Facility at Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam was disestablished. Navy patrol squadron (VP) detachments that had operated from Cam Ranh in support of Market Time and other operations were relocated, some to Cubi Point, Philippines.
On 15 December 1972, carrier Coral Sea (CVA-43) arrived in the Gulf of Tonkin with U.S. Marine A-6A Intruder squadron VMA(AW)-225 embarked. This was the first Marine squadron to conduct combat operations from a carrier in the Vietnam War. Coral Sea joined recently arrived Constellation, which relieved Midway. However, at the end of the month, Enterprise was ordered to proceed to the Indian Ocean/Bay of Bengal to cover a potential evacuation of U.S. citizens from East Pakistan after war broke out between India and Pakistan (the war would result in East Pakistan becoming the independent nation of Bangladesh). Constellation would be extended to cover the gap by Enterprise. The month of December was also noteworthy for an increasing number of SAM launches (resulting in the loss of ten U.S. Navy aircraft over southern North Vietnam and Laos), as well as initial and increasing number of North Korean MiG incursions into Laos, threatening U.S. aircraft.
By the end of 1971, it appeared that the Vietnam War was finally winding down, at least that is how senior officials in Washington would spin it. The reality was that 1972 would see some of the most intense U.S. naval combat by air and at sea since World War II (arguably “the” most intense, including up to today). This will be covered in a future H-Gram.