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Nine Days in May: The Battles of the 4th Infantry Division on the Cambodian Border, 1967.

Nine Days in May: The Battles of the 4th Infantry Division on the Cambodian Border, 1967

By Warren K. Wilkins

The late Russell Weigley once observed that although combat is the defining characteristic of warfare, academic military historians display an odd aversion to writing about it. This remains true today, and battle histories that delve into the gory details of tactical engagements are still generally written by veterans, journalists, or amateur historians; often aim at the popular market; and frequently lack objectivity and scholarly rigor. But Warren K. Wilkins' Nine Days in May is an example of the genre at its best. The book is exhaustively researched (drawing upon Vietnamese language publications, archival documents, and interviews with dozens of American veterans), well-written, and conveys all the brutality, confusion, and terror of close quarters combat while maintaining its objectivity and scholarly tone.

Wilkins' subject is Operation Francis Marion, which pitted the US 4th Infantry Division against the 1st North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Division in Pleiku province during May 1967. Both sides welcomed these battles in the wilds along the Cambodian border in South Vietnam's strategic central highlands. General William C. Westmoreland, the top US commander in Vietnam, sought to keep the NVA as far as possible from the densely-populated coastal plains, while B-3 Front Commander General Chu Huy Man aimed to undermine allied pacification efforts in the lowlands by drawing American troops away from them. Since two of the 4th Division's brigades were on the coast, the units screening the border found themselves outnumbered when they ran into the 32nd and 66th NVA Regiments. Another brigade shifted into the highlands, but its battalions were fed in one at a time, and at no point were there more than two of them in the field opposing the pair of enemy regiments. And since a company generally had to be left behind to guard firebases, most American battalions operated at only two-thirds strength.

Nine Days in May is organized into three parts, each of which describes the battle of a specific US battalion (the 1/8th, 3/12th, and 3/8th Infantry) in painstaking detail. These units encountered few of the disciplinary problems that afflicted draftee units later in the war because they were still manned predominantly by "originals" (i.e., soldiers who had been serving in the 4th Division when it deployed to Vietnam in late 1966). But Wilkins stresses none of the battalions had yet seen action against NVA regulars and found them much tougher opponents than the Vietcong they had encountered in the coastal plains. As one veteran put it, "We bumped into 'Mr. Charles' in the Highlands, instead of 'Charlie'" (295).

Wilkins's accounts of the five major battles fought during Francis Marion are gripping, graphic, and highly revealing. For his minute-by-minute dissection of these engagements shows that while the US battalions were cohesive, well-trained, and generally well-led, they were no match for the NVA in fieldcraft or familiarity with the remote area of operations. They were thus consistently taken by surprise, thrown on the defensive, and obliged to fight on the enemy's terms. They were also handicapped by their reliance upon helicopters for resupply and reinforcement, even though landing zones were rare in the triple-canopy jungle, and by having to fight so close to the foe's cross-border sanctuaries. Since the Johnson administration refused to admit publicly that NVA were operating in Cambodia, absurdly restrictive rules of engagement even prevented the 4th Division from striking hostile mortars that were openly firing across the border.

The 4th Division ultimately prevailed in all five battles thanks to the skill and bravery of its troops, and massive supporting fires. Wilkins characterizes Francis Marion as a victory because the enemy suffered disproportionately heavy casualties, as Westmoreland intended, and a planned NVA offensive in the central highlands was forestalled. However, he notes that General Chu Huy Man had also achieved a primary objective by pulling US formations away from the plains, and observes that American casualties were so numerous that the "original" battalions ceased to exist and many 4th Division soldiers felt "more like survivors than winners" (242). Wilkins ultimately concludes that Francis Marion was a sterile victory because its outcome did little to alter the strategic stalemate in the central highlands.

While Nine Days in May is good narrative microhistory, analytical issues do not always get the attention they deserve. For instance, although Wilkins describes soldiers being amazed by enemy firepower, he does not delve into the reasons why NVA infantry units were superior in that respect. The fact that they fielded belt-fed Ruchnoy Pulemyot Degtyaryova (RPD) machine guns at the squad level while American squads had only a pair of box magazine M16 rifle variants is not mentioned. Nor is the vast superiority of the ubiquitous NVA rocket-propelled grenade launchers over the disposable, short-ranged US light antitank weapon. Wilkins also does not explore how the NVA managed to bring significant numbers of mortars into action, including heavy 120mm models, when American units found them too cumbersome to carry.

Some key macrolevel topics are also given short shrift. For example, Wilkins describes early on how the 4th Division's commander, Lieutenant General William R. Peers, intended to employ a defense in depth, engaging NVA regulars only after they had penetrated some distance inside South Vietnam and no longer had easy access to their Cambodian sanctuaries. Later he explains that Peers was overruled by his superior, General Stanley R. Larsen, who insisted that the NVA be hit as close to the border as possible. Yet Wilkins never really reaches any conclusion as to whether it was an error to fight so close to border--or if Larsen deserves to be condemned for the heavy losses Peers's troops suffered there.

Nine Days in May is, nonetheless, a riveting battle narrative that graphically illustrates the cruel realities of how search-and-destroy operations targeting NVA regulars functioned at the tactical level. Since virtually every engagement of note fought during Francis Marion was enemy initiated, Wilkins also demonstrates the futility of Westmoreland's efforts to destroy Communist regular units through attrition. None of the May 1967 battles would have occurred if the 1st NVA Division had not wanted them to.

Reviewed by Dr. Kevin M. Boylan, history instructor at Emmanuel College
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Author:Boylan, Kevin M.
Date:Mar 22, 2018
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