A Small Wars Journal and Military Writers Guild Writing Contest Finalist Article
HUMINT: A Continuing Crisis?
W. R. Baker
Before Vietnam completely fades from memory and its lessons learned gather even more dust, it might be worth exploring a few issues that will likely resurface again.
During the latter months of the Vietnam War (1971-72), the United States was actively sending units home, turning facilities and functions over to the South Vietnamese and to U.S. forces located elsewhere before the 29 March 1973 deadline for all U.S. forces to be out of the country. In January 72, President Nixon announced that 70,000 troops would be withdrawn by 1 May 72, reducing the troop level in Vietnam to 69,000.
I was assigned in 1971 to the 571st Military Intelligence Detachment in Da Nang, the unit primarily ran Human Intelligence (HUMINT) operations throughout I Corps in northern South Vietnam. I was quickly exposed to Viet Cong (VC), North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and friendly forces’ activity in our area of interest. As such it was evident that South Vietnamese forces that had taken part in Lam Son 719 in Laos were licking their wounds - even the much touted 1st Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Division, garrisoned in Hue had been severely crippled in this failed campaign in 1971.
We also dealt with other foreign country units, i.e., South Korean, who left I Corps a few months after I arrived, in addition to ARVN commanders and secret police officials.
As we ran Unilateral and Bilateral agent networks, remaining U.S. units in I Corps and MACV, USARV, USPACFLT, 7th AF, 7th PSYOPS, and our headquarters (the 525 Military Intelligence Group in Saigon) all received copies of our Intelligence Information Reports (IIRs), as they applied to their Areas of Operations and Interest. Unit 101 was an ARVN intelligence unit that also received selected reports. Being responsible for the distribution of all these IIRs allowed me to know the status of the remaining units, which would aid me later during the Easter Offensive of 1972.
Shortly after arriving at my unit, it became clear that it had been content to operate without understanding the tactical and strategic situation in I Corps (the identifier that most soldiers continued to use after it switched into the newer term, which I will continue to use in this article), relying on XXIV Corps, which soon became the First Regional Assistance Command (FRAC), for area knowledge when it became necessary. “The advisory command, recalled Major General Kroesen (the FRAC commander), was ‘heavily weighted to provide administrative assistance and logistical advice’ with only a token intelligence and operations section. It was neither manned nor equipped to monitor the combat actively or to provide tactical guidance.”1 The general and his staff failed to mention these “little” points to our intelligence organization. The rub, though, is that we were the only functioning intelligence unit in all of I Corps/FRAC during the Easter Offensive of 1972 and we didn’t know it!
I was very fortunate to work for an organization that didn’t inhibit new ideas – actually, this was not uncommon for intelligence units then and for the next few years after Vietnam ended. Trained as an Intelligence/Order of Battle Analyst, I began creating topical files on enemy units and equipment (the “old” Composition, Disposition, Strength, etc, of FM 30-5 that was drilled into us in intelligence school), while obtaining 1:50,000 scale UTM maps, which took up considerable wall space. Our unit was lucky to also have helicopter support from the 358th Aviation Detachment for 2-3 weeks every month for “ass and trash” missions. I would occasionally fill in for sick door gunners and visit our teams in Quang Tri, Hue, Chu Lai, Tam Ky and Quang Ngai, making notes on the physical features I saw to make changes to our maps, highlighting such things as avenues of approach, military crests, new physical features, friendly military positions, etc. This type of reconnaissance was supplemented by occasional trips by jeep, as well.
The maps were an immediate “hit” with our unit, as we and any visitors would be able to view and comment on where enemy units were positioned and other loci made while using the maps. The maps were obviously a tremendous asset during the Easter Offensive, especially since they were manually and accurately updated. Unexpectedly, an event occurred that made use of them beforehand.
As U.S. units left, so our presence would eventually follow and so would the amount of money that could be expended on our agents. So it fell to me to go through each agent’s reports and each net that we ran. I protested at first, but I was told simply that there was no one else qualified to do it because I knew the military situation in I Corps and had created topical files for each area and unit.
Well aware that this “paring down” of agents was a huge responsibility and what the consequences meant, I took 3-4 months’ worth of IIRs for each agent, my topical files and the appropriate maps and carefully waded through them all. What I found was eye-opening. Some of the agents had been reporting virtually the same events over and over, making little changes. Some agents rarely reported anything, while others sometimes described units located well outside their operational area. Some agents were mediocre and a few were exceptionally good – these reports were always valuable.
The next step was to rate all the agents, each net, and to justify the reasons for each rating. Having my recommendations affirmed by the area specialists and our leadership was gratifying. Little did we know that this was to become more of a plus in our accuracy and information reliability during the Easter Offensive.
The NVA/VC were “expected” to make trouble during TET (mid-February) 1972. Because nothing happened, the press took the intelligence and various other command organizations to task for not having any idea of what was going on and of being mere sycophants of the upper echelons. Events were to prove that the press weren’t too far off…
Because we were such a small unit that was HUMINT-oriented, we were never asked for our opinion or intelligence. We had received virtually nothing about TET from anyone, but early the next month (March), we started getting various indicators from our own agents. It is important to understand that we never received intel from 7th Air Force, MACV, DIA or CIA: our information always went up but NOTHING came down – we were disregarded, just as HUMINT was and generally is today.
The 324B NVA Division moved into the A Shau Valley in early-March, heading for its usual AO to the west of Hue to keep the 1st ARVN Division occupied. The 324B was a Military Region Tri-Thien-Hue (MRTTH) unit. As it moved through the A Shau, it linked up with the 5th and 6th Independent Infantry Regiments, also of the MRTTH. As time progressed, it was obvious that at least two regiments were moving northeasterly and could act as a blocking force along QL-1 (the main north-south highway in country), while the other two regiments confined 1st ARVN to Firebases Bastogne and Birmingham. There wasn’t as much as a single ARVN battalion able to defend Hue as the 324B engaged ARVN.
We started to receive information from across I Corps on targets and unit activity. Though we were generally a strategic unit and our IIRs were often not timely enough to act on, it was necessary to make or strengthen contacts to respond to the targets that were rapidly presenting themselves, which could just as rapidly move away. There had been no usual way for us to provide targets to air or ground forces before. We had gone out with 23rd (Americal) Infantry Division units to confirm some of our IIRs, but time was always critical as units and weapon caches moved, etc.
We had been coordinating with the local Special Forces unit when we received information on the “Salt and Pepper” VC propaganda team operating to the west of Chu Lai. I knew they had an on-call capability, so I would feed them information on newly developed targets, as well. I also had a friend that worked ARCLIGHT (i.e., B-52) targets in Saigon and would make sure the 196th Light Infantry Brigade would get infiltration and unit reports for their AO.
In early March, we had information concerning the forthcoming Offensive of major importance. “Moreover, among the reduced number of enemy documents that were exploited were detailed orders of battle and COSVN plans for the spring offensive”2 contained in our IIRs. Even this information wasn’t enough to convince other intelligence agencies, nor command elements, that a major event was going to take place.
Throughout March 1972, the pace of incoming information quickened to the point that it was obvious that a major offensive was going to take place, but this time (and unlike TET 1968) it would involve main-force units, to include tanks – something the NVA had never done before! “One example of the close-mindedness of some senior military commanders was the total disregard (MG) Kroesen and (Gen) Westmoreland among others showed toward intelligence predictions of an enemy frontal assault along the Demilitarized Zone.”3
“John M. Oseth, who was then serving as the G-2 adviser to the 3rd ARVN Division, acknowledged that although there might have been isolated agent reports of an impending invasion, the general consensus, at least at the division level, was that the threat of enemy attack though present, was not great.”4
“The most prevalent problem in this regard was an unwillingness on the part of commanders to heed warnings of massed armor and heavy artillery.”5
“…and in spite of at least four separate human resources who claimed that there would be a ‘great offensive’ in the near future, American military personnel for the most part were dubious about any impending large-scale attack. Information from theses human sources proved to be both detailed and factually accurate as the Offensive took its course."6 Undoubtedly, this was our northernmost network of agents.
As the IIRs arrived, it was obvious that we needed to report our compiled information in an expeditious manner. Again, I was asked how best to do this and we went with an Intelligence Summary (INTSUM) format, which allowed us to report virtually everything with a minimum of format. There had never been an INTSUM used by the 525 MI Group before, undoubtedly because there had never been a tactical situation arise before like the Easter Offensive of 1972. An INTSUM was later imposed by the Group on all its detachments, twice a day.
Just prior to the Offensive, many of the major NVA units crossing the DMZ, their commanders and their probable avenues of approach and initial objectives were developed and reported in our INTSUM.
Though not specifically cited, South Vietnam’s Joint General Staff was said to have issued an alert for the end of March based on intelligence reporting. This implies that our INTSUMs were used by at least one organization, though it was not an American one!
In fact, even the ARVN had little idea of the I Corps situation for days afterwards and the U.S. FRAC commander was caught dumfounded. LTG Ngo Quang Truong, ARVN I Corps Commander (beginning 3 May 1972) wrote, “Although there was general agreement in the intelligence community – Vietnamese as well as American – that an offensive in early 1972 was highly probable, some observers of the Vietnam scene, perhaps those not as well informed as those of us privy (my emphasis) to the most reliable estimates, were influenced more by what seemed to them to be the illogic of a major North Vietnamese attack at this time.”7
Our reporting was ignored until after the offensive began on the morning of 30 March 1972. The exact time the Easter Offensive started depended on where you were located. One thing is certain, the NVA had acquired the M46 130mm Field Gun from the Soviets and they used it throughout the morning and very accurately.
In the first few hours of the Offensive, the first two Americans died. Both were US Army Security Agency soldiers assigned to the 407th Radio Research Detachment/8th RR Field Station. Bruce A. Crosby, Jr., and Gary P. Westcott were both working atop FSB Sarge when a rocket apparently blew up their bunker, killing them both.
As it was, the MACV commander, the U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, the MACV J-2 and others were visiting their wives out of country. The Secretary of Defense was headed for Puerto Rico to play golf and the Senior Advisor of Team 155 to 3rd ARVN was also headed out the same morning that the Offensive began. The South Vietnamese warning was obviously not believed or didn’t make it into the U.S. command elements anywhere in the country.
Just below the DMZ, the newly organized 3rd ARVN Division occupied the northern and western firebases. The 2nd ARVN Regiment was taken whole from the 1st ARVN Division, while the 56th and 57th ARVN Regiments were entirely new 3rd ARVN Division units, composed of deserters and malcontents from within South Vietnam.
In an odd twist of fate (or design), 3rd ARVN’s 56th and 2nd Regiments were coincidently turning off their comms and swapping firebases when the NVA began their extensive artillery preparation of the battlefield, which began the invasion. The problem-plagued 56th Regiment was to occupy the western and northwesterly facing firebases to lessen the effects of something called “firebase syndrome,” after having only spent a few months in one of the northern firebases! Both regiments were on the road when the shelling began – well exposed in the open to NVA artillery.
Eventually, elements of the 56th ARVN reached Camp Carroll, the lynchpin of the western firebases and the major artillery support location in northern South Vietnam.
We were the only unit providing current intelligence for the first few weeks of the Offensive – primarily due to the bad weather across northern I Corps keeping winged-aircraft away and because FRAC was no longer in the intel business. Knowing that the USN destroyers were providing gunfire support in the waters off the DMZ (e.g., the USS Buchanan, DDG 14, in its resolute support of Captain Ripley and the Dong Ha Bridge), we tried to provide them with our INTSUMs (via the FRAC and NILO, who also supported the local SEALs). We also knew the destroyers would be in contact with PACFLT, who would also converse with MACV about the current situation.
The first day of the Offensive quickly became a Friday and a Saturday heralding the beginning of April and there was proverbially no rest for the weary. By Saturday, every ARVN firebase north of the Cam Lo River had fallen, from where the 57th ARVN had already been routed. But the first Sunday of the month (2 April 1972) was to be the most memorable.
Three key events were to occur within 1 ½ hours of each other on this Easter Sunday afternoon of 1972.
The first major incident occurred at 1520 when the LTC Phan Van Dinh surrendered all of his 56th ARVN Regiment at Camp Carroll to the 24th NVA Infantry Regiment/304th NVA Infantry Division and a tank company. The exploits of LTC Camper and MAJ Brown, who tried to convince LTC Dinh not to surrender are well-known. Dinh’s cowardice didn’t end with his surrender of Camp Carroll, as the next day he broadcast on Radio Hanoi to the military in South Vietnam to lay down their arms because the NVA was sure to win. The fall of Camp Carroll compelled the firebase at Mai Loc to be evacuated minutes later as the 66th NVA Infantry Regiment pressed their attack. The whole western defense line crumbled.
On the U.S. Army side, MG Kroesen wrote several statements in Quang Tri: The Lost Province that directly bear on this particular event. “The surrender (of Camp Carroll) has never been explained” and “…unidentified personnel of the regiment made radio contact with the enemy to arrange surrender terms.” LTC Dinh was the traitor who made the call and the arrangements. Another Kroesen error also mentions that the 56th lost two of its battalions and three artillery batteries, while “a third battalion refused to surrender and fought its way to Dong Ha.”8 This statement directly contradicts Camper and Brown’s MFR, as well as any other known documents and makes one wonder where this information originated. Not one battalion even attempted to fight its way out and there was a report that most of the 56th had been executed in the vicinity of the Rockpile, northwest of Camp Carroll.
Ironically, sometimes the press knew more than the generals. For instance, the Stars and Stripes had this to say about the fall of Camp Carroll. “The most crushing blow to the South Vietnamese Sunday was the fall of Camp Carroll, which had been pounded with hundreds of artillery, rocket and mortar shells since last Thursday. ‘Field reports said some government troops may have escaped and those left ran up a white flag of surrender. ‘All American advisors had been evacuated from Carroll by helicopter just before it fell, sources said. ‘It was not immediately known whether the four long-range 175mm artillery guns at Carroll were destroyed or fell into Communist hands.”9 A battery of four 175mm guns, a 155mm Howitzer battery, two 105mm batteries and numerous quad-50s and twin-40s were lost to the enemy. In their haste to surrender, none of these weapons were rendered useless.
One of the 175mm guns remains on display in Hanoi. The forfeiture of all the artillery in Camp Carroll without a fight represented the almost complete loss of all indirect fire assets in northern South Vietnam, with the exception of U.S. naval gunfire off the coast.
Even more outrageously, Kroesen wrote that the surrender of Camp Carroll “had not shaken the morale or confidence of the other defending forces to any noticeable degree.” The reverberations of a surrender of a whole regiment were quickly and keenly felt across the country. American advisors assigned to II and III Corps have written of the instances of cowardice and of turncoats after the Camp Carroll surrender occurred in their areas.
The second major incident was the Bridge at Dong Ha, which was blown at 1630, after various contradictory orders. The ARVN leadership didn’t want the bridge blown in order to use it for a counterattack, but the 3rd ARVN was not up to the task with NVA tanks attempting to cross the bridge. Marine Captain Ripley and Army Major Smock ended up blowing the bridge after great difficulty, with the assistance of the USS Buchanan which was laying close in-shore supporting them. The Buchanan is credited with destroying at least four PT-76 tanks. Though Team 155 Senior Advisor and a South Vietnamese I Corps commander (who was not assigned to I Corps at the time) all credit ARVN for blowing up the bridge, it is obvious that Ripley and Smock brought the span down under the eyes of the Buchanan.
The final major event of that Easter occurred some 20 minutes later, at 1650, when an EB-66, call sign Bat-21, was shot down south of the DMZ by SA-2/Guidelines located SOUTH of the DMZ in South Vietnam. Only one of the crew made it out of the aircraft, parachuting right into the attacking 308th NVA Division’s area. An immediate 27km no-fire zone was automatically imposed around the crewman (an Air Force lieutenant colonel). As Dong Ha Bridge was just blown, the invading NVA were forced to move west to the Cam Lo Bridge to cross or ford the Mieu Giang River, adding to the number of enemy troops in the area.
Though the no-fire zone was reduced, many enemy troops, trucks and tanks were able to cross the bridge at Cam Lo because it was not blown for 12 more days. The no-fly zone was a great matter of concern to ARVN and their advisors (et al), who chafed at the protection one man was receiving as the NVA moved without molestation in the area.
These three major events also show some of the major problems that occurred in Vietnam. The creation, training, and deployment of the 3rd ARVN Division was an open invitation to the NVA to strike at the key to the western firebases. The changing dynamics of the battlefield which caused Ripley and Smock to act, undoubtedly saved lives by forcing the NVA to find a crossing to the west. The knowledge that SAMs and AAA had set-up shop in South Vietnam were known to USAF. The NVA had also created and improved the road network through the DMZ into South Vietnam allowing the NVA an easier entry into the South, which was observed and reported by 1st MIBARS during the year before.
As can be imagined, contact with our agents became increasingly more difficult as the Offensive continued, especially the northern most network in South Vietnam. The NVA divisions roared through the DMZ and Laos, primarily fighting in a regimental organizational structure.
Dropping the Ball
There were many senior officers who quite literally dropped the ball in not embracing the intelligence given them and acting upon it.
We will begin with COL Donald J. Metcalf, Senior Advisor of Team 155, advising 3rd ARVN Division. His U.S. War College Paper is an interesting bit of equivocation. The first few pages have to do with why he didn't know the Offensive was coming and the role of intelligence. For instance, “I contend that among all the items of intelligence produced prior to the attack, a small fraction indicated that such an offensive might occur, but other equally sizable and equally believable fractions indicated that something less might occur. ‘The sources available to me were the G2’s of the 1st and 3rd ARVN Divisions, and the American estimates produced by XXIV Corps, and they were in general agreement that the enemy would repeat the dry season activities of previous years....” Past activity patterns, he wrote “can cloud the observer’s vision…” and “may have led informed persons in the intelligence community to give less credence than was warranted to (other) indications….”10 A not so nice way of blaming intelligence for the mistakes of a professional combat commander, it seems.
What COL Metcalf forgot to mention is that one the 571st’s Teams was co-located on Quang Tri and they were also recipients of our INTSUM, as well.
Kroesen states that, “Only a superficial study of the map, the foot mobility of the enemy, and the history of prior years was needed to conclude that these preparations would require two to three months.”11 Yes, general, but there were many reports of vehicular Ho Chi Minh Trail activity and of NVA activity above the DMZ and let’s not forget the 1st MIBARS reports that stated the NVA were expanding and improving roads below the DMZ, too. As for the history of previous years, one wonders why, “It’s always been this way” is an excuse? General Kroesen’s FRAC also received our INTSUMs, though he admits his intelligence capabilities were limited, one would have thought he would have prized any information (especially in light of some of his statements).
MACV, PACFLT, 7th AF, CIA, DIA, JCS, the South Vietnamese JGS and even the Secretary of Defense had no expectations of a North Vietnamese offensive. All had preconceptions, helped along by the NVA who showed the U.S. and South Vietnamese what they expected to see. Americans still became KIAs and WIAs (as did the ARVN and South Vietnamese Marine Corps-SVMC), though only a couple of U.S. units remained in-country after all the U.S. divisions left. The indiscriminate artillery shelling of thousands of civilians caused thousands of deaths, as well.
One of the reasons given by some high-ranking individuals was that they never thought the North Vietnamese would break their agreement of not striking from the DMZ. This, despite the years of the North Vietnamese and VC lying only adds to the incredulity that the Easter Offensive of 1972 was allowed to happen.
“(John Paul) Vann (who commanded II Corps/SRAC), ever the doubting Thomas, stated on 7 February 1972 that ‘Intelligence gathering is the chief problem’ and that ‘Nearly all reliable intelligence is limited to US S.I. (Special Intelligence) Channels.”12 Don’t listen to all of your intelligence personnel at your peril.
Having had this HUMINT experience, as I continued my MI career for a few more years in an all-source, multi-service environment, I found that HUMINT was often derided by commanders and analysts alike. Just as in Vietnam (and WWII before it), SIGINT was all knowing and all-important, with HUMINT relegated to a last-place position. I was to find years later that the remaining SIGINT units in Vietnam did have indications of some kind of NVA activity, but none of it was disseminated to other intel units. The question becomes why weren’t U.S. and ARVN/SVMC units warned?
LTG Michael Flynn, in his The Field of Fight, wrote about human intelligence and interrogation being “essentially nonexistent” at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Ft. Polk. He goes on to mention the “politicization of intelligence” and “don’t deliver bad news to your leaders” and how this “appears to be going in our intelligence system today regarding our fight against Radical Islamists….”13
Perhaps we need to relearn our lessons learned, again?
- USMC in Vietnam, 1971-73, p. 48-49.
- Thomas H. Lee, “Military Intelligence Operations and the Easter Offensive,” (USA Center of Military History, 6 September 1990), p. 25.
- Ibid, p. 32.
- Ibid, p. 4.
- Ibid, p. 6.
- Ibid, p. 14.
- LTG Ngo Quang Truong, The Vietnam War, An Assessment by South Vietnam’s Generals, (TX, Texas Tech University Press, 2010), p. 610.
- MG Frederick J. Kroesen, “Quang Tri, The Lost Province” (PA, USA War College, 16 Jan 74), p. 8.
- “Reds Push Deeper South” (AP), (Stars & Stripes, 4 April 1972), p.1. & p. 24.
- COL Donald J. Metcalf, “Why Did the Defense of Quang Tri Province, SVN Collapse?” (PA, USA War College, 23 October 1972), p. 3 & p.4.
- Kroesen, p. 4.
- Lee, p. 30.
- LTG Michael T. Flynn and Michael Ledeen, The Field of Fight, (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2016), p. 34-35.