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  #1  
Old 09 Dec 09, 10:42
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The Dak Son massacre: 6 Dec 67

From time to time I would like to share some of my original research with the group in order to stimulate discussion and solicit feedback. All help is appreciated. I am writing this pretty much on the fly so forgive any small errors it might contain.

Forty-two years ago this month, a large group of Communist soldiers attacked the Montagnard hamlet of Dak Son, located near the Cambodian border in Phuoc Long Province, and burned the community to the ground using flamethrowers. The enemy soldiers killed nearly 250 of the 800 inhabitants and wounded dozens of others. The attack ranks as one of the greatest atrocities of the Vietnam War although it is largely forgotten today.

The incident bugged me for a long time because the historical picture was so incomplete. There were two questions that kept coming to mind. First, what was the identity of the enemy unit? And second, what was the motive for the massacre? After making a careful search through the Vietnamese sources, I think I have some answers, or at least a theory, that may surprise many people.

First, what was the enemy unit involved? Contemporary reports say that Viet Cong soldiers were responsible but that never made sense. The large size of the attacking force (around 600 men) and the use of flamethrowers strongly suggested that the attacking force was a North Vietnamese main force unit. My first guess was the 88th PAVN Regiment because it had been in the Song Be area for over a month and was known to possess flamethrowers. My hunch turned out to be correct- a Vietnamese history of the war confirmed that a battalion from the 88th Regiment carried out the attack. Here is the relevant passage:
“History of the Resistance War Against the Americans to Save the Nation, 1954-1975, Volume V: The 1968 General Offensive and Uprising”

[Lich Su Khang Chien Chong My Cuu Nuoc, 1954-1975, Tap V: Tong Tien Cong Va Noi Day Nam 1968]

Military History Institute of Vietnam; Editor: Senior Colonel Nguyen Van Minh; Authors: Senior Colonel Nguyen Van Minh, Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Xuan Nang, Colonel Tran Tien Hoat, Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Huy Thuc, Senior Colonel Do Xuan Huy;

National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 2001

Page 20

...In the Phuoc Long sector, on 3 December 1967 a battalion of the 88th Regiment attacked the Dac Son strategic hamlet, annihilating two RF platoons. The attack, however, failed to completely finish off the enemy defenders, so our troops were unable to help the civilian residents to rise up against the enemy. On 6 December the enemy launched a counterattack. The Liberation Army’s 5th Regiment annihilated two enemy RF companies, captured 15 prisoners, and confiscated all of the enemy’s weapons....

That led me to the second question: why the massacre? There is no doubt that the enemy used terror tactics against civilians that were living under GVN control. Assassination, kidnapping, and death threats were commonplace. However, these punishments were usually directed at one or two specific individuals, not entire communities. The enemy weighed the political consequences of everything he did; the goal was to make an example out of a few people so the rest would acquiesce to Communist authority. Massacres of this kind were extremely rare. The only other major incident of this kind in my phase of the war was the Hue massacre. After investigating the history of the 88th Regiment, I began to piece together a story that might explain why the massacre occurred at Dak Son. You may find my answer to be surprising.

Between 1965 and mid-1967, the 88th Regiment served with the 1st PAVN Division in the Central Highlands. In his autobiography, General Anh, the commander of the 1st Division, wrote in a remarkably candid fashion about the problems that afflicted the 88th Regiment. It suffered from poor discipline, did not fight particularly well, and actually withdrew from battle without permission on several occasions. It was a problem unit, to be sure. In the later part of 1967, the unit traveled down to Military Region 10 in III Corps to become a part of the 5th PLAF Division. The unit arrived just in time to participate in the MR10 autumn campaign which began in late October. While the 9th PLAF Division fought the battle of Loc Ninh from late October into November, and then attacked the Bo Duc/Bu Dop area from November to early December, the 88th Regiment carried out several diversionary attacks against Song Be and nearby ARVN camps. The 88th Regiment suffered heavy casualties without accomplishing much of anything. It was at the end of this campaign that the unit got orders to attack Dak Son, a Montagnard hamlet that had resisted three attacks by local Viet Cong forces so far. Most of the 800 inhabitants were Stieng tribesmen who had fled Cambodia to escape a life of virtual serfdom under Communist rule. The attack on Dak Son was therefore a punitive measure- the villagers would be punished for fleeing Viet Cong territory and other Montagnard communities would be discouraged from doing the same. But why did the attack turn into a massacre? Here is what I think may have happened.

In early December, the 88th Regiment is in a foul mood. It had spent the last two years fighting in the Central Highlands, a place where food was in short supply but malaria and other diseases were not. It had made a difficult march south and then fought a five-week campaign that produced heavy losses for no apparent gain. The unit has serious discipline and morale problems that have only gotten worse over the last few months. Then the 88th Regiment gets an order to clear out the troublesome hamlet of Dak Son. The North Vietnamese soldiers are pissed off and looking for some payback. Like most Vietnamese, they regard the Montagnards as savages. Nearly every Montagnard they came across in the Central Highlands was an enemy- most of the border surveillance camps that the U.S. Special Forces operated were manned by Montagnard troops, for example. The troops are given flamethrowers (to burn down the 200-300 huts in the hamlet) and told they had no more than 3-4 hours to complete the operation. If they stayed until daybreak, the PAVN troops would be sitting ducks for allied artillery and air strikes, so time was of the essence. Did the regimental staff tell the battalion commander to exterminate everyone in the hamlet? I strongly doubt it- I suspect the order was to “clear out” the hamlet and burn it to the ground. However, once the battalion from the 88th Regiment got inside the hamlet and started torching the huts with flamethrowers, I think things started to get out of hand, My Lai style. The North Vietnamese troops, most of them young conscripts who had no personal or family ties to the South, may have been all too eager to cut corners. If civilians chose to hide the huts while the flamethrowers went to work, and people were cowering in bunkers as grenades were tossed inside, that was on them. Not our problem. The killing, it seems, went on fairly unchecked for awhile because nearly 250 civilians died in the attack. However, at some point the killing stopped, and that is a significant matter. The PAVN battalion could have easily killed many more people, but did not. I suspect the officers and the political cadre reined in the wanton violence at a certain point and restored order. Mission accomplished, the battalion disappeared back into the jungle.

My belief that the massacre was not intentional—not an official order that came from the regiment or division, in other words-- is buttressed by the fact that there is a thundering silence surrounding in the incident in the official Vietnamese records. The only mention is gets is in the above passage, which deliberately falsifies the facts. It claims that the 88th Regiment was actually trying to help the Montagnards “rise up against the enemy” and the fighting on 6 December was actually a defensive action on the part of the 88th Regiment, who were allegedly trying to protect the villagers. I should point out that the enemy is never shy about taking credit for things that he hoped to achieve, even heinous acts such as the Hue massacre, which the enemy took credit for (he admitted that Communist troops eliminated 3,000 “tyrants” and reactionaries). He makes no similar claim at Dak Son. The evidence for the 88th Regiment being a problem unit is further strengthened by the fact that it plays almost no role in the first and second waves of Tet, at a time when the enemy needed every main force unit it could field. Strange, I would say.

So, my conjecture that Dak Son was a kind of North Vietnamese My Lai is far from conclusive, but it seems entirely plausible to me. I look forward to hearing from others who have personal insights into this event. By the way, one of the best sources here in the U.S., the Allen J. Lavelle collection, can be found at the TTU Vietnam Archives- http://www.virtualarchive.vietnam.tt...%3D13450000000

EBV
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  #2  
Old 09 Dec 09, 10:50
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Erik, we have a member here, Ken Jensen, who was with the 1-28 Inf at Bu Dop in early December 1967, when the massacre took place.
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Old 09 Dec 09, 10:58
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I have found this entry in the chronology of the the MACV Command History for 1967, first time I hear about it though:

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Old 09 Dec 09, 11:06
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Hi EBV,

Quote:
Originally Posted by Tet68 Historian View Post
Between 1965 and mid-1967, the 88th Regiment served with the 1st PAVN Division in the Central Highlands. In his autobiography, General Anh, the commander of the 1st Division, wrote in a remarkably candid fashion about the problems that afflicted the 88th Regiment. It suffered from poor discipline, did not fight particularly well, and actually withdrew from battle without permission on several occasions. It was a problem unit, to be sure.
Could you provide more details on that autobiography? Thank you.

Altus
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Old 09 Dec 09, 11:32
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Quote:
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Hi EBV,
Could you provide more details on that autobiography? Thank you.

Altus
The PAVN preparing for the counter attack
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  #6  
Old 09 Dec 09, 11:38
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Historian, an interesting post indeed!. I wonder what the ethnic makeup of the 88th Regiment was. The general assumption is that they were "Kinh", and if so, I assume they were drafted from a particular location in North Vietnam. I wonder where that region was. (Thai or Muong Highlands, Bac Kan region, Nung or Tho Highlands? Red River Delta, etc.) There were several thousand Highlanders who went North in 1954-55, but I have no idea if any Stieng were among them. Nor were the Stieng, as far as I know, particularly prominent in the FULRO movement. Absent some other unknown political, historical, or ethnigraphic factor that would have induced a massacre, your My Lai analogy certainly makes sense. One wonders if the 88th Regiment was filled with HCMs equivalent of "McNamara's 100,000", i.e. the "Cat IVs" of the NVA.
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Old 09 Dec 09, 11:57
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General An's account comes in “New Battlefield” [Chien Truong Moi]
Colonel General Nguyen Huu An (as told to Nguyen Tu Duong), People’s Army Publishing House, Hanoi, 2002 (Second Printing), Pages 52-57.

Here An is talking about preparing his Nov 66 campaign in the Central Highlands.

"As we conducted our reconnaissance, at the same time we discussed battle plans right there on the terrain where we would fight. Almost all the cadre had fought against American troops over the past two years, and all of them agreed that, “It is not difficult to lure the Americans in, but it is not easy to completely annihilate one of their units.” Because of this, it was easy for us to reach agreement on our plan. As for the 88th Regiment, however, although the regiment had no reason to reject our plan, I could tell from the attitude of the regiment’s command personnel that the regiment did not really believe in the plan. After the units had moved in to occupy their combat positions, I inspected 88th Regiment and I found that the atmosphere a bit careless. The 120mm mortar battalion, the primary fire support unit for the plan, had not collected all the necessary firing data and coordinates. Cadre whispered to one another, “There is no way the Americans would come out to a place like this to fight.” I called another meeting to explain the situation so that the regiment’s cadre fully understood our tactics and gained a better understanding of the character of the American troops they would be facing. There were times that the discussion became rather tense, and I was forced to make use of my position as the commander to impose my will. I told them,
“If I am not able to lure the enemy out to this location, I will take the responsibility in the eyes of the Front Command, but if the enemy comes out here and you do not attack them, I promise you that you will all be disciplined!”

One cannot say for sure that the 88th Regiment was still having problems a year later, but it does raise that possibility.

EBV
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Old 09 Dec 09, 14:49
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Boonierat View Post
Erik, we have a member here, Ken Jensen, who was with the 1-28 Inf at Bu Dop in early December 1967, when the massacre took place.
Right you are Boonie.
Here is a link showing our logs for a few of the days while we were at Bu Dop http://www.armchairgeneral.com/forum...ec.#post818285

Our unit went back to Quan Loi for a couple days rest then out to Song Be on Dec 13th. Here is a picture of a patrol of my Platoon (I believe was taken during one of the many patrols at Song Be).



I only have one plotted map for our unit (1/28th) of the Song Be area at this time (it's a 1:250,000) - only shows location. In the future, I will be plotting additional information on 1:50,000 maps from our Daily Journal Logs while we were at Song Be.

I previously informed "History" that I had some logs and other stuff, but he didn't seem to interested. He seems to be trying to polish up his LARGE book; probably really overloaded with that task! OH well, maybe later when I have finished more of my project for my unit.

P.S. Would be nice if "History" would provide maps of the areas he talks about - most of us Vets really didn't know where the hell we were most the time LOL!


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Last edited by KEN JENSEN; 09 Dec 09 at 15:28..
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Old 09 Dec 09, 14:59
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Ken-

Yes, you are correct that I'm overloaded at the moment! I have a looming deadline to meet by the end of the month so I am going full steam with the manuscript. However, I AM quite interested in reading your daily logs and delving into the story of the 1/28 even further. I have finished writing my account of the Bo Duc/Bu Dop battle and will pass along some relevant material that you may not be able to obtain anywhere else.

In addition to writing my big book, I am also working on a number of side projects in my spare time (what spare time?). The Bo Duc/Bu Dop/Dak Son/Song Be story of November-December 1967 is one of those stories that I am following right now.

I apologize in advance if I do not always respond in a timely manner- I have about ten balls juggling in the air right now, but I will follow through as time permits.

EBV
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Old 09 Dec 09, 15:09
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For those who are not aware, Erik works for the US Army Center of Military History and is currently writing the third volume of the US Army operational history of the Vietnam War. Needless to say that I am very excited by his project
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Old 09 Dec 09, 15:46
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In reply to Kens picture caption, the person faacing the camera is definately Bill Turner. History of the BuDop area from Nov 29th through December 67 is really relevent to DELTA Co. 1/28th due to fact that several of our own were KIA in the area (previous posts). Holler when the "Big" book is completed as I would love to purchse to add to my collection of books.
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Old 09 Dec 09, 16:25
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Altus,
This incident is another example of how "your" side motivated S. Vietnam folks! (Like I said before, one incident in hundreds that happened on a daily basis).

Also, this is a prime example on how I knew this chit happened; again we were there on Patrol a week after the incident (Dec 13, 1967 - "a day late and a dollar short".

Here is info and link to a Time Magazine article written on Dec 15, 1967
Quote:
The Viet Cong were not intent on a military victory but on the coldblooded, monumental massacre of the helpless Montagnards
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/ar...7586-1,00.html


P.S.
THANKS COOP! You never did clear up for me who that was in the picture.
heeheehee, and of course here is a related picture of some of my fine troops showing a couple of "old farts" specifically, Tom Cooper and Bill Turner;






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Old 09 Dec 09, 16:47
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Tom-

The GPO is going to publish a cloth-bound edition of my book BUT I am also aiming to have my book available online, for free, on day one (if you don't mind reading it on a computer screen). I am also planning on enhancing the digital version with interactive maps and hyplinked primary sources. My aim is to make the book a living, evolving thing, where veterans can contribute to it and comment on it over a period of years or even decades. This, I think, will be the new model for history books in the 21st century. Or at least I hope so~

EBV
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Old 09 Dec 09, 16:58
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Tet68 Historian View Post
Tom-

The GPO is going to publish a cloth-bound edition of my book BUT I am also aiming to have my book available online, for free, on day one (if you don't mind reading it on a computer screen). I am also planning on enhancing the digital version with interactive maps and hyplinked primary sources. My aim is to make the book a living, evolving thing, where veterans can contribute to it and comment on it over a period of years or even decades. This, I think, will be the new model for history books in the 21st century. Or at least I hope so~

EBV
WOW! Erick. The on-line interactive stuff sounds GREAT! Of course I only know about 1/28th stuff between Jul '67 and Feb '68. Tom Cooper knows stuff from Apr '67 to Apr '68. Hope I live to see it on line. MAKE SURE YOU LET US KNOW HERE at ACG when it's available.


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Old 09 Dec 09, 18:22
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altus is walking in the light [200] altus is walking in the light [200] altus is walking in the light [200] altus is walking in the light [200] altus is walking in the light [200] altus is walking in the light [200] altus is walking in the light [200] altus is walking in the light [200] altus is walking in the light [200] altus is walking in the light [200] altus is walking in the light [200] altus is walking in the light [200]
Hi EBV,

Quote:
Originally Posted by Tet68 Historian View Post
General An's account comes in “New Battlefield” [Chien Truong Moi]
Colonel General Nguyen Huu An (as told to Nguyen Tu Duong), People’s Army Publishing House, Hanoi, 2002 (Second Printing), Pages 52-57.
Thank you. That's what I suspected. I know the book, but I do not recall reading in it about

Quote:
It suffered from poor discipline, did not fight particularly well, and actually withdrew from battle without permission on several occasions. It was a problem unit, to be sure
, hence my question.

Quote:
Here An is talking about preparing his Nov 66 campaign in the Central Highlands.
Here Gen. An (yes, the same that commanded PAVN units in the Battle of Ia Drang) discussed the "cascade luring" tactics he planned to use in what he described as an encounter between the 88th and a company (?) of the 4th INF DIV near the Cambodian border on Oct 25, 1966. (BTW do you know under what name this is referred to on the US side? I guess it was part of the Operation Paul Revere IV, but is there any codename for that specific encounter?) This passage tells only about the difference between the 88th staff and Gen. An in their appraisals the potential effectiveness of the said "luring" tactics. To conclude that the 88th had any morale or attitude problem therefrom would be too far stretched in my opinion.

This 88th (actually e88A) within the 1st Division in 1966 was a crack unit, as it was part of the 308th "Vanguard" Division (The Iron Division). The 308th was to the PAVN something the 1st INF DIV was to the US Army. So its potential morale problems were surprising to me. Perhaps chiangshan migh be able to shed more light on why it was not used during Tet.

As for the events in Dak Son, I had known little about it, not to mention the presence of an element of the 88th in it. So I'm as interested in finding more on them as you all are.

Best regards,

Altus
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