Bob

Worthington

Writer  |  Soldier  |  Pilot

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Book #2 - Fighting Viet Cong in the Rung Sat: Memoir of a combat advisor in Vietnam, 1968-1969.

In February 1967, after my first tour in Vietnam as a combat advisor, I was a student in the Armor Officer’s Career Course. The Infantry branch decided I was to be cross-trained in Armor warfare. Upon graduation, I had orders for Ft. Benning, GA as an assistant editor for Infantry magazine, probably because of my Ivy League degree. Being a gung-ho infantry captain, though, I pressed for what was supposed to be the best job for an infantry officer, company commander; which I received.

 I was proud to be honored by my commanders for the hard work and sacrifices as a combat advisor, to stay at Vann’s home and to be transferred to Saigon as a reward for faithful service. Shortly after arriving in Saigon and starting my new job, I learned the truth. I was not being honored for my hard work as a combat advisor but fired because I had displeased two generals in the U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division. What I had done as an advisor regarding refugee resettlement and security issues for rural Vietnamese farmers happened to be in opposition to the combat operations of the 25th Division.

One example was the 25th Division “Rome Plow” strategy. This tactic involved the use of a special two-ton plow blade (made in Rome, GA), which was designed to clear jungle growth from ground level up. The division would use Rome Plows to clear a 100-yard swath on either side of a major road, used as a main supply route, thus denying the Viet Cong the ability to hide and conduct ambushes, from the jungle.

Unfortunately, the Vietnamese pacification program involved removing Vietnamese peasants and farmers from their villages in the jungles, relocating them to newly built refugee sites alongside major roads as being better suited for security purposes. Thus, the Vietnamese would move its rural citizens to new locations, along major roads and then American units with Rome Plows would destroy refugee camps, rice fields, and anything else next to roads used as supply routes.

I was assigned to support Vietnamese government policies and operations and if they differed with American plans, I sided with the Vietnamese. So the 25th arranged to have me fired and replaced by one of their majors.

In Saigon my commander was a unique individual. He was a U.S. Army full colonel, James A Herbert, promotable to brigadier general. While an active duty officer, he was serving as a State Department Reserve Foreign Service officer. While working for him, I did not know that he was a founder of the Ranger Department at Ft. Benning, one of the Army’s first airborne rangers and a key player for Army special operations. During Korea, he commanded a Ranger company and was decorated for his actions defending terrain vital to a division operation, despite being severely wounded. I remained a friend of the general, even after leaving the Army. With the two commando companies in the Rung Sat, we conducted numerous raids on identified Viet Cong positions and destroyed the VC strong hold on the shipping canals leading into Saigon.

Many of our combat raids were special operation missions, based on acquisition of intelligence gathered by our Phoenix Program personnel. The Phoenix Program was a combined effort by both U.S. and Vietnamese military, Vietnamese National Police, our CIA, and Vietnamese government officials, down to the village levels. The goal was to identify and capture Viet Cong leaders and members.

Toward the end of my tour in Vietnam, I trained a U.S. Marine advisory team to replace me and my team members as advisors to the two commando units. I was diagnosed with Yellow Jaundice just prior to departing Vietnam, which was successfully treated after my return to the states.

I returned to Ft. Benning, where my family remained, and processed out of the Army. I left active duty but remained active in the Army Reserves. My family and I moved to Flagstaff, AZ where I entered a Counseling-Psychology Master’s degree program at Northern Arizona University in the fall of 1969. I received my degree in a year, worked as a counselor at the university for a year, and then moved to Salt Lake City to enter the PhD program in Counseling Psychology at the University of Utah. At the same time, the Army brought me back on active duty as a PhD student to then serve as an Army clinical psychologist. But that is an altogether different story, to be told at another time.

I needed money, so, newly promoted to major, I volunteered for another tour in Vietnam, as a combat advisor. Being in a Vietnamese combat unit and spending most of the time on combat operations meant I wouldn’t spend much money. If my family lived frugally, we would have enough saved at the end of my tour to afford grad school.

My second tour was mostly with Regional Force units (like our Reserve units), where I was assigned from MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) to CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support). CORDS was a single command made of U.S. military, the State Department, the CIA, and various other U.S. agencies. Its purpose was to combine military tactics with Vietnamese government programs to pacify rural areas and to support Vietnamese efforts at identifying and destroying the Viet Cong infrastructure. Both civilian (State Dept) and military advisors were assigned at District levels to advise on government and military operations (Vietnam had 250 districts, comparable to a county in the U.S.). I was a district senior advisor, twice, and my counterparts, the Vietnamese district chiefs, were always Vietnamese military officers.

My first district advisor position was on the Cambodian border (where the fighting was fierce, and the annual casualty rate was 500%, and I became one of the casualties). Next, I became the Senior Tactical Advisor to all the Vietnamese infantry units responsible for the security of all the bridges in Saigon. My last assignment was extremely interesting and very rewarding. I became the senior combat advisor to two Regional Force light infantry companies to train them as commando units. Our mission was to go after all the Viet Cong units attacking and disabling sea-going ships bringing goods into South Vietnam through the Saigon River and swamps of the Rung Sat Special Zone.

The Vietnamese troops were outstanding and very brave. The Viet Cong units had controlled the area for so long with no opposition, they became complacent, and rather easy to fight, compared to my time on the Cambodian border. When I began, I was transferred from Army control to the U.S. Navy Advisory Command as they were the advisors to all Vietnamese forces in the area because it involved the security of ships. I worked for Admiral Zumwalt and our success in combat resulted in me receiving two U.S. Navy decorations for Valor and two Vietnamese decorations for Valor.

My second tour in Vietnam was varied, exciting, interesting and very dangerous. It involved me being med-evaced after a combat operation due to a perceived cardiac arrest, ending up in the morgue, dead (I had hookworm, which presented signs of cardiac failure). I was shot up during a night special ops mission to interdict rockets coming across the Cambodian border to attack Saigon. I was told I was being transferred to an advisory assignment in Saigon because of my bout with hookworm and recovering from being shot, and as a reward for doing an extraordinary job as a combat advisor. I was even the special guest in the Vietnamese home of John Paul Vann, Deputy for CORDS for III Corps, who was the senior American I worked for.

Vann, a retired U.S. Army infantry Lieutenant colonel, believed in small unit tactics and patrols. He wanted the Vietnamese military squads and platoons constantly conducting night patrols. To ensure this was being done properly, he required his military district advisors (typically US Army majors) to persuade the Vietnamese to conduct these patrols and for the senior district advisors to accompany the squad and platoon patrols to make sure they did conduct a combat patrol instead of just moving out, into the brush and going to sleep.  As a major, I went on more small-unit patrols than I ever did as a captain.

Major Bob Worthington on his second tour in Vietnam as a combat advisor to ARVN Infantry Troops. He is pictured here holding two small Vietnamese girls, daughters of Vietnamese soldiers in the unit he advises. March 1969

I was proud to be honored by my commanders for the hard work and sacrifices as a combat advisor, to stay at Vann’s home and to be transferred to Saigon as a reward for faithful service. Shortly after arriving in Saigon and starting my new job, I learned the truth. I was not being honored for my hard work as a combat advisor but fired because I had displeased two generals in the U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division. What I had done as an advisor regarding refugee resettlement and security issues for rural Vietnamese farmers happened to be in opposition to the combat operations of the 25th Division.

One example was the 25th Division “Rome Plow” strategy. This tactic involved the use of a special two-ton plow blade (made in Rome, GA), which was designed to clear jungle growth from ground level up. The division would use Rome Plows to clear a 100-yard swath on either side of a major road, used as a main supply route, thus denying the Viet Cong the ability to hide and conduct ambushes, from the jungle.

Unfortunately, the Vietnamese pacification program involved removing Vietnamese peasants and farmers from their villages in the jungles, relocating them to newly built refugee sites alongside major roads as being better suited for security purposes. Thus, the Vietnamese would move its rural citizens to new locations, along major roads and then American units with Rome Plows would destroy refugee camps, rice fields, and anything else next to roads used as supply routes.

I was assigned to support Vietnamese government policies and operations and if they differed with American plans, I sided with the Vietnamese. So the 25th arranged to have me fired and replaced by one of their majors.

In Saigon my commander was a unique individual. He was a U.S. Army full colonel, James A Herbert, promotable to brigadier general. While an active duty officer, he was serving as a State Department Reserve Foreign Service officer. While working for him, I did not know that he was a founder of the Ranger Department at Ft. Benning, one of the Army’s first airborne rangers and a key player for Army special operations. During Korea, he commanded a Ranger company and was decorated for his actions defending terrain vital to a division operation, despite being severely wounded. I remained a friend of the general, even after leaving the Army. With the two commando companies in the Rung Sat, we conducted numerous raids on identified Viet Cong positions and destroyed the VC strong hold on the shipping canals leading into Saigon.

Many of our combat raids were special operation missions, based on acquisition of intelligence gathered by our Phoenix Program personnel. The Phoenix Program was a combined effort by both U.S. and Vietnamese military, Vietnamese National Police, our CIA, and Vietnamese government officials, down to the village levels. The goal was to identify and capture Viet Cong leaders and members.

Toward the end of my tour in Vietnam, I trained a U.S. Marine advisory team to replace me and my team members as advisors to the two commando units. I was diagnosed with Yellow Jaundice just prior to departing Vietnam, which was successfully treated after my return to the states.

I returned to Ft. Benning, where my family remained, and processed out of the Army. I left active duty but remained active in the Army Reserves. My family and I moved to Flagstaff, AZ where I entered a Counseling-Psychology Master’s degree program at Northern Arizona University in the fall of 1969. I received my degree in a year, worked as a counselor at the university for a year, and then moved to Salt Lake City to enter the PhD program in Counseling Psychology at the University of Utah. At the same time, the Army brought me back on active duty as a PhD student to then serve as an Army clinical psychologist. But that is an altogether different story, to be told at another time.

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From 1945 to 1973, more than 100,000 members of the U.S. military were advisors in Vietnam. Of these, 66,399 were combat advisors. Eleven were awarded the Medal of Honor, 378 were killed and 1393 were wounded. Combat advisors lived and fought with South Vietnamese combat units, advising on tactics and weapons and leasing with local U.S. military support. 

Bob Worthington’s first tour (1966 -1967) began with training at the Army Special Warfare School in unconventional warfare, Vietnamese culture and customs, advisor responsibilities and Vietnamese language. Once in-country, he acted as a senior advisor to infantry defense forces and then an infantry mobile rapid reaction force.

Worthington worked alongside ARVN forces, staging operations against Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army units, and coordinated actions with the U.S. Marines. He describes a night helicopter assault by a 320-man ARVN battalion against a 1,200-man NVA regiment. On another night, the Vietcong ceased fire while Worthington arranged a Marine helicopter to medevac a wounded baby.

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