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MALCOLM W. BROWNE:
Saigon AP Bureau Handbook


Page 20 of 22 Back  Main  Next


XVIII. ORGANIZATION OF ARMED FORCES IN VIET NAM

The Saigon government's major armed forces include the regular army (ARVN), the air force (VNAF), the navy and the marine corps.

All military aircraft, including helicopters, are part of the air force.

Besides the major fighting arms, there are several paramilitary organizations. The two most important -- the Civil Guard (Bao An) and Self Defense Corps (Dan Ve) suffer the bulk of government casualties.

The Civil Guard originally was set up to give each of the 41 provinces in South Viet Nam its own semi-autonomous fighting force. The Self Defense Corps originally was in the jurisdiction of the districts or even villages, and grass-roots hamlet protection often is provided by the SDC.

Both organizations now are under the Defense Ministry command, however, which has made it possible for U.S. advisors to work with them.

Designations of Vietnamese units is usually given (for both government and Viet Cong forces) in conventional military terms, but strengths of designated units do not coincide with American designations.

Here, approximately, are the strengths of the different types of Vietnamese unit:

Squad -- 12 men; Platoon -- 25-30 men; Company -- 100-120 men; Battalion -- 400-500 men; Regiment -- 1,200-1,500 men; Division -- 4,500-5,000 men, Corps -- About 25,000 men.

In the field, regular soldiers and Civil Guards are dressed about the same, both in American-style combat fatigues or khakis. Insignia of rank in all forces are stripes on the sleeves for enlisted men, metal devices worn in the center of the chest for officers.

Officers' insignia are: One gold circle with curving line across it -- "Aspirant" (Officer Candidate); One gold leaf -- 2nd Lieutenant; Two gold leaves - 1st Lieutenant; Three gold leaves -- captain; one silver leaf -- major; Two silver leaves -- lieutenant colonel; Three silver leaves -- colonel; Two silver stars (there are no single stars) -- brigadier general; Three silver stars -- major general; Four silver stars -- general (there is only one man holding this rank. He is General Le Van Ty, aging commander of all the armed forces, who is in semi-retirement).

Other organizations that fight include the Republican Youth Corps (Thanh Nien Cong Hoa), made up mostly of civil servants up to the age of 35. It has more than one million members, some of whom, in rural communities, are called on to fight, especially during enemy attacks. They normally wear blue uniforms. (On Monday in Saigon, they are required to wear their uniforms to work, stand formation at 7:30 a.m. in front of their offices, and train.)

There is a paramilitary Women's Corps (organized by the First Lady, Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu), whose members receive some combat training. They rarely actually fight, however. They also wear blue.

The National Gendarmerie serves mainly as a rural police force, but sometimes gets into fights with the Viet Cong. Gendarmes wear khakis with red, visored caps.

The Civic Action Corps consists of cadres theoretically trained to fight, carry out propaganda missions, spy, help with rural administration, and otherwise operate as multi-threat anti-guerrillas. They wear blue.

Marines in the field wear characteristic green and black camouflaged nylon fatigues.

Rangers often wear the same fatigues, but marked with a black and yellow shoulder patch depicting a snarling tiger's head.

Some organizations wear berets of characteristic colors. Beret colors are:

Red -- paratroopers; Green -- marines; Brown -- rangers; Black or green -- army special forces; Black -- palace guards; Tan -- political officers, interrogators and translators. The presidential palace guard wears white uniforms similar to the metropolitan police.

South Viet Nam is divided into four corps areas; the northern-most is I Corps, the southernmost is IV Corps. These areas are marked on maps at the AP office. Each corps is commanded by a general, who is responsible to the Chief of Staff in Saigon. Each corps includes several divisions.

There are special commands for the Captial Region (Saigon and vicinity) and for D Zone (a major Viet Cong "liberated" area north and northeast of Saigon).

IV Corps currently is commanded by Brig. Gen. Huynh Van Cao, a champion press-hater from way back. Unfortunately, his corps includes the delta and everything else south of Saigon where most of the fighting is. A correspondent can expect no cooperation whatever from him, and it is best to stay out of his way.

The Viet Cong divides South Viet Nam into five "Zones" with several "Interzone" headquarters. Main Viet Cong strength is in the delta, in the southern tip (An Xuyen and neighboring provinces), and D Zone, with strong pockets all the way up the coast and in the inland mountains.

Viet Cong uniforms vary. Some are black (standard South Vietnamese peasant garb), some are khaki, some are Hanoi-green. Viet Cong troops often wear bush hats (white or olive drab), but regulars generally wear the old Viet Minh wicker-and-plastic helmet, which looks like an inverted pie tin with deep sides. Their flag is red on top, blue on the bottom, with a yellow star in the center. Sometimes they carry the North Vietnamese flag, which is solid red with a yellow star in the center.

In general, the Viet Cong's three main forces (South Viet Nam Liberation National Front People's Self Defense Forces) are broken down the same as government land forces, that is, into regular (hard-core) guerrillas, territorial guerrillas (corresponding to the Civil Guard), and the Self Defense Corps.

The U.S. military establishment all comes under the heading U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), currently commanded by Gen. Paul D. Harkins (four stars).

Sub-commands include the Military Assistance Advisory Command (MAAG) under which most advisors work, and the U.S. Army Support Group, which has to do with direct support (helicopters, for example).

The U.S. Army Special Forces have a role all their own. They work under the Combined Studies group, of which Col. Gilbert Layton is currently the commander. Their relations with the Central Intelligence Agency and other spook groups are close. They are most active in the highlands, where their primary mission is bringing the various tribal "montagnard" groups back into the fold.

U.S. Air Force activity is mostly under the 2nd Air Division. It's pilots fly many of the Vietnamese air force planes, including the T28s and B26s. (Vietnamese airforce insignia is exactly the same as U.S. Airforce insignia, except that the side panels are boxed in red with a red center stripe instead of white in the rest of the box. It's easy to confuse with American markings.)

There are also U.S. Airforce jet fighters stationed on and off at Saigon. These are F101s, F102s and occasionally others from the "century series." Most U.S. air activity is kept under secrecy wraps, but hard-driving reporting techniques can dig out information sometimes.

The U.S Agency for International Development mission in Viet Nam (USAID) is also active in military matters, particularly its new Rural Affairs Section. The section currently is headed by Rufus Phillips, a former (?) CIA operativ, who built a reputation for anti-guerrilla know-how in the Philippines.


Courtesy Malcolm W. Browne.

Photo: Horst Faas, Mal Browne and Peter Arnett in the Saigon AP office. Photo credit: Peter Arnett collection Reporter's Notebook
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