The Big Red One leads the way again, this time in Vietnam

Members of the 1st Infantry Division were among the first U.S. soldiers to be sent to Vietnam in the mid-1960s.


1st ID lost more than 2,000 soldiers over five years


Part III of a three-part series, “The Big Red One: Nearly a century of war”.

That turquoise claymore mine concealed on the Vietnamese jungle floor should have killed Dave Wright.

In January 1969, Wright had been in the country only a few months and often walked point in Company A platoons of 1st Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment. It was not a desirable place to be.

“I was given the job of walking point about two weeks after I arrived in the company,” said Wright, now 60. “One of the old-timer’s theories went that if you were going to get killed, it was better to happen before you suffered a long while in country.”

On that fateful day, everybody near the front of the column simultaneously saw the mine and its detonation wire running into the jungle. Most of Wright’s squad ran and ducked behind a nearby termite mound.

Wright isn’t sure what happened next.

“For some reason, I felt like somebody pushed me down,” he said, adding that he was about 15 feet away from the mine. The claymore went off and there was some fighting. When he could, Wright retreated for the safety of the termite mound.

“When I went back to the mound, it wasn’t there anymore. It had been booby-trapped, and everyone had been killed.”

Wright was unharmed. “I think I was supernaturally protected,” he said. “It just wasn’t my time.”

By the mid-1960s, American forces began arriving in large numbers to the jungles of Vietnam. They met an enemy that didn’t fight them face to face, a phantom who knew the terrain and faded into the foliage at any time.

And the 1st Infantry Division led the charge.

The Big Red One was the first division to be deployed in Vietnam largely because it was the most prepared for combat, said Steve Bowman, a 1st ID historian and Vietnam veteran.

“Like World War I and World War II, the 1st Division was leading the way,” Bowman said. During the Cold War, the division always had a forward-deployed force in Europe, and it was better trained than most, he said.

Division forces were partially responsible for security just north of Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, and would spend much of their five years there defending the city from communist forces.

The 1st ID often guarded a road known as Route 13, or “Thunder Road,” Bowman said.

“You’ll hear that in the jargon today, a ‘thunder run,’” he said. “That comes from the 1st Division in Vietnam. They’d do these thunder runs to move up and down the road.”

Fighting a large guerrilla army was frustrating for American forces. While they were on search-and-destroy missions that could last up to five days, it was hard to sleep, Wright said.

“You didn’t sleep in the jungle, you stayed half awake,” he said. “The Viet Cong owned the night and we didn’t know the country and the people like they did. We fought them 10 to one but didn’t understand their commitment.”

Aside from booby-traps, such as mines and hanging grenades, the VC used elaborate tunnel networks, Bowman said.

“Some of the most extensive tunnel complexes in South Vietnam were in the 1st Infantry Division’s area of operations,” he said. “[Division forces] would go through and take an area, and all of a sudden the Viet Cong would be coming up and ambushing them from behind.”

Adversity breeds innovation

With a new enemy came new ways to fight for The Big Red One.

During the search-and-destroy missions, the division would always be preceded by marching artillery fire, Burke said.

“The policy was to find the enemy with soldiers, with ground units, but then back off a bit to use heavy artillery to destroy the enemy soldiers,” he said.

Maj. Gen. Paul DePuy adopted this tactic after taking command of the division in 1966.

“DePuy believed that artillery shells were cheaper than men’s lives and that the purpose of the infantry was to advance artillery forward observers to positions from which they could direct heavy fire against the enemy,” writes Scott Wheeler in “Duty First—The 1st Infantry Division,” a chronicling of The Big Red One. DePuy was criticized for that belief.

He also developed foxholes in Vietnam that had firing ports facing to the left and right, rather than straight ahead, Wheeler said. This allowed interlocking coverage.

The foxholes also were covered with logs and sand bags to protect against mortars and enemy artillery. They went on to become standard in much of the Army.

After the fighting

In 1970, after five years on the ground, the division was sent back to Fort Riley, Kan. More than 2,000 1st ID soldiers had been killed in action, including Maj. Gen. Keith Ware, a division commander whose helicopter was shot down north of Saigon in 1968.

But unlike the glorious homecomings after World War I and II, only a small group of veterans accompanied the colors to Fort Riley, according to Wheeler.

And soldiers for the most part came home alone after completing their tour, or as a casualty too injured to remain with the division.

Iraq: A new war for an old division

To hear most American troops tell it, duty in Iraq is boring, full of mundane tasks and daily drudgery.

Until something happens.

“You’re there, and it’s really boring for a long time,” said Sgt. Larry Underwood. “Then something happens, and you can’t let it overwhelm you.”

Soldiers call it the “violent calm” — a time when training and reflexes trump panic — and it’s experienced by countless troops while deployed in Iraq. Underwood’s “violent calm” moment helped him free fellow soldiers who were trapped in a burning Bradley in July 2004. For his efforts, he received a Silver Star.

Moments of sheer danger amid long bouts of the daily grind were a fact for the 1st ID’s Iraq deployment. The division arrived just as the insurgency started to flare up in early 2004.

“The war in Iraq changed just as the 1st ID came in,” said Steve Bowman, a historian who is working on a book about the division’s time in Iraq. “Instead of a nation-building operation, the insurgency really started.”

Continue reading “Iraq: A new war for an old division”

A medic from the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division searches the sky for a helicopter to evacuate a wounded buddy in June 1967.