In what the United States military and political senior leadership saw as a continuing struggle against the spread of Communist aggression, small numbers of American military advisors were sent to South Vietnam in 1956 to help train the South Vietnamese military to resist armed aggression sponsored by the Communist government of North Vietnam. An armed insurgency orchestrated by North Vietnam began in South Vietnam the following year. In response, additional American military advisors were sent to South Vietnam. By 1965, there were almost 20,000 American military advisors in South Vietnam.
As the South Vietnamese military floundered in its struggle against the Communist sponsored insurgency, a decision was made in 1965 to officially commit American military ground forces to the growing conflict. The first American military ground force unit to arrive in South Vietnam was the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (9TH MEB), which waded ashore near the coastal city of Da Nang, on 8 March 1965. The next day they brought ashore a platoon of five M48A3 Patton tanks belonging to the 3rd Tank Battalion. It took until July 1965 before the battalion’s entire inventory of tanks was ashore in South Vietnam.
The first major combat encounter in South Vietnam that involved American tanks occurred in August 1965 when Marine Corps armor went up against enemy defensive positions in “Operation Starlite,” and inflicted heavy losses on the Viet Cong troops manning them, with some losses to themselves.
The deployment of the Marine Corps 3rd Tank Battalion was against the wishes of the United States ambassador to South Vietnam and the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) who felt that tanks were not suitable for the terrain, the counter insurgency warfare taking place, and would place an undue strain on the logistical support system. With this thought in mind, U. S. Army ground force combat units that arrived in South Vietnam in 1965 had mostly been stripped of their tank battalions before arriving in country. At the same time, however, American units began encountering not just enemy guerilla units (referred to as the Viet Cong or VC) primarily using hit and run tactics, but main force North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units that often employed conventional tactics when the opportunity presented itself.
The appearance of main force NVA units in South Vietnam helped overcome the resistance of many senior leaders in the U. S. Army who initially felt that there was no place for tanks in the battle for Southeast Asia. U. S. Army ground force units that began arriving in South Vietnam in 1966 came with their full complement of M48A3 tanks. The successful combat use of these vehicles in various battles that took place between 1966 and 1967 convinced many of the non-believers that there was indeed a valuable place on the battlefields of Southeast Asia for tanks despite various terrain obstacles such as jungles and often less than optimum weather conditions.
The usefulness of the M48A3 tank and the other American armored fighting vehicles (AFVs) was proven again during the January/February 1968 surprise Tet offensive in which the VC and NVA moved out of their countryside lairs and struck at the urban population centers of South Vietnam and various large American military bases. It was American tanks and other mechanized vehicles that were able to respond to the enemy offensive in a timely manner with their mobility which disrupted many of the enemy’s attack plans.
In the urban fighting that took place during the Tet offensive it was the firepower of the M114 90mm main guns mounted on the M48A3 tanks that often rooted out the VC and NVA from their urban strongholds. When the VC or NVA attempted to retreat from the cities of South Vietnam after their surprise offensive failed, it was American tanks that helped chase them back to their countryside base camps.
Sometime after the Tet offensive a shortage of M48A3 tanks caused the U. S. Army to ship an unknown number of M48A2C tanks to South Vietnam as is evident from pictorial evidence and the memories of American tankers who served during the conflict.
The only time American M48A3 tanks actually engaged in face to face combat with NVA armor during the Vietnam War occurred on the early evening of 3 March 1969, at the Ben Het Special Forces Camp, located in the mountains of South Vietnam’s Central Highland. The NVA attacked the base with a number of Soviet-supplied PT-76 amphibious light tanks and at least one BTR-50 amphibious armored personnel carrier (APC). Unbeknownst to the NVA tankers there was a platoon of M48A3 tanks guarding the base. In the ensuing engagement the NVA lost two PT-76s and a BTR-50. The American tankers suffered two killed and slight damage to a single M48A3 tank.
American M48A3 tanks were employed in a variety of roles during their time in the Vietnam War; one of the best known was referred to as “search and destroy.” These search and destroy operations were intended to locate enemy installations, attrite VC and NVA forces, and to destroy or remove the opponent’s supplies and equipment. Less importance was given to seizing and holding critical terrain than to finding and finishing off the enemy. When enemy units were located they were attacked by a combination of maneuvering and blocking elements, both supported by artillery and aircraft. During many search and destroy operations, armor units (especially Cavalry elements) were initially engaged in area reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. When contact was made units they then undertook offensive operations, in what the American military describes as a “meeting engagement.”
Many search and destroy operation began with dismounted infantry deployed as skirmishers to conduct a detailed hole-by-hole and bush-by-bush search with M48A3 tanks positioned well back. When a significant enemy combat unit was found, the dismounted infantry would seldom have the firepower needed to overcome the enemy at the point of contact. The tanks were then committed to the assault in order to destroy the enemy unit. A variation of this same mission would find the tanks leading the way and dismounted infantry following to protect the tanks from enemy antitank teams. In jungles and heavily overgrown areas, M48A3 tanks were employed to break pathways for the dismounted infantry, detonate antipersonnel mines, and support the dismounted infantry by firing on enemy defensive works and crew served weapons.
The combat engagement ranges that occurred during search and destroy operations between M48A3 tanks and their opponents were generally under 328 yards (300m); however, engagements at 16-27 yards (15-25m) were not uncommon, especially in areas of dense vegetation.
The most commonly employed main gun round M48A3 tanks used during search and destroy operations was called “canister.” The canister round was designed solely for use against enemy personnel at relatively short range. When fired, the casing of the projectile split as the round left the muzzle of the tank’s cannon releasing 1,281 steel pellets. The pellets moved down range in a conical pattern acting in the same manner as a shotgun blast. The canister round was capable of inflicting casualties in an area 33 yards (30m) wide and 202 yards (185m) deep. Its heavy use led to the improved “beehive” round for the M41 90mm main gun on the M48 series tanks designated the XM580E1 Anti-Personnel Tracer (APERS-T), which contained 4,100 small steel flechettes and was even more deadly against the VC and NVA.
Other types of operations American M48A3 tanks took part in during the Vietnam War included “clear and hold,” which was aimed at driving enemy forces out of designated areas and keeping them out. There was also something referred to as “security.” Security operations for armor units included route security and convoy escort.
Route security required a large armored force for the entire time of a planned convoy mission. Bridges and other critical points first had to be secured with mobile tank-heavy outposts. There also were tank-heavy patrol actions, nicknamed “roadrunner” operations, conducted at random times and in varying directions between the mobile outposts to fend off attempts by enemy forces to lay an ambush. To deter the enemy from emplacing mines during the hours of darkness, some M48A3 tank units conducted roadrunner operations at night, firing their tank’s machine guns and canister main gun rounds to both sides of a planned convoy route at irregular intervals to disrupt any enemy plans at laying an ambush.
Convoy escort missions required a much smaller force of M48A3 tanks, and that only for the time needed to move the convoy from one point to another. In some cases, a combination of route security and convoy escort operations were employed to safely move convoys through enemy infested areas.
It was not an uncommon practice during the Vietnam War to open convoy routes each day by driving M48A3 tanks over them before permitting other vehicles to use the local road network. Due to the thick, elliptically shaped hull of the vehicle, it was normally able to absorb the shock of most mine explosions with only light to moderate damage. However, the VC and NVA would on occasion use much larger than normal charges as improvised mines that could cause extensive damage to M48A3 tanks and kill the crews that served upon them.
Mines were the most widely used weapon employed by VC and NVA forces against American and Allied tanks. Other tank killing weapons employed by the enemy included crew-served 57mm and 75mm recoilless rifles, as well as man-portable shoulder-launched rocket-propelled grenade launchers (RPGs). The VC and NVA originally used the Soviet designed RPG-2 until it was in turn replaced by the longer ranged and more effective RPG-7, which fired a roughly five-pound (2.25kg) rockets with a shaped-charged warhead out to 547 yards (500m) which could penetrate approximately 260mm of steel armor.
Growing frustration by the American public with the conflict in Southeast Asia and the continued losses suffered by the American military pushed the country’s political and military senior leadership to begin withdrawing American troops from Southeast Asia in 1969. The tempo of withdrawal increased in 1970 and 1971. The last remaining American military tank unit departed Southeast Asia in April 1972.
Filling the void left by American ground forces was the ARVN in a process known as “Vietnamization.” Among the weapons left behind by the American military to aid the ARVN was a battalion’s worth of M48A3 tanks, which were used to form the 20th Tank Regiment. The primary tank of the ARVN since 1965 had been the American-supplied M41A3 Walker Bulldog light tank, armed with a 76mm main gun.
With the departure of American ground forces from Southeast Asia, the emboldened military and political senior leadership of North Vietnam mounted a massive offensive operation against South Vietnam on the Easter weekend of 1972. In the vanguard of the NVA operation were up to 600 tanks, including Soviet-supplied T54 medium tanks armed with a 100mm main gun. However, American airpower assets in the region helped blunt the NVA offensive along with a surprisingly strong showing by many ARVN units. The AVRN 20th Tank Regiment took a heavy toll of NVA tanks during the spring invasion. During a single engagement along National Highway 9 on 9 April 1972, the M48A3 tanks of the ARVN 20th Tank Regiment destroyed sixteen T54 tanks and captured a Chinese built copy of the T54 tank, designated the Type 59.
After being defeated in their 1972 spring invasion of South Vietnam, North Vietnamese leaders began rebuilding their ground forces in both North Vietnam and South Vietnam and awaited the departure of the American military from South Vietnam.
The turning point for the United States long involvement in the Vietnam War occurred when secret American negotiations to end the war in Southeast Asia finally bore fruit on January 23, 1973, and various combatants signed the Paris Peace Accords. America soon got back its last prisoners of war and slowly but surely withdrew the last vestiges of its military-power from the region. In response, the NVA mounted another massive tank-led offensive operation against South Vietnam on March 1, 1975. Without the cover of American airpower, the ARVN crumbled and Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam fell on 30 April 1975.