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Airborne Division

Organized May 1, 1955

The history of the Airborne Division goes back to August 1, 1951 when the 1st Airborne Battalion was formed by the French from Vietnamese elements of T.A.P.I. (Troupes Aéroportecs en Indochine). Five airborne battalions (1st, 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 7th were formed during the French era. The best-known was the 5th Battalion which was almost completely wiped out in 1954 when it parachuted into Dien Bien Phu and suffered the same fate as the rest of the French garrison. On May 1, 1954 French formed G.A.P.3 (Groupement Aéroport 3). It was an outgrowth of T.A.P.I.. Major Do Cao Tri, then an airborne battalion commander was chosen to command the group. (Reportedly Lt. Colonel Nguyen Khanh was the first choice of the French, but he was not available for the assignment.) The organization of the G.A.P.3 commanded by a Vietnamese officer, may be considered the beginning of the present Airborne Division, although May 1, 1955 (see below) is usually cited as the division's official founding date.

Following the July 1954 Geneva Agreement, the headquarters of G.A.P.3 and the three airborne battalions in the North (the 3rd, 5th, and 7th moved to the South. On March 11, 1955, the 7th Battalion, which had been formed at Ha Dong on September 1, 1953, was disbanded (a new 7th Battalion was activated in 1961- see below). This left four airborne battalions. An Airborne Group with headquarters, support units, and a training center, officially came into being on May 1, 1955 at Ton Son Nhut Airport on the edge of Saigon. Lt. Colonel Do Cao Tri, the commander of the former G.A.P.3, had already (as of March 1, 1955) been made commander of airborne troops. On June 4, 1955, the headquarters of the 3rd and 5th battalions were transferred from Nha Trang to Tan Son Nhut. (there are several aspects of the 1954-55 airborne history which remained unclear.)

On December 1, 1959, the Airborne Group was redesignated the Airborne Brigade. On December 1, 1965, the Brigade became the Airborne Division with eight maneuver battalions divided into three Task Forces (1st, 2nd, and 35th). An artillery battalion was activated at that time (two more had since been added).

As of 1972 the Airborne Division was currently subdivided into three brigades (1st, 2nd, and 3rd) which were created on May 1, 1968 from the three already existing Task Forces. The 1st, 5th, and 9th Battalions were assigned to the 1st Brigade; the 5th, 7th, and 11th Battalions, to the 2nd Brigade; and the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th Battalions to the 3rd Brigade. In the field, battalions were frequently placed under the operational control of brigades other than their parent brigade.

The Airborne Division's nine maneuver battalions were activated on the following dates and at the following locations:

  1. 1st Battalion August 1, 1951 (at Saigon)
  2. 2nd Battalion September 1, 1965 (at Saigon)
  3. 3rd Battalion September 1, 1952 (at Hanoi)
  4. 5th Battalion September 1, 1953 (at Hanoi)
  5. 6th Battalion March 1, 1954 (at Saigon)
  6. 7th Battalion November 1, 1961 (at Saigon)
  7. 8th Battalion March 1, 1959 (at Saigon)
  8. 9th Battalion September 1, 1965 (at Saigon)
  9. 11th Battalion December 1, 1967 (at Saigon)
The Airborne Division relied entirely on volunteers to fill its ranks and trains its men had its Ton Son Nhut headquarters. The Airborne Division was a continuing source of officers who were named to command infantry units and who often came to be well-known. A partial list includes: Lt. General Do Cao Tri, commander of the Airborne Group 1955-56, who commanded the 1st Division in 1963, I Corps in 1963, II Corps 1963-64, and III Corps 1968-71 (when he was killed in a helicopter crash); Lt. General (Ret.) Nguyen Chanh Thi, commander of the Airborne Brigade 1956- 1960, who commanded the 1st Division in 1964 and then I Corps 1964-66; Lt. General Ngo Quang Trung, Airborne Chief of Staff and Deputy Division Commander 1965-66, named 1st Division Commander in 1966, IV Corps Commander in 1970 and I Corps Commander in 1972; Maj. General Nguyen Khao Nam, a former Airborne Brigade Commander who has led the 7th Division since 1970; Brigadier General Tran Quoc Lich, another former Brigade Commander, who commanded the 5th Division 1972-73; Brigadier General Ho Truong Hau, a former Deputy Airborne Commander, who led the 21st Division during part of 1972; Brigadier General Truong Quang An, killed in action while Commander of the 23rd division in 1966; and Brigadier General Do Ke Giai, commander of the 18th Division in 1966-69 and Chief of the Ranger Command since 1972.

The Airborne Division formed, along with the Marine division, the RVNAF general reserve which was under the control of the Joint General Staff. An elite unit with a proud combat record, the division at one time or another fought in virtually every part of South Vietnam as well as in Cambodia (1970-71) and Laos (1971).

The Vietnamese name, LAM SON 719, was given to the February 1971 operation in Laos. The ARVN Airborne Division, with the 1st Armored Brigade attached, moved along Route 9 to seize A Loui, which was to serve as the launching point for the final assault on Tchepone. The ARVN 1st Infantry Division, advancing in tandem with the Airborne Division south of Route 9, protected the main force's left flank; ARVN Rangers on the north guarded its right flank. The ARVN ran into a superior North Vietnamese force fighting on a battlefield that the enemy had carefully prepared.

Conflicting orders from I Corps headquarters and the airborne division delayed the reinforcement of a critical landing zone north of the highway, and the position was lost. The drive into Laos stalled. The Airborne Division buckled under the initial North Vietnamese attacks. Westmoreland stated that the Commanding General "is not a fighter" and that the troops were not accustomed to conducting sustained operations. Ordinarily, they were employed on brief forays, often involving intensive combat, then pulled out of action for rest and rehabilitation. Hence, the Army Chief of Staff declared, "The airborne troops will die easily. . . . If they are defeated it will be a tremendous setback for Thieu."

Westmoreland had made no objection when MACV briefers presented the plan on 18 December, that he had concurred in it when polled by Secretary Laird, and that he had never before said anything about the weaknesses of the Airborne Division's commander and troops. Westmoreland's criticisms, coming in mid-operation, struck some as a belated effort at self-justification. Their reaction was unfortunate, because hindsight shows that Westmoreland had identified ARVN weaknesses that eluded the field commanders.

Since mid-1972, the division wes deployed in the northern part of MR 1 and maintained a forward headquarters there.

In a battle lasting from August to December 1974, the PAVN 304th Division overran the key outpost of Thuong Duc in the mountains west of Da Nang and defeated a series of determined counterattacks mounted by two ARVN divisions, the 3d and the elite Airborne Division. Thuong Duc convinced PAVN's leadership that their soldiers could now defeat even the best troops ARVN could muster.



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