The village of Dien Phuoc where VC senior leaders to complete their final plans for Tet Offensive in 1968.

Can We Stop An Operation When We Learn of Unfavorable Conditions?

Not easily.  In 1944, Allied forces planned Operation Market-Garden. This was an audacious strike into German lines using airborne and ground forces to seize bridges over several rivers in eastern Holland. Before the operation was due to start, a relatively junior British intelligence officer named Brian Urquhart warned senior leaders the risks were much higher than originally thought. Multiple sources of intelligence indicated elite Panzer troops were hiding around the town of Arnhem and could decimate the lightly armed Airborne troops that planned to occupy the town. 

The operation continued regardless, and the British Major was sent away on sick leave due to “emotional strain.” Major Urquhart’s removal is seen by many as a way to quiet him before the operation. His reporting proved to be correct, however.  Urquhart was right. Allied forces did, in fact come into contact with German armored units. They were defeated at Arnham, known today as the “Bridge Too Far.” Once a large operation is about to begin, it is almost impossible to halt the momentum, even if conditions, intelligence or planning considerations are wrong or have changed. 

A 32-year-old VC Captain named Pham Duy Dai had a similar experience in January 1968.  In rice fields south of the city of Da Nang, Senior Viet Cong cadre and commanders gathered in a village they called “Dien Phuoc.” They were in a remote area east of the U.S. Marine base at Hill 55 in Dien Banh District  A senior VC cadre member with the alias of  “Comrade Ho Phuoc” had called a meeting on 18 January to finalize plans for a VC induced uprising in the city during the Tet Offensive.

Ho Phuoc began his address to the attendees with a call to action. He claimed the revolution had “reached its maturity” and reassured attendees the citizens of Da Nang would welcome the VC and their message of liberation. Units had to “intensify the political struggle” and “incite the population to oppose the Government of South Vietnam.” Cadre were to prepare local citizens for an armed revolt in the streets to kill South Vietnamese leaders and take control of the city, one neighborhood at a time.

Hardcore elite like cadre member Ha Ky Ngo were ready to act, though not all in the audience were so convinced. Phuoc’s words seemed empty to some who felt senior planners were far too optimist on the conditions in Da Nang.  Many who knew the city saw the urban area as almost an insurmountable objective, replete with large numbers of enemy forces on several bases. 

Captain Pham Duy Dai had his doubts as he listened to Comrade Phuoc deliver his directives. The burden of inciting an uprising fell largely on his shoulders as the officer in charge of military affairs and sappers in Da Nang. He had orders to infiltrate into the city on the evening prior to the Offensive and secretly rendezvous with a VC agent. Together, they would go to a safehouse off Hoang Dieu Street owned by a 50-year-old VC cadre member with the alias of “Sau Hung.”  Dai had orders to seize government offices and either kill or capture the South Vietnamese Mayor, Lieutenant Colonel Le Chi Cuong. If successful, Sau Hung could declare himself the National Liberation Front’s Mayor of the newly liberated city. 

On the morning of the offensive, Ha Ky Ngo occupied a safe house just south of the city’s government offices. Captain Dai and other cadre met with Comrade Ho Phuoc again, this time in a Pagoda in the city. Other notable cadre were present, to include a man named Phan Chanh Dinh who served as the chief of VC proselytizing activities. Dinh was a former teacher and was charged with bringing students to the gathering that morning where he would make an anti-government speech as part of a demonstration.

Shortly after the VC initiated their demonstration at the pagoda that day, the uprising halted almost before it began. Local police were already on edge after an evening of widespread Tet attacks and had gotten word of the gathering. As if on cue, they quickly charged the pagoda’s small square. The VC agents and demonstrators scattered in disorder, looking to hide in the nearby streets. In the chaos, the police shot Phan Chanh Dinh in the leg and arrested him along with several other VC.

Captain Dai managed to flee down an alleyway and somehow avoided arrest, though his mission fell apart and never recovered. The police put Da Nang under a 24-hour curfew and Dai and other cadre were forced to go underground. 

He took refuge in a safehouse and managed to remain in hiding until 7 February when he tried to flee the city.  Alert South Vietnamese police captured him in a rice field and after several iterations of questioning, he revealed extensive details about his mission.

Most civilians in Da Nang were cold to the idea of an uprising, and almost all the VC operatives sent into the city were either killed or captured. Sau Hung never had a chance to become the Mayor of Da Nang. Instead, he became a fugitive on the loose. Ha Ky Ngo remained in hiding for several weeks. South Vietnamese investigators eventually learned of his whereabouts and on 29 February, they entered his safehouse and arrested him. He remained in captivity until the end of the war. The uprising had collapsed. 

Both Major Urquhart and Captain Dai had important information that cast doubt on the viability of their respective operations. The Tet Offensive and Operation Market-Garden were large enough to have their own successful aspects, despite the risks. However, both Urquhart and Dai were right. Their stories highlight the human bias toward information that reinforces pre-existing views, and the inclination to refute contradictory information. This is also known as “confirmation bias.”

Long periods of planning also expose future operations to changing and even unfavorable conditions. There is a point when the operational design leaves little room for alteration, no matter what the reason or cost. It is best to know when that point of no-return actually is. It is a date that is likely well before the day of execution. By the time Urquhart and Dai saw faults in the plans, it was too late. 

Today’s operational environment changes faster than ever, and conditions on the battlespace can be influenced by adversaries at all levels. To remain current, good intelligence is paramount and planners should regularly ensure their operations are in tune with current conditions, even if these conditions contradict long-standing beliefs. 

  © Thomas F. Pike, 2019

Completing the Narrative on Vietnam(SM).   Thomas F. Pike