May 11, 1969 – This Day During The Vietnam War – Operation Speedy Express

May 11, 1969 – Operation Speedy Express was a controversial U.S. Army 9th U.S. Infantry Division operation of the Vietnam War conducted in the Mekong Delta provinces Kiến Hòa and Vĩnh Bình. The operation, led by Major General Julian J. Ewell, was part of US military “pacification” efforts against the Viet Cong (VC). The US military sought to interdict lines of VC communication and deny them the use of base areas by using brutal repression and counterinsurgency tactics. At least 5,000 to 7,000 killed were reported to have been civilians.
In 1969 the 1st Brigade, 9th U.S. Infantry Division operated in Định Tường Province, using night ambush tactics; the 2nd Brigade continued its mission with the Mobile Riverine Force. Although engagements in the Operation Speedy Express were typically small, the 9th Infantry Division fought several sizeable engagements. The objective was summarized by a U.S. Army publication to take the “war to the enemy in the Delta and sever his supply lines from Cambodia”.
The U.S. military used 8,000 infantrymen, 50 artillery pieces, 50 helicopters and extensive aerial bombardment. The United States Air Force used fighter bombers to carry out 3,381 tactical air strikes. The military also employed “people-sniffer” devices that detected traces of carbon and ammonia. The policy under this operation in a densely populated area was to target “people running, people in black pajamas, civilians past night-time” . Furthermore commanders and infantry units were forced into the field, and they were told they were not to leave until an acceptable number of “kills” were made. The success of the operation is in question, according to guerrilla leader Le Quan Cong, a Viet Cong platoon commander operating in the Delta during this operation, “most of the people killed were civilians, because civilians would run, we soldiers held our fighting position so they could not get us, they had wiped out whole villages” while failing to actually interdict the Viet Cong in the region. The Viet Cong furthermore claims a strategic victory, claiming that their fighters and bases were left mostly intact and their presence in the region was not removed by the operation
The combined ground and air operation resulted in thousands of deaths. The U.S. military claimed that 10,889 of these deaths were VC soldiers, but this claim was undermined both by on-the-ground reports and by the much smaller number of weapons seized than enemy soldiers reported killed. The US Army Inspector General estimated that there were 5,000 to 7,000 civilian casualties from the operation.
The U.S. military claimed 10,899 enemy dead, with only 242 soldiers killed in this operation from the period of December 1968 to 31 May 1969 (a kill ratio of 45:1), but only 748 weapons were recovered (a ratio of enemy killed to weapons seized of 14.6:1). The U.S. Army after-action report attributed this to the fact the high percentage of kills made during night hours (estimated at 40%), and by air cavalry and other aerial units, as well as asserting that “many of the guerilla units were not armed with weapons”. The commander of the 9th Division, MG Ewell, was allegedly known to be obsessed with body counts and favorable kill ratios and said “the hearts and minds approach can be overdone….in the delta the only way to overcome VC control and terror is with brute force applied against the VC”. Robert G. Gard Jr., who served as artillery commander under Ewell and commenting on his superior officer stated “the idea that we killed only enemy combatants is about as gross an exaggeration as I could imagine, but to talk about ratios of forty-five to one simply defies my imagination.”
Controversy over the operation arose in June 1972, when Newsweek’s Saigon Bureau Chief, Kevin Buckley (working with Alexander Shimkin), wrote an article titled “Pacification’s Deadly Price” that questioned the spectacular ratio of U.S. dead to purported VC, as well the small number of weapons recovered, and suggested that perhaps more than 5,000 of the dead were innocent civilians (quoting an unnamed U.S. official). Buckley’s statements were based on extensive interviews conducted by him and his associate Alexander D. Shimkin, who was fluent in Vietnamese. Although Buckley acknowledged that VC infrastructure and control in the region was extensive, he wrote that local hospitals had treated more wounds caused by U.S. firepower than by the VC. Col. David Hackworth was a battalion commander during Speedy Express; according to him, “a lot of innocent Vietnamese civilians got slaughtered because of the Ewell-Hunt drive to have the highest count in the land.” Hackworth added that “the 9th Division had the lowest weapons-captured-to-enemy-killed ratio in Vietnam.” The book Kill Anything That Moves by Nick Turse devotes a chapter to Speedy Express. It reports that “free fire zones” were designated in the Mekong Delta where any human present could be killed. These zones helped the 9th Division achieve an unlikely enemy-to-GI kill ratio of 134:1 in April 1969. According to David Hackworth, Julian Ewell’s policies would later earn him the nickname the “Butcher of the Delta” from members of the 9th Division.
More recently, former Senator (and eventual Secretary of Defense) Charles Hagel of Nebraska, a veteran of the 9th Infantry, alleged that some U.S. commanders on the ground inflated the body count during the operation since this was how their success was judged.”You used that body count, commanding officers did, as the metric and measurement of how successful you were….”

Fire Support Base Danger, headquarters of an element of the 1st Brigade, 9th U.S. Infantry Division, Định Tường Province

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