Monday, January 24, 2011

Frequently Mentioned Persons: Lieutenant Colonel Lee E. Surut, U.S. Army

Lieutenant Colonel Lee E. Surut, U.S. Army.  (Photo courtesy U.S. Army)

One of Clark's closest friends and most frequently mentioned persons in his diary was Lieutenant Colonel Lee E. Surut.  They were fellow classmates in the CGSC class of 1962, and both men served as faculty members at Leavenworth in the Department of Command from 1962 to 1965.  A native New Yorker and member of the USMA class of 1948, Surut was, like Clark, a Korean war veteran and airborne officer.  Surut was also one of the most highly regarded officers in Vietnam in June 1965.  Surut was the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 319th Artillery (Airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade.  Clark arranged the movement of Surut's battalion from Bien Hoa to the battlefield at Dong Xoai.  The following excerpt is from Field Artillery, 1954-1973, by Major General David Ewing Ott, published by the Department of the Army in 1975.  The excerpt can be found in Chapter IV, pages 81-85:

At 0530 on 5 May 1965, the first of 150 sorties of C-130 aircraft loaded with men and equipment of the 173d Airborne Brigade and its support elements landed at Bien Hoa Air Base in Saigon. Battalion-size elements of the U.S. Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, had been operating around Da Nang in the northern portion of South Vietnam since March, but the arrival of the 173d, consisting of two airborne infantry battalions, marked the first commitment of a U.S. Army ground combat unit in Vietnam. The brigade, under the command of Brigadier General Ellis W. Williamson, formed a defensive perimeter around the air base. In direct support of the brigade was the 3d Battalion, 319th Artillery (Airborne), a two firing-battery 105-mm. battalion commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Lee E. Surut.

Counterinsurgency operations dictated new tactics and techniques, and, as they affected maneuver units, so they affected their supporting artillery. Although the brigade had undergone rigorous training in Okinawa before its departure for Vietnam, the "first unit in" could not be totally prepared. Nevertheless, the airborne troopers of the 173d performed admirably. No sooner had the brigade unloaded its gear than it began to conduct operations around Bien Hoa, primarily search and destroy operations and patrol actions. The men of the 319th had a "jump" of two months on fellow artillerymen, which enabled them to compile an impressive list of firsts. The first field artillery round fired by a U.S. Army unit in the Republic of Vietnam came from the base piece of Battery C, 3d Battalion, 319th Artillery, during a registration mission. With that round, the U.S. field artillery role in the Vietnam war began.

On 31 May 1965 the 3d Battalion, 319th Artillery, as part of Task Force SURUT, participated in the largest air assault conducted in Vietnam to that date. The task force, consisting of the 319th reinforced by a cavalry troop, an engineer platoon, and a composite platoon made up of volunteers from the support battalion, secured a landing zone and guided in CH-37 Mohave helicopters carrying the howitzers. Up to this point in the war, the Mohaves had been doing yeoman duty as all-purpose aircraft. So smoothly and efficiently did this initial move go that three hours later these same howitzers mounted preparation fires on another landing zone for Task Force DEXTER, a reinforced infantry element of the 173d Brigade. This was the first such operation ever conducted in actual combat by a U.S. Army unit-one that had been in Vietnam less than thirty days.

The 173d soon had an opportunity to participate as the reserve force in an offensive operation. In June a Viet Cong regiment launched an attack on Dong Xoai, a district town ninety miles north of Saigon. With the press corps closely following the events, the 173d moved to a forward airfield in case relief forces were needed. Although South Vietnamese troops ultimately relieved Dong Xoai, the Redlegs of the 3d Battalion, 319th Artillery, became the first U.S. Army unit in Vietnam to engage in an offensive operation by providing fire support for the South Vietnamese troops relieving Dong Xoai.

After the Dong Xoai support operations, the 3d Battalion returned to Bien Hoa to ready for a history-making operation that commenced on Sunday, 27 June. Fifty kilometers north of Bien Hoa lies the southern edge of a huge tangle of double-canopy forest and thick undergrowth. Called War Zone D, it had long been a guerrilla haven, unpenetrated even by the French in their many years of fighting. In a massive, businesslike operation, five maneuver battalions penetrated deep into the area. The 3d Battalion (Airborne), 319th Artillery, provided coordinated fire support for the 1st and 2d Battalions (Airborne), 503d Infantry, of the 173d Airborne Brigade and the 3d and 4th Battalions of the South Vietnamese Army 2d Airborne Brigade. The Royal Australian Regiment joined the operation after the second day. The size of the assaulting force determined the significance of the operation for the artillery. It necessitated the close coordination of large volumes of artillery fires augmented by close air support and armed helicopters.

Before the operation began, the brigade commander directed that artillerymen "exercise the complete system." Exercise it they did. One hundred forty-four aircraft providing support for the operation assisted in the displacement of five infantry battalions, a field artillery battalion, a support battalion, and a composite battalion of cavalry, armor, and engineers. Throughout the entire operation, no serious incidents or major breakdowns in the system occurred. The artillery provided ten forward observers (including the battalion property book officer), three liaison officers (including the battalion communications officer), and two aerial observers in addition to those forward observers and liaison officers normally provided. Three communication nets were used and all fires were cleared through the brigade fire support coordination center. The 319th fired nearly 5,000 rounds of 105-mm. ammunition during the four-day period while maintaining contact and effecting coordination with the supporting Vietnamese and Australian artillery units.

Known only as OPORD 17-65, the designation of the original operation order, this venture into War Zone D yielded satisfying results. By conservative estimates, the enemy suffered 75 casualties and lost several trucks and nearly 250 tons of food and supplies. In an honest appraisal of the field artillery role shortly after the conclusion of the operation, Colonel Surut admitted having discovered some "bugs" in the fire support system:
Fire support coordination initially slowed some missions, but by D+2 this bottleneck was overcome. Safety checks slowed the firing somewhat; however the checks are necessary for close support, particularly with three major maneuver elements abreast. 

General Williamson, the brigade commander, in a letter to the commandant of the Field Artillery School, discussed the initial operations of the 3d Battalion, 319th Artillery:
The artillery over here is doing a fabulous job. My Artillery Battalion Commander is having experiences that far exceed what most others have had. . . I would suggest that the Artillery make every effort to get the most promising young officers out here for some very worthwhile experiences.
The 173d Airborne Brigade again tested its fire support system in War Zone D on 6 July. Along with a battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment and units of the 43d Regiment of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the brigade conducted four multiple air assaults supported by helicopter sorties just north of the Dong Nai River. The operation resulted in 56 enemy killed, 28 captured, 100 tons of rice seized, and several tons of documents destroyed.

For the field artillerymen, this second venture into War Zone D provided an opportunity to correct the mistakes of the previous operation. Clearance and safety checks now were routine and the liaison and coordination efforts functioned smoothly. General Williamson, in complimenting the coordination efforts of all involved, said:
. . . as I looked at it from above, it was a sight to see. We were withdrawing from the center Landing Zone while some friendly troops were still in the western Landing Zone. We had a helicopter strike going in a circle around the center Landing Zone. The machinegun and rocket firing helicopters kept making their circle smaller and smaller as we withdrew our landing zone security. Just to the west side we had another helicopter strike running north to south. We also had something else that was just a little hairy but it worked without any question. The artillery was firing high angle fire to screen the north side of the landing zone. The personnel lift helicopters were coming from the east, going under the artillery fire, sitting down on the LZ to pick up troops and leaving by way of the southwest. In addition to that, we had an airstrike going to the northeast. All of these activities were going on at the same time. We could not have done that a few weeks ago. The only reason we can do it now is that (we know) where our troops are and the fire support coordination center can coordinate fire and other activities.
The 3d Battalion, 319th Artillery, maintained continuous "feedback" to the U.S. Army Artillery and Missile School (later the Field Artillery School) at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Correspondence included letters, memorandums, and copies of debriefings and after-action reports which contained numerous insights on the employment of artillery. At the school the correspondence was thoroughly studied and discussed with a view toward including any new and valuable information in classroom instruction. The following are only a few of the important insights and tips received from the 3d Battalion:
1. Dense foliage in Vietnam made it particularly difficult to identify friendly troop dispositions and enemy targets to close air support aircraft. One system adopted to help correct this shortcoming was to employ white phosphorous projectiles as marking rounds.
2. Commanders must make every effort to preclude the check firing of one fire support system to accommodate another. General Williamson's description of actions in War Zone D was evidence that the 173d Airborne Brigade was getting good results with the continuous and concurrent employment of various fire support systems.
3. Responsive shelling report (SHELREP) personnel were necessary to establish an effective countermortar and counterbattery program. To this end, correspondence from the 173d Airborne Brigade recommended the use of artillery survey personnel in crater and shelling report teams.
4. Whenever possible clearances of large zones should be obtained in advance of an operation. This foresight in operational planning would result in more responsive on-call supporting fires.

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