How many casualties occurred because of friendly fire during the Vietnam war?
It’s estimated that there may be as many as 8,000 friendly fire incidents in the Vietnam War caused by mistakes, negligence, exhaustion, panic, horseplay, dim lighting, dense vegetation, inattentiveness, faulty equipment, poor training, foolishness, ill fortune or some combination of the above. There doesn’t appear to be any agreement of a firm percentage attributed to FF during the war, I’ve seen estimates ranging from 2.4% – 39% of all combined casualties. How were individuals categorized? The military refers to Friendly Fire as “misadventure” – correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is the worst use of words, ever.
How does one differentiate the difference on the battle field? Are autopsies performed and fragments / bullets removed and identified? In the annals of warfare, deaths at the hand of the enemy are often valorized, while those at the hand of friendly forces may be cast in shame. Moreover, because public relations and morale are important, especially in modern warfare, the military may be inclined to under-report incidents of friendly-fire, especially when in charge of both investigations and press releases: is the tendency by military commanders to sweep such tragedies under the rug? It’s part of a larger pattern: the temptation among generals and politicians to control how the press portrays their military campaigns, which all too often leads them to misrepresent the truth in order to bolster public support for the war of the moment. The death of a soldier from friendly fire has been described as “. . . the most ghastly type of casualty you can anticipate.” The emotional impact of friendly fire casualties may be more destructive to a unit’s morale and fighting capacity than enemy fire. Each incident can cause a gradual degradation of combat power by lowering morale and confidence in supporting arms, a factor so vital to combined arms operations.
Here’s a list of potential causes of Friendly Fire:
- Use of the term “friendly” in a military context for allied personnel or materiel dates from the First World War, often for shells falling short; errors of position occur when fire aimed at enemy forces may accidentally end up hitting one’s own.
- Errors of identification happen when friendly troops, neutral forces or civilians are mistakenly attacked in the belief that they are the enemy.
- Difficult terrain and visibility were major factors. Soldiers fighting on unfamiliar ground can become disoriented more easily than on familiar terrain. The direction from which enemy fire comes may not be easy to identify, and poor weather conditions and combat stress may add to the confusion, especially if fire is exchanged. Accurate navigation and fire discipline are vital. In high-risk situations, leaders need to ensure units are properly informed of the location of friendly units and must issue clear, unambiguous orders, but they must also react correctly to responses from soldiers who are capable of using their own judgement.
- Miscommunication can be deadly. Radios, field telephones, and signaling systems can be used to address the problem, but when these systems are used to co-ordinate multiple forces such as ground troops and aircraft, their breakdown can dramatically increase the risk of friendly fire. When allied troops are operating the situation is even more complex, especially with language barriers to overcome.
Here are some examples of recorded incidents:
19 November 1967, a U.S. Marine Corps. F4 Phantom aircraft dropped a 500 lb (230 kg) bomb on the command post of the 2nd Battalion (Airborne) 503d Infantry, 173d Airborne Brigade while they were in heavy contact with a numerically superior NVA force. At least 45 paratroopers were killed and another 45 wounded. Also killed was the Battalion Chaplain Major Charles J. Watters, who was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor.
16 March 1968 at FB Birmingham Marine F-4s dropped bombs on the base killing 16 and wounding 48 men of the 101st Airborne.
18 March 1968, around 10 Marines were killed by MACV-SOG operators mistaking them for enemy forces, when such operators were trying to ambush the supposed enemies. The incident was result of stress and a bad intel, as their commander said that the area was in enemy control.
5 February 1969, Sgt. Tony Lee Griffith, of H Co. 75th Infantry (Ranger), led his five-man long-range reconnaissance team through thick fog and dense, short brush between An Loc and the Cambodian border. Hearing wood being chopped not far off a trail they were assigned to surveil, he had his team set an ambush. But members of the North Vietnamese Army had also detected the team. At dawn several enemy soldiers stole through the fog and flung a grenade into the middle of the team, who were spread along the trail, in sight of each other. The grenade exploded next to the front scout, Cpl. Richard E. Wilkie, showering him with shrapnel. As the enemy opened fire, the two team members on Wilkie’s left panicked and fired in the direction of the grenade’s blast. Caught in an intense crossfire, Wilkie, a Special Forces veteran, was shot five times––once by the enemy, twice by his team, and twice by bullets that passed through him. Miraculously, he survived. So, too, did the assistant team leader, Lewis D. Davidson, who was hit twice in the leg. Tony Griffith’s luck, however, ended that morning, when he was hit by multiple gunshots to the chest.
11 May 1969, during the Battle of Hamburger Hill, Lt. Col. Weldon Honeycutt directed helicopter gunships, from an Aerial Rocket Artillery (ARA) battery, to support an infantry assault. In the heavy jungle, the helicopters mistook the command post of the 3/187th battalion for a Vietnamese unit and attacked, killing two and wounding thirty-five, including Honeycutt. This incident disrupted battalion command and control and forced 3/187th to withdraw into night defensive positions.
1 May 1970, on military operations in Phước Tuy Province a burst of machine gun fire followed by a calls for the Medic split the night, an Australian machine gunner opened fire on soldiers of the 8th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment without warning, killing two and wounded two other soldiers.
20 July 1970, patrol units of ‘D’ Company 8th Battalion, 1st Australian Task Force outside the wire at Nui Dat called in a New Zealand battery fire mission as part of a training exercise. However, there was confusion at the gun position about the fire corrections issued by the inexperienced Australian officer with the patrol. The result was two rounds fell upon the patrol, killing two and wounding several others.
24 July 1970, New Zealand artillery guns accidentally shelled an Australian platoon, 1 Australian Reinforcement Unit, (1 ARU), killing two and wounding another four soldiers.
10 May 1972, a VPAF MiG-21 was shot down in error by a North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile near Tuyen Quang, killing a pilot.
2 June 1972, a VPAF MiG-19 was shot down in error by a North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile near Kep Province, killing a pilot.
24 December 1970, Co. A 1/327, 101st airborne infantry on when Artillery was misdirected by the officer platoon leader and 2 High Explosive artillery rounds landed in the NDP of 2nd platoon killing 12 and leaving the remaining members of the platoon in the jungle all night without support until the next day when the rest of the company could get to them to clean up the mess.
October 1970, my platoon was involved in a friendly fire incident. We had a new lieutenant while out on a mission and prior to setting up for the night, he requested a spotter round to burst roughly 250 meters away to confirm the location of our NDP. However, when picking the coordinates, he did not take into account the gun trajectory path from the firebase and the coordinates he chose were in the air between our position and the guns. His spotter round confirmed the coordinates and then, everyone heard the spent canister approaching – whoop, whoop, whoop as the empty tube continued on its trajectory. We only had seconds to find cover. The canister landed just outside of our perimeter, bounced and then summersaulted across our NDP like a runaway wagon wheel. It stopped suddenly after crashing into a 2-man position and severely wounding the two surprised soldiers.
The movie about Ron Kovak Born on the 4th of July depicted him being shot in the back by a member of his own platoon while reconnoitering in front of the perimeter. He survived, but was paralyzed for life.
The movie, ‘We were soldiers’ showed an incident when napalm was dropped on US lines and killed several American soldiers.
- This incident occurred while a US infantry company was establishing a night defensive perimeter. In firing their planned defensive fires outside of the perimeter, the initial 81mm mortar round fell short and only traveled 35 meters from the tube, wounding three US soldiers (one later died of wounds). The platoon sergeant, located in an adjacent gun pit, saw the round flutter and drop. He immediately yelled, “Short round”, but the enlisted man who died of wounds started running rather than taking cover
- Following this incident and after troops were cleared from the immediate area, an additional round was fired using the same data and ammunition lot number. This second round functioned normally and landed in the planned impact area.
- The cause of this incident was attributed to ammunition malfunction and not human error on the part of the gun crew.
- A US infantry platoon conducted a mounted combat patrol and established an ambush position in the vicinity of a district headquarters compound. During the evening, US troops engaged an enemy force. A Light Fire Team (LFT) was requested and within a few minutes arrived on station. The sub-sector advisor directed the LFT commander to engage the wood line north and west of the compound. On the first firing pass, the LFT’s fires impacted in the vicinity of the friendly troops. The battalion commander requested that fire be shifted to the west. The LFT was informed but almost immediately the battalion commander reported that the gunships had again fired on the US troops. The advisor gave a cease fire and released the LFT. This incident resulted in the death of one US soldier and injury to nine others.
- The primary cause of this incident was the employment of a LFT too close to friendly troops at night without clearance from or communications with the ground commander. The primary factor contributing to the incident was a misunderstanding between the subsector advisor and the LFT as to the exact location of friendly troops. The advisor failed to give specific coordinates of friendly troop dispositions and US military units in the immediate area were not monitoring the advisor’s net which controlled the LFT.
- This incident occurred when a Forward Observer (FO) with an infantry company requested a 100 meter shift away from a previously fired Defensive Concentration (DEFCON). The DEFCON had been fired during darkness, in thick growth, and apparently was much closer to the battalion’s perimeter than estimated. The observer’s target description misrepresented the criticality of the situation and caused the Fire Direction Center (FDC) to fire the DEFCON as a contact mission not requiring safe fire adjustment of the battery. This action resulted in the death of three US soldiers and injury to nineteen others.
- Causes of this incident were a misrepresentation of the nature of the target in a fire mission and failure to comply with established policies for the conduct of non-contact missions close to friendly perimeters.
- This Incident occurred when a 105mm artillery battery fired an unobserved “trail runner” mission. When fired, due to a misunderstanding on area clearance, six rounds impacted in the proximity of friendly personnel resulting in the injury of one ARVN soldier and three Vietnamese civilians. The mission was passed from one artillery battalion to another due to a boundary change in two brigade Areas of Operations (A0s). When questioned, the original firing battalion Fire Direction Officer (FDO) indicated that the areas to be fired were cleared. The FDO of the receiving battery then assumed that all required area clearances had been obtained but in reality targets had been cleared only within the AO of the old firing battalion. All gunnery data and procedures were found to be correct.
- This incident was caused by the failure to clarify exactly what clearance had been obtained and the statement that the areas were cleared should have been amplified as had been the practice on previous occasions to indicate what clearances had been granted.
- One tube of a 4.2 inch mortar platoon fired with a 200 mil discrepancy in deflection while firing a registering round in support of the defense of a battalion perimeter. One round impacted in a company sector and four US soldiers were killed and ten wounded.
- The cause of this incident was determined to be a failure on the part of the gunner to refer his sight as directed and was compounded by the failure of the squad leader to make the required safety checks.
- This incident occurred while a US squad was conducting patrol activities in the vicinity of a fire support base. The squad leader saw a Viet Cong with a weapon and decided to call for artillery support. He sent his fire command to the artillery reconnaissance sergeant on the company internal radio net. The reconnaissance sergeant determined that the range to the target was 350 meters, verified this with the observer and inserted ‘Danger Close, 250 meters’ into the fire request. This was transmitted to the artillery liaison section in the infantry battalion Tactical Operations Centre (TOC), cleared, sent to the supporting artillery battalion and further assigned to a firing battery who processed the fire command and a smoke round was fired. This round was spotted in a rice paddy about 300 meters to the right flank of the observer, who then adjusted with ‘Left 150, repeat smoke’. This second round impacted again to the right flank of the observer who then erroneously repeated ‘Left 150’. The reconnaissance sergeant, monitoring the mission, asked the observer if he desired Shell, HE, Fuze Quick. The observer replied that he did and was warned to get his troops down because of the close proximity of the adjustments. The round was fired and impacted in the vicinity of the squad, injuring three personnel.
- The squad leader became disoriented during the adjustment of the mission. He unconsciously faced the second round as it impacted, estimated the distance to the target as being 150 meters, and gave a correction of ‘Left 150’ instead of ‘Add 150’. The FDC had no way of knowing that the observer had changed his Observer – Target (OT) azimuth by 1600 mils and accepted the “Left 150’ as the desired shift. The cause of this incident was the incorrect adjustment of artillery fire by an inexperienced observer.
- This firing incident resulted from a change of coordinates during clearance for fire procedures between the operations center of an artillery battalion and the TOC of the infantry division artillery. In the telephonic transmission of the fire request, the grid coordinates were transposed from XT6324 to XT6423. This error resulted in one killed for the requesting infantry unit.
- The cause of this incident can be attributed to a lack of double check procedures on fire requests by each element in the clearance chain.
- The FO with an infantry battalion called the FDC of the supporting artillery battalion and gave target coordinates for an adjust fire mission and indicated a platoon or larger size enemy force. The mission was passed to a firing battery and was followed by the artillery battalion FDC. After adjustment had been completed, the FO called for fire for effect on the same target. Since the battery had only four guns available at the time, it was directed to fire a battery six rounds. Due to a breech-lock malfunction, the number four howitzer was called out of action and the number five howitzer was directed to fire three additional rounds in order to complete the fire mission. Shortly thereafter the FO with the infantry unit notified the artillery battalion FDC that several rounds had landed in the vicinity of the unit’s perimeter and that one gun appeared to be firing out of lay. This incident resulted in two US soldiers being wounded.
- The cause of this incident was attributed to a 100 mil deflection error by a howitzer section of the firing battery.
- A battery of US artillery fired fifteen 105mm rounds which detonated near a bridge being secured by US and Vietnamese Popular Force (PF) soldiers. This fire mission resulted in the wounding of one US and one PF soldier.
- The fire mission was called in by a PF soldier and relayed through the district chief and the US liaison representative at district headquarters. US target clearance was obtained from the appropriate US artillery battalion liaison officer who was unaware that a US armored personnel carrier was positioned at the bridge. The target was mis-plotted 1000 meters by the ARVN district chief and the observer target direction was also incorrectly given as 3200 mils instead of 320 degrees.
- The first round in adjustment was fired and the correction given was ‘Drop 300’. The second round was fired and a correction of ‘Right 300, Fire for effect’ was requested. At this time the firing battery FDO informed the Vietnamese that the “fire for effect” plot was within 200 meters of the bridge. The Vietnamese confirmed the request and the FDO then requested that personnel at the bridge be warned to take cover. A battery of three rounds was fired which resulted in the two casualties.
- The cause of this incident was the error in the determination of the target. The PF at the bridge either disregarded or did not receive the warning of the close proximity of the fire for effect rounds. As a result, the US personnel were not aware of the danger although they had observed the round adjustments prior to the fire for effect.
- A FO with a US infantry company was firing a destruction mission with one gun of the supporting artillery battalion on a well fortified B-40 rocket position 30 to 40 meters north of the company location. Adjustment was difficult due to terrain and proximity of the enemy rocket position to friendly forces. The FO had to adjust by sound and could only observe those rounds which became air bursts after hitting trees. The FO’s last correction, as sensed from the previous round, was correctly computed by the FDC, checked by the section chief and fired. Because of the uneven terrain and the probable error of the range fired (9,920 meters), the round impacted outside the company perimeter, resulting in the death of one and the injury to a second member of the infantry unit.
- The two personnel involved in this incident were outside the unit perimeter. This was a direct violation of the unit commander’s order that all personnel would stay under overhead cover until the fire mission was completed.
- Cause of this incident was a violation of orders to remain under protective overhead cover while artillery was being used for close-in support. A contributing factor was the proximity of friendly troops to the target.
- Friendly casualties were caused when an unknown number of 105mm rounds impacted on their position during a contact mission.
- Cause of this incident was that the mission was started by a ground FO, however, he was unable to observe the rounds. The mission was then taken over by an airborne observer who made shifts along the gun-target (GT) line, while the FDC was plotting the shift along the OT line.
13 January 1967, A Battery, 8th Battalion 6th Artillery apparently transposed the last two numbers of the coordinates and fired approximately 18 rounds that landed on A Company, 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division. Nine men were killed and more than 40 wounded. The units were taking part in Operation Cedar Falls in the Iron Triangle. It’s believed the battery commander was Capt. John Seely and the battalion commander was Lt. Col. Ben Safar.
USCGC Point Welcome was attacked by USAF aircraft, with two deaths resulting.
17 June 1968, USS Boston, USS Edson, USCGC Point Dume, HMAS Hobart and two U.S. Swift Boats, PCF-12 and PCF-19 are attacked by US aircraft. Several sailors were killed and PCF-19 was sunk.
Even in todays war, the former NFL star, turned Army Ranger, Pat Tillman was shot by his own troops in Afghanistan…covered up at first. Why?
Did you know that when a soldier is wounded or killed by friendly fire or other accidental means did not qualify for a Purple Heart? Could this be one of the main reasons to cover up many other FF instances? NOTE: The law has recently been changed and PH medals are now awarded if the wounds caused by FF occurred while your unit was engaged with the enemy.
Nothing compares to the stress, confusion, and emotion of combat. People make decisions that are irreversible, and other people may die as a result. The death of a soldier is always tragic, but never more so than when he is inadvertently killed by his own comrades.
It’s a tragedy for any war but then the Vietnam war had it’s own unique form of friendly fire deaths. There were some who were killed intentionally by those individuals who would take things into their own hands. A 2nd Lt. fresh out of OCS might find himself with an M16 round in his back should he be deemed hazardous to his platoon or worse on the receiving end of a frag grenade. There are no statistics to show how many were killed on purpose but it happened. I can imagine and only hope that the ones responsible are eventually held responsible if by no one then their own conscience.
The second classification is “murder” where friendly fire incidents are premeditated. During the Vietnam War, some officers who overtly risked the lives of their soldiers were murdered by those men in incidents known as “fragging.”
Here is some data compiled by William F. Abbott from figures obtained shortly after the construction of the Vietnam War Memorial:
Cause Of Casualty Hostile & Non-hostile (Percentage):
Gun shot or small arms fire —- 31.8
Drowning and burns ———- 3.0
Misadventure (Friendly fire) — 2.3
Vehicle crashes ———— 2.0
Multiple frag wounds grenades, mines, bombs, booby traps — 27.4
Aircraft crashes ———- 14.7
Illness, also malaria, hepatitis, heart attack, stroke — 1.6
Arty or rocket fire ——– 8.4
Suicide —————- 0.7
Accidental self-destruction, intentional homicide, accidental
homicide, other accidents. — 5.8
Other, unknown, not reported — 2.0
How many actual deaths by friendly fire were just lumped into one of the above categories based on the situation they were in?
The problem of friendly fire will never be completely eliminated because the “fog of war”, human error, and material failure inevitably will make some Instances of friendly fire impossible to avoid. Our duty is to take all reasonable measures to minimize its tragic occurrence.
Any VNVets out there ever witness a “Friendly Fire” incident?
Information for this article was obtained from Wikipedia, , NY Times, vietvet.org, Defense Manpower Data Center
If anyone is interested in reading my earlier article about “Fragging” click here: https://wp.me/pRiEw-2Sf
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