The Christmastide Battle
[Vietnam, December 1966]
by S. L. A. Marshall

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

assisted by David H. Hackworth

Cowles: New York, 1968

206 pages; maps & photos

January 2011

A victory of bravery and adaptability

Landing Zone Bird in Vietnam was not sited with an eye to its defensibility, but rather set upon a rare place in the jungle thereabouts where there was a grassy area sufficiently large for a small artillery outpost and room for helicopters to land. A previous outpost nearby had been washed away by the river, and LZ Bird was only a month old, inadequately bounded by fixed defenses, and undermanned.

Bird: The Christmastide Battle, by S.L.A. Marshall, tells the story of the North Vietnamese Army attack on Landing Zone Bird shortly after midnight, 26-27 December 1966. The NVA plan had been to overrun the American outpost, wipe out the Americans and destroy LZ Bird's howitzer batteries, and retreat into the jungle just as the negotiated Christmas Truce came into effect. The NVA force arrived in the vicinity late because of high water in the country roundabout, but their assault was launched anyway, regardless of the truce having started. (This over-nice Communist timing reminds me of the Japanese still negotiating peace in Washington, D.C., while their naval task force began attacking Pearl Harbor.)

Brigadier General Marshall as U.S. Army historian, as well as Lieutenant Colonel Hackworth, were at Camp Radcliff with Major General Jack Norton, commanding the First Cavalry Division (Airmobile), as the North Vietnamese Army moved against the Cav's outpost at Landing Zone Bird. Marshall was able to follow the action from almost as close as any American soldiers not at Bird itself; and after the battle he conducted his usual detailed interviews with the participants on the ground, including a captured NVA captain. Bird is a superb battle miniature, a true history of bravery, adaptability, and ingenuity compressed into a sharp battle in a small space. The cohesiveness of the American response after much of their perimeter was overwhelmed and many of the surviving defenders injured or overrun, speaks wonderfully of their command and training as well as their character and intelligence. The sharp battle evoked considerable heroism and quick thinking.

In a brief incident reminiscent of the British Army at Isandlwanha, several Americans had trouble opening some too-solidly boxed ammunition. Far more serious, though, was the plethora of jammed automatic weapons: M-60s and especially M-16s, which suddenly proved to be dead weight for the duration of the fight.

I'll single out only the mud-coated medic for his unusual attire (his uniform was burnt off) as one of the heroic men of this night. But there are plenty of them. In fact, one of the pleasures of Bird is the cooperation of men of different ranks, jobs, and personalities; and soon enough of units in other locations. Despite surprises and reversals, the American teamwork is admirable.

It is clear from quite a number of details that the North Vietnamese attack on Bird was badly run: in the planning, in the command of the regiment's assault and of its smaller units once within the perimeter, and even individually. NVA soldiers were milling around in clumps, looting, running into their own mortar fire. Victory-dancing on the bodies of dead Americans with the battle still underway speaks very poorly of these NVA soldiers' command and training. In fact, those overrun Americans shamming death and being danced upon, were able not long after to rise and regain the side that truly was earning the victory.

A stymied village penetration

In contrast with the battle at LZ Bird, Marshall also describes attempts, about a month earlier, to enter the fortified village Phu Huu 2 as though it were scarcely inhabited rather than (as eventually realized) fortified, tunneled, and strongly defended. A groping with entirely inadequate information going in, and American slowness to realize what they were up against.

Not pretty. But Marshall weaves the soldiers' stories into a good account of how not to proceed without sufficient knowledge. And this is a Medal of Honor skirmish, worthy of our attention.

Creating headlines versus writing history

There was no journalistic examination of the battle at Landing Zone Bird, but the journalistic response is noted by Marshall:

What has been written [in this book] about the brave fight at LZ Bird must ... stand on its own. No American or foreign correspondents got up to the position. None visited Camp Radcliff to do interviews about the operation. The Pentagon and MAC-V (Military Assistance Command - Vietnam) headquarters, though interested, still have not anything more than the foggiest notion of what happened.

The fight won headlines on the following day in the national press. The stories were based on what hard-pressed bureau chiefs in Saigon had to assume out of the scant information fed them by telephone from the field. As reported, the fight at Bird was a defeat for the United States, no simple reverse, and barely short of disaster. A solidly placed and defended landing zone had been overrun. The enemy had had his way, Our losses, compared to theirs, were mournful. Within 24 hours thereafter the fight at LZ Bird had passed from the public consciousness as the press ran on to other sensations.

My italics, in the preceding passage. Contemporary journalism's response to Bird is entirely fabricated and false — to serve non-journalistic ends which are as clear in our hindsight as they were to Marshall at the time. A clear American victory on the ground thrown away in the press.

We should not forget the battle at Landing Zone Bird. It is worth remembering, for the history.


© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson

Reporting Vietnam
American Journalism 1959-1975


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