Query: Land Mine Casualties in the Vietnam War

Doug Macdonald's picture

While watching the local PBS station a "teaser" for Ken Burns' upcoming (September) documentary series on the Vietnam War came on.   In the "teaser," an unidentified "GI" discusses quite cogently the fear that land mines instilled in American soldiers and marines in the war.  He also made the statement, "Somewhere around 80% of our casualties came from land mines of all sorts."

On its face, the statement, if applied to the whole war, is ludicrous.   But it is not clear whether he was talking about his own unit ("our") or what "of all sorts" means.   Nor is it clear whether he is including all injuries in the word "casualties," crippling injuries that remove people from the battlefield permanently, or deaths only.   This may seem like nit-picking, but as I am researching this subject at the moment the word usages are important and have historical meaning.

Though records were kept as to the cause of deaths, to my knowledge there are no official statistics on the causes of injuries among US troops.  Moreover, the US had a very expansive use of the term "casualties" in its less-than-lethal sense.   For example, the South Vietnamese labeled only those less-than-lethal injuries that required hospitalization as "casualties."   The US, on the other hand, labeled any injury at all in its less-than-lethal "casualties" figures, even if official medical attention or hospitalization was not required.   These differing usages led to unfair and untrue charges from the war's critics in the press and Congress that the South Vietnamese, since their overall numbers were lower than the Americans' based on narrower criteria, were letting the US do the bulk of the fighting.   If the hospitalization only criterion was applied, however, South Vietnamese "casualties" were considerably higher than the Americans'.   This distinction was often not made during the war and used to denigrate the South Vietnamese sacrifices.

The figures I have for less-than-lethal "casualties" for the US are (rounded to nearest ten thousand) approximately 300,000 with roughly half (150,000) not requiring hospitalization.   

The usual standard for the American military is that a casualty is a death or injury (or capture, though usually listed separately) that removes the enemy soldier from the battlefield and thus renders him unable to fight.   According to this standard, the US had approximately 150,000 less-than-lethal casualties in Vietnam.   That would mean by the documentary's account that there were 120,000 soldiers hospitalized due to land mine injuries, with another 120,000 injured but not hospitalized.   This seems quite out of line with probable reality.

As for the role of land mines in lethal casualties, over which there is little definitional controversy, the official statistics also do not support anything like an 80% figure.  

 In the Vietnam War, there were 47,322 "Hostile" American military deaths (as opposed to accidents, illness, etc.)   Though precise categories were not always kept, of those deaths 7,432 died from "Other Explosion (grenades, mines,)" which is 15.7% of total lethal casualties.   (There is another category "Multiple Fragmentation Wounds," but it is apparently separate from land mine casualties.  There is also a third category labeled "Bomb Explosions" which is also apparently separate.)  

For the Marines in Vietnam, the percentages are higher.   There were 13,073 "Hostile" lethal casualties among the Marines.   In the category "Other Explosive Device," which apparently means land mines, the death total was 3056, or 23% (rounded.)  

[Source for the previous two paragraphs:  US Department of Defense, U.S. casualties in Southeast Asia: Statistics as of April 30, 1985 (Washington, DC: Washington Headquarters Services, Directorate for Information, Operations and Reports, 1985), p. 5]

This record can be compared with 4% of lethal land mine casualties and 3% of non-lethal casualties in World War II, and 4% in each category in the Korean War.   Although much publicized and feared, non-explosive booby traps such as the famous “punji sticks” caused only 2% of the non-lethal casualties, with no deaths reported.   Psychologically devastating, but statistically relatively insignificant.  By American historical standards, Vietnam was a conflict where land mines and booby traps were unusually important factors.   [Source: Colonel Harry Summers, “Maimers of War,” Vietnam (April, 1991), p. 12.]  But neither the probable non-lethal casualty figures nor the official lethal casualty figures appear to approach anything like 80% "casualties," not even as an order of magnitude.

One can forgive a "GI" veteran for such exaggeration, but if the claim is left uncorrected or at least not qualified in the documentary, it might say something negative about the fact checking involved.  

My query is this: can anyone point the way to credible statistics, from secondary or primary sources, that deal realistically with: a) non-lethal American casualties and their causes; b) South Vietnamese military casualty figures from land mines, and, c) Vietnamese civilian casualties from land mines?  Any help will be greatly appreciated.


Doug Macdonald, emeritus

Colgate University

The best figures I have seen for the proportion of wounds caused by mines and booby traps in Vietnam are in Major General Spurgeon Neel, Medical Support of the U.S. Army in Vietnam, 1965-1970, http://www.history.army.mil/html/books/090/90-16/CMH_Pub_90-16.pdf

A table on page 54 states that between 1965 and 1970 in Vietnam, "Fragments" accounted for 65% of wounds to US Army troops in Vietnam, "Booby traps, mines" accounted for 15%, and "Punji stakes" accounted for 2%.

I would not trust these figures too far. Many mines and booby traps created fragments. I believe there was a theory that wounds caused by fragments of shells, rockets, and grenades should be listed under "Fragments," while wounds caused by fragments of mines and booby traps should be listed under "Booby traps, mines." But I am sure the process by which reports of wounds were sorted was very imperfect.

On another issue, I disagree with Dr. Macdonald's statement that the US military's casualty figures included all wounds, even those so minor that official medical attention was not required. I believe that there had to be some record of formal medical treatment, if only by a platoon medic, for a wound to get into the statistics.

I thank Professor Moise for the sourcing he provides. I note the publication that he cites ends its analysis in 1970, while the DOD publication I cited covers the whole war. Yet his source, General Neel, also concludes: "While the distribution between high velocity and fragment wounds in Vietnam approximated that of World War II and Korea, the incidence of mine and booby trap wounds was more than triple that in the other two wars.” (p. 172) That is roughly consistent with the 4-5% or so listed by Colonel Summers for WWII and Korea in his article and the 15% figure that I cited for Vietnam. Unfortunately, Colonel Summers did not include a source for WW II and Korea. Nor did General Neel.

I have found an interesting source from the DOD, though still limited, since posting. It is called the "Defense Casualty Analysis System" and can be found at: https://www.dmdc.osd.mil/dcas/pages/report_principal_wars.xhtml

The period covered for Vietnam is August, 1964 to January, 1973, but it provides limited information on other wars also. (The first soldier to die in combat in Vietnam is usually considered to be Spc.4 James Davis of Livingston, TN on 12/22/1961, but the official beginning is connected with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964.)

This source uses the figures of 153,303 casualties requiring hospitalization, with 150,341 "casualties" not requiring it. It does not break them down by cause, but figuring that 15% of hospitalized casualties were caused by mines, that would be roughly 22,995 seriously wounded by mines and requiring hospitalization. As Professor Moise notes, these are all best treated as rough estimates.

Looking for further clarification, I tried to find the number of purple hearts awarded during the Vietnam War. Unbelievably, I have been unable to do so, and several veterans' websites have claimed that the government has only centralized statistics on Medals of Honor. I find this hard to believe, and I continue to search for credible statistics.

The figures on Purple Hearts that I have come across range from 207,000 to 350,000 (both rounded.) Perhaps the latter is the number of Medals awarded, while the former is the number of persons awarded the Medal. Obviously, some people earned more than one. As a young officer, General Eric Shinseki, for example, was awarded two Purple Hearts during two different tours, the second from a land mine that cost him part of a foot. Colonel David Hackworth was, I believe, awarded five Purple Hearts in Vietnam, and three in Korea. Maybe these general figures presented are pure speculation. I do not know. But thus far they are not much help.

I would also like to thank several people who have contacted me privately.

As for "casualty" status including all wounds, Professor Moise is right. I guess I was too general in my comments. Obviously, a "casualty" that is not reported to someone could not be part of a statistic, as it would be unrecorded. But a soldier getting a band aid put on by a corpsman is not what I, nor I believe most people, think of as a "casualty." And unless he was confined to quarters for due cause, it would not remove him from the battlefield, the traditional definition of a casualty. To repeat: a casualty is one who is removed from acting on the battlefield, broadly defined, by the action of the enemy. This is by death, wounds, or capture. Illness does not count, nor does breaking your leg in a side game of football. It has to be caused by the enemy. This is also the way the US defined casualties among the communist forces. But the concept was apparently very blurred in the Vietnam War which makes it far more difficult for subsequent scholars to evaluate levels of combat success and failure.

Doug Macdonald, emeritus
Colgate University

I consider the first Americans to have been killed by hostile action in Vietnam to have been Major Dale Buis and Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand, killed in a Viet Cong attack at Bien Hoa on the evening of July 8, 1959. I have seen a claim that there was an earlier case, but I have been unable to verify it.

I do not think the principle that only men wounded by enemy action should be called casualties was "very blurred" in the Vietnam War. I am sure there were cases in which non-combat injuries were reported as wounds, but I think these were violations of a pretty clear policy.

If a medic treated a wound with a band-aid, I agree with Dr. Macdonald that this should not have shown up in the casualty figures, but whether it did show up would have depended on whether the medic chose (or was ordered) to report it. I have no idea what proportion of such wounds did get reported.

Dr. Macdonald may well be correct in saying the traditional definition of "casualties" counted only those men wounded severely enough to be removed from combat. I don't know. But this was not the definition used in Vietnam, nor do I think it necessarily should have been. The phenomenon of the man who chooses to stay with his unit, when wounded severely enough that removal from combat would have been justified, is well known.

It would seem that Lt. Colonel Peter Dewey, who was shot and killed by communist forces 350 meters from OSS Hqs in Saigon on 26 September 1945, should be listed as the first American casualty.

Walt McIntosh , former Chief VN operations , CIA.

The original query was about casualties in the Vietnam War, and Peter Dewey would not qualify. He could reasonably be called the first American casualty of the First Indochina War, but not of the Vietnam War (Second Indochina War).

I was careless in my phrasing, and said Buis and Ovnand were the first American casualties "in Vietnam." Walter McIntosh is clearly correct about this; Dewey was an earlier casualty in Vietnam.

For that matter, the United States did enough bombing in Vietnam during World War II that there may have been some casualties from that. But I have not been able to find any information about such.

I have continued to look into this question, and that of land mines more generally (more below), since my last posting on it. Mr. McIntosh may very well be "right" as to the first American casualty after WW II *in Vietnam.* But the officially recognized DOD claim for the first American casualty in the *Vietnam War,* I have since discovered by consulting a Vietnam veteran friend who seems to know everything about the Memorial Wall, is USAF T-Sgt. Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr., of Weymouth, Mass., on June 8, 1956. The criterion for being declared a "Vietnam War Casualty" depends, of course, on when you date the official beginning of the Vietnam War. It used to be August 1964 based on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, but no one, I think, took that very seriously.

Well, nobody but the Fitzgibbon family, that is. The family petitioned in 1998 to have the official start of the war changed to 1955 when the first Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), Vietnam was instituted. President Truman sent *a* MAAG as early as 1950 to coordinate aid to the French, but *the* MAAG, Vietnam was not created until 1955 (it, of course, morphed into the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam in 1962 when President Kennedy began escalating the war significantly.) The Fitzgibbon family was successful in 1998, and, accordingly, the T-Sgt.'s name was added to the Memorial Wall on Memorial Day, 1999 as the first casualty of the Vietnam War. In one of those sad, sad stories of war, Fitzgibbon’s son is also on the wall. Marine L.Cpl. Richard B. Fitzgibbon III was killed in Vietnam in September 1965.

A complication: the elder Fitzgibbon was killed by another USAF airman. If Fitzgibbon were to be excluded, as my friend would do, Dr. Moise is correct with the 1959 casualties, Major Dale Buis and Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand (also sometimes spelled Ovnard), two men who were murdered while viewing a movie in Bien Hoa according to my friend. [I should point out my friend pulled three tours in Vietnam, and has two Purple Hearts. He is somewhat unforgiving on these sorts of questions.)

I always considered the first *battlefield casualty* to be Army Spec. 4 James T. Davis, an ASA operator killed in an ambush and firefight on December 22, 1961. But I guess that is now somewhat outdated.

As for civilian mine injury statistics, I have since come across a fine book by Louis A. Wiesner, a former State Department official who worked with refugees in Vietnam from January 1968 to July 1970, returning twice in 1972 as a foreign aid inspector. From 1973 to August 1975, he was director of State's Office of Refugee and Migration Affairs, and from 1975 to the time the book was written (1988) he was a member of the International Rescue Committee, "a voluntary agency." He offers some of the best information on refugees that I have seen, often drawn from State Department testimony before Congress as well as his personal experiences. And he pulls no punches, being equally critical about the overuse of US/ARVN shelling and air power, as well as the brutality of the communist side in their mining practices and in drawing allied firepower down on unarmed villages while running away themselves as a political tactic.

According to Mr. Wiesner, there were three broad types of civilian injuries that were counted by SVN and USG refugee agencies: "mine or mortar," "gun or grenade," and "shelling or bombing." The first category was overwhelmingly caused by the insurgents (statistically speaking, most American mining tended to be “seeded” from the air in sparsely populated areas, or planted in the wake of major clearing operations such as “Junction City” in February-May 1967); the second category was equally utilized by both sides but could not be classified according to agency; and, the third category was virtually all caused by the allies.

The insurgents, of course, especially later in the war, used artillery, and the allies sometimes planted mines. These are generalizations that varied over time and space. But there are enough consistencies in the variations to support the generalizations meaningfully, at least in my judgment.

Politically, Mr. Wiesner makes a good case that the insurgents were extremely unpopular among the refugees, and they moved in many cases at the first opportunity to get away from the communists, despite extensive coercive behavior by the insurgents to keep them in place. Much has been written criticizing, and rightly so, the allied shelling of the villages and “H&I” (Harassment and Interdiction) random shelling, the latter a practice systemized during WW I. The basic purpose of the policies was to keep the insurgents on the move and tactically/psychologically insecure. It often did so, but also had the effect, intentionally or not, of keeping the populace on the move and physically/psychologically insecure.

Given that trade-off, which favored the insurgents in the short run, the policy was not only cruel, it was dumb. As Wiesner notes, it was sharply cut back after 1968. Much less has been written about the insurgent mortaring of refugee camps, killing mostly the elderly, women and children, in attempts to drive them back to their villages to support the insurgency. As a percentage of civilian casualties, he notes, such activity actually increased after 1968. Statistics are provided below.

The insurgents’ behavior in the villages changed drastically as they were forced to conscript (which often equated with dragooning or outright kidnapping) and tax after 1964. Much of the civilian “volunteering” to help the insurgents amounted to corvee labor: the peasants hated it under the emperors, they hated it under the French, they hated it under Diem, and they hated it under the communists. For many refugees, it was not merely a reduction or confiscation of land that led to their leaving, it was also being denied the chance to succeed and the threat of losing their sons and daughters. The SVN government, of course, faced the same problem and the same wrath (although to my knowledge, they did not draft women.)

The use of social science extrapolation methods was widely abused in Vietnam, and statistics from the war must be taken with much salt. [For an excellent history of the Rand Corporation’s efforts, though filled with “inside baseball” about the corporation’s factions, see the definitive Mai Elliott, *Rand in Southeast Asia: A History of the Vietnam War Era* (Rand, 2010), at: https://www.rand.org/pubs/corporate_pubs/CP564.html Rand has generously placed this and other sources online. (Accessed August 3, 2017.)] But such studies also can be provocatively suggestive and offer valuable snap shots of a complicated reality. Extrapolation is weak tea, but it is often all we have. Better weak evidence than no evidence. Otherwise our extrapolations are mere literature.

For example. In one province, Phu-Yen, a contracted social science firm, Human Sciences Research, Inc. surveyed refugees to find out why they had fled in 1967. The summary was the following (the numbers are more than 100% because more than one answer was allowed):

Viet Cong 84.9%
Allies 67.9%
Interface (that is, the fighting) 21.8%
Other 8.0%
[Source: Louis A. Wisener, *Victims and Survivors: Displaced Persons and Other War Victims in Viet-Nam* (NY: Greenwood press, 1988), Table 4, p. 104.]

Though one could argue that the refugees were simply condemning the insurgents to tell the SVN “what it wanted to hear,” the fact that nearly 68% blamed the government itself suggests a much higher degree of candor. The safest answer would have been “Interface.” It is only one unique province, but it is just as unrealistic that any one area is *sui generis* as much as it can be considered universally representative. Both are suggestive, and suggestive only.

For the pre-Tet (1968) period, Wiesner argues persuasively that most civilian casualties were caused by shelling and bombing, though no good statistics appear to exist. The vast destruction by both combatant sides during the Tet Offensive, on the other hand, brought entreaties from President Thieu of SVN and leaders of the Vietnamese Congress to lessen the use of those means which were alienating the populace, who had also become somewhat alienated from the insurgents for carrying out the Offensive in the first place.

Especially after General Abrams took command that spring, 1968, but even beginning under General Westmoreland, there were strenuous efforts to do so that Wiesner portrays as generally successful in relative terms. Ironically, since the 1968 initiative against excessive firepower came from the SVN government, something almost never seen in the war literature, Wiesner criticizes the SVN army for not changing their behavior. Then again, the majority of SVN army in 1968 still had the old M-1 rifles (sometimes almost as tall as the Vietnamese soldier himself!) and most did not receive M-16s until during and after the Tet offensive. "Softening up" a village suspected to be communist-dominated with artillery and air power prevented casualties against a far better-armed foe prior to that time and established SOPs for the SVN army.

The insurgents, on the other hand, had modified AK-47s with smaller stocks down to the "local force" level of combat prior to Tet. Tens of thousands of them were “smuggled” into the communist-designated "B-1 Battlefield," which included the entire Mekong Delta and Saigon, and roughly 70% of SVN's population, through the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville with the enthusiastic cooperation of Prince Sihanouk and his Defense Minister Lon Nol. China paid $40-50 million in bribes to the Cambodians for the Vietnamese to make this happen [from both Vietnamese and Chinese translated sources.] The US backed Lon Nol's overthrow of Sihanouk in 1970 even though they discovered the full extent of his role in arms-smuggling during the invasion of Cambodia. It was a complicated war. [From other research, forthcoming.]

In any event, with the lessened military capacity of the insurgents post-Tet, allied-caused civilian casualties lessened considerably to the extent they were caused by shelling and air power, and the insurgents' "mine and mortar"-caused casualties rose as a percentage of overall civilian casualties in a reversal of the trends during 1965-1967. Wiesner includes the admittedly imperfect SVN hospitalization admissions records (including US Military Hospitals):

Year All Causes War Casualties % of Total (Rounded)
1967 473,140 48,734 10%
1968 456,972 84,492 18%
1969 525,772 67,767 13%
1970 574,814 50,882 9%
1971 597,423 39,395 7%

[Source: Louis A. Wiesner, *Victims and Survivors: Displaced Persons and Other War Victims in Viet-Nam* (NY: Greenwood press, 1988), Table 10, p. 228)]

During and after Tet, 1968, as the North increasingly took over the war in the South (as I will show in my book, it had actually done so earlier, by the end of 1966 at the latest), the percentage of "War-Related Casualties" increased, in contrast to the pre-Tet period. Putting aside "gun or grenade" civilian injuries as there is no way to tell who caused them, and following Wiesner's observation that "mine or mortar" were primarily caused by the insurgents and "shelling or bombing" caused by the allies, this trend becomes demonstrable (percentages rounded and calculated as share of total causes of injuries):

Cause of Injury 1968 1969 1970 1971 1972

"Mine or Mortar" 34,500 (44%) 27,464 (48%) 35,989 (65%) 24,891 (63%) 33,044 (61%)

"Shelling or
Bombing" 28,454 (36%) 16,696 (29% 9,163 (17%) 7,241 (18%) 10,061 (19%)

[Source: Louis A. Wisener, *Victims and Survivors: Displaced Persons and Other War Victims in Viet-Nam* (NY: Greenwood press, 1988), Table 11, p. 229.]
After 1968, it was the “insurgency” (actually a Northern invasion,) not the allies, who were causing the vast bulk of civilian casualties in South Vietnam.

One of the reasons I am interested in the mine-related casualty figures is that the CIA's Sam Adams and George Allen claimed that large amounts of US casualties were coming from land mines and booby traps (supporters of this view sometimes using 40% or more) that were planted by non-military village militia and "irregulars." It was used as a major argument by them for including such village-based militia in the Order of Battle controversy of 1967-1968, and after. [Sam Adams, *War of Numbers* and George W. Allen, *None So Blind. * For an account that accepts Adams’ argument wholesale, see the biography of him by his godson, C. Michael Hiam, *A Monument to Deceit. *] But those casualty figures appear to be considerably exaggerated, by nearly a factor of three (excepting the Marines in I Corps., where the factor of exaggeration is about two,) as the statistics I presented in an earlier posting demonstrate. I have also found captured documents in the archives that complain that insurgent-planted mines were blowing up far too many villagers and insurgents. Province-level cadres were ordered to get the word of mine location to the local population, and vice versa.

This suggests that the mines were not set by local village militia, or, if they were, they were blowing up the neighbors in high numbers, behavior that would presumably alienate the locals and cause retaliation. It seems more likely that they were being set by local force guerrillas from the provincial level who were fulltime insurgents and less intimate with the villages. Moreover, despite the anecdotal evidence popular with Hollywood and others, there are estimates I am still checking that approximately 75% of insurgent mines were aimed at armored vehicles along roads, particularly at the more vulnerable armored personnel carriers. To use them generally required sophisticated training and construction, unlike the primitive but partly effective anti-personal booby traps of the villages. Captured documents tend to support these conclusions. As the war wore on, the use of plastic explosives increased sharply, even in anti-personal mines near the villages (it could not be found as easily, if at all, by mine detectors which react to metal), something that could not be manufactured locally.

I am still researching, but the accepted narrative of the war appears to be way off for both the allied and communist sides. Newly declassified American sources, the “new history” of Vietnam itself [for a path-breaking contribution, see Tuong Vu, *Vietnam's Communist Revolution: The Power and Limits of Ideology* (Cambridge, 2016)], and increasing translations of primary sources from Vietnam, now offer opportunities for a potential post-revisionist synthesis of empirical substance on the war. Interpretations will always differ.

Such synthetic research has already progressed on the history and analysis of the Northern and Southern regimes. For two fine and representative examples of the “new history” of the war period in Vietnam, see Philip E. Catton, *Diem’s Final Failure* and Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, *Hanoi’s War* which both demonstrate the historical superficiality of our understanding of the Vietnam War and the country itself, though in new ways, far from the Frances Fitzgerald pseudo-historical and social scientific view. view. Other scholars creating the “new history” include, but are hardly limited to, Pierre Asselin, Edward Miller, the amazingly prolific Christopher Goscha, Merle Pribbenow III, et. al.

It is about time for military and intelligence historians and IR security specialists to join in, though some such as Pribbenow, Dale Andrade, Warren Wilkins, Mark Moyar, J.P. Harris, et. al. have already begun the task, building on the earlier work of Jim Wirtz and Ronnie Ford and others. They will find a rich body of new evidence and interpretations that challenges much of what we have believed about this most scrutinized war for decades. The new Vietnam literature suggests that from the Peloponnesian War to the War on Poverty, there is always something to learn.

Is there a significent difference between someone being killed by a motar round or an artllery strike and someone being killed by exchange of face to face small arms fire? If there is, Tom Davis, my workmate, was so killed on 23 December 1961, and is often referred to as the first combat death in Vietnam.

BTW: For the record Davis would have been the real hero that day had he refused to participate in that 3rd day of a DF mission, which was continued into a 3rd day only to settle a minor turf problem between ARVN and the Police.

Walt McIntosh
Former 3rd RRU and Former Chief Vietnam Operations ,CIA

Due to a typographical error, I referred to the "B-1" Battlefront in my last posting as consisting of the Mekong Delta, Saigon, and elsewhere. That should have been the "B-2" Battlefront. The "B-1" Battlefront consisted of the eastern coastal provinces of central South Vietnam. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find a non-protected map to provide further clarification. Using the American/SVN designations that may be more familiar, the "B-2" Battlefront consisted of the southern section of II Corps., and all of III and IV Corps.

I regret the typo and any confusion it might have caused.

Doug Macdonald
Colgate University, emeritus