On This Day: America begins first combat operation in Vietnam War

Julian Gavaghan
On This Day: America begins first combat operation in Vietnam War

JANUARY 12, 1962: U.S. forces launched their first combat operation in Vietnam on this day in 1962 – and would remain mired in the conflict until their humiliating exit a decade later.

American helicopter pilots ferried 1,000 South Vietnamese paratroopers to assault Viet Cong communist guerrilla fighters 10 miles from the Southern capital of Saigon.

The U.S. Army’s Air Cavalry units, which would come to play a big role fighting in the mountainous and jungle-covered country, helped defeat the insurgents.

Back home, Americans were left almost completely clueless about Operation Chopper due to a virtual press blackout.

President John F Kennedy, who was determined to stop 'communist creep' but also feared a public backlash so soon after the Korean War, wanted to keep it secret.

At a press conference, a News of the Day newsreel filmed him admitting only that the U.S. was assisting with South Vietnam’s military with 'training and transportation'.

Mr Kennedy refused to go into details for fear of 'assisting the enemy' newsreel also showed footage of Southern troops fighting in the jungle.

The war followed the decision to split Vietnam in two in 1954 after northern-based communists ousted the country’s French colonists following an eight-year conflict.

In 1957, the North’s leader Ho Chi Minh encouraged southern sympathisers to rise up against dictator Ngo Dinh Diem.

The North Vietnamese Army supplied insurgents with Chinese and Soviet weapons via the covert Ho Chi Minh trail through mostly neighbouring Laos and Cambodia.

A proxy war between Cold War rivals began when the U.S. decided to counter the communist threat by arming and providing technical expertise to the South.

American President Lyndon B Johnson launched Operation Thunder and finally sent ground troops to fight in Vietnam in 1965 - a year after the NVA invaded the South.






















But by 1968, following the Tet Offensive by communist forces, the war was beginning to look unwinnable for the U.S., despite it committing 500,000 soldiers.

The same year also marked the height of the protest movement, culminating with an eight-day riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August.

Violent demonstrations also took place in London in 1968 – notably with 117 policemen injured after a crowd of 6,000 tried to storm the U.S. Embassy in October.


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Other protests included boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the U.S. Army and fight in Vietnam after saying 'no Vietcong ever called me nigger'.

He was banned from fighting in every U.S. state and lost his passport, meaning he could not fight anywhere, which forced him to forfeit his heavyweight title.


Among the 210,000 other 'draft dodgers', 30,000 young American men evaded conscription by fleeing to Canada.

A further 2.2million men, of whom a quarter served in the Vietnam Combat Zone, were successfully drafted into the armed forces during the era.


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In 1973, America, which lost 58,000 lives during the controversial Cold War conflict, finally pulled all its forces out in what was seen as a deeply humiliating exit.

The war, which led to the deaths of up to 3.1million people in total, ended on April 30, 1975 after the North seized Saigon, which is now known as Ho Chi Minh City.