In the Spring of 1969 9th Infantry Division’s most successful ambush tactic was the sniper mode. This sniper program was initiated in the States and was set in motion as result of a visit to Fort Benning in January 1968. The Army Marksmanship Unit cooperated to the fullest extent, and funds were made available to increase the accuracy of fifty-five M-14 rifles and to provide sniper-scopes. The idea was to get an outstanding training team from the Marksmanship Unit to train 9th Infantry Division soldiers in Vietnam in sniper tactics.
The Army Marksmanship Unit team led by Major Willis L. Powell and consisting of seven non-commissioned officers arrived in Vietnam in June 1968. Upon arrival in the country they revamped the M-16 training methods at the 9th Infantry Division training establishment, the Reliable Academy. Subsequently they supervised the construction of a 500 yard range at Dong Tam and periodically accompanied ambush patrols to assimilate the delta tactics. Progress was slow.
Brigadier General James S. Timothy was given the task of getting the sniper program off the ground in early August. This gave it the needed boost. Eventually the more accurate M-14 rifles arrived as well as special national match ammunition. The first hand picked group of volunteers from each battalion graduated in early November 1968 and the first sniper kill was registered on 19 November 1968 north of Binh Phuoc in Long An Province. The second group of snipers graduated in early December, giving us a full complement of 72 snipers, six per battalion and four per brigade. Notwithstanding all the personal attention that had been given to the sniper program, the early performance was ragged with only eight kills in November and eleven in December. This was clearly a dismal performance, considering the large number of men and the effort that had gone into the program.
Therefore, 9th Infantry Division set about analyzing equipment, personnel, methods and tactics. Once the flaw in the system was found, the solution was extremely simple, and it had an immediate effect. Initially snipers had been parcelled out by the battalions on the basis of two per line company. The company commanders, then, had the responsibility for the snipers and most company commanders could not care less. They used snipers just as any other rifleman. This was the reason they were not getting results. Consequently, Division directed assignment of the snipers to the battalion headquarters and held the battalion commanders responsible for their proper utilization and for emphasis on the program.
Once the battalion commanders learned to assign the sniper teams to the companies going on night operations the problem was solved. Snipers reported directly to company commanders, received a briefing on proposed tactics, picked the platoon and the area where they thought they could be most effective, and waited for a target. The nighttime sniper teams normally consisted of two snipers and two additional infantrymen armed with an M-79 and an M-16 and carrying a radio. Snipers worked in pairs to offset the eye fatigue which set in after long periods of peering through a starlight scope.
Once the snipers began to get personal attention and could handpick their assignments and fit their talents to the mission, the results were extraordinary. The steady improvement in sniper results, culminated in 346 enemy killed in the month of April and leveling off at about 200 kills per month. It was a flat learning curve initially but it soon steepened up.
After the snipers began to gain confidence and unit commanders saw that they were a great boon to the unit, the whole nighttime pace increased. Things went slowly initially because the ambush units were fearful of drawing attention to themselves as the result of snipers engaging the Viet Cong. However, 9th Infantry Division units soon became more confident and aggressive in night operations, primarily as a result of the sniper program a large unexpected bonus that we had not considered.
One of the unusual night sniper employments resulted from the 6th Battalion, 31st Infantry operating from riverine boats along the Mekong River. In this case, the snipers working in pairs positioned themselves on the helicopter landing pad of Tango boats. The Tango boats travelled at speeds of 2 to 4 knots moving about 100 to 150 meters from and parallel to the shore. Often they would anchor for periods of a half-hour before moving to a new location. As the Viet Cong moved along the shoreline the snipers after positive identification of the enemy, that is detection of a weapon, would open fire. During the period 12 April to 9 May 1969 snipers of the 6th Battalion, 31st Infantry killed 39 Viet Cong. About 1.7 Viet Cong were killed per engagement. The average distance to the target was 148 meters and it took 6 rounds per kill. The average time of engagement was 0040 hours.
As an interesting war story, 9th Infantry Division’s most successful sniper was Sergeant Adelbert F. Waldron, III, who had 109 confirmed kills to his credit. One afternoon he was riding along the Mekong River on a Tango boat when an enemy sniper on shore pecked away at the boat. While everyone else on board strained to find the antagonist, who was firing from the shoreline over 900 meters away, Sergeant Waldron took up his sniper rifle and picked off the Viet Cong out of the top of a coconut tree with one shot (this from a moving platform). Such was the capability of 9th Infantry Division’s best sniper, though there were others, too, with his matchless vision and expert marksmanship. Sergeant Waldron earned two Distinguished Service Crosses for his outstanding skill and bravery.
One of the most effective and ingenious methods that were used in the 9th Infantry Division sniper program was the use of pink filtered searchlights during periods of limited ambient illumination. Another was the effective use by the 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry of daytime sniper operations. They would insert snipers in the early morning along known trails and infiltration routes likely to be used by the enemy. They used six man teams – highly trained individuals capable of remaining in the field for several hours without moving a muscle when the situation required.
The sniper program was one of the most successful programs that 9th Infantry Division undertook. It took over a year from its inception in the States to its peak of performance in Vietnam. It also took plenty of hard work and belief in the concept and in snipers. But more than anything it restored the faith of the infantryman in his rifle and in his own capabilities. Fighting alone at night without the usually available combined arms team, the “rice paddy” soldier was more than a match for the enemy.
When snipers came into their own, it became apparent that aimed rifle fire was killing Viet Cong. In thinking about this, the thought occurred that the Viet Cong basically could not shoot and Americans could.
Fast Freddy tells us:
The 1/22 started a similar program around September 1967 where some soldiers were selected and trained on M-14s with scopes and taught by a SFC who formerly managed the West Point Rifle Team. The soldiers were taught to accurately shoot between 400-800 meters. The soldiers were then assigned back to their original companies and were treated by the COs as just another grunt.