The 81st Airborne Commando Battalion and great battles

The 81st Airborne Commando Battalion, often abbreviated as BCND/BCD (Biệt cách Dù in Vietnamese), was a special forces unit and one of the four elite forces of the Republic of Vietnam Military Forces (ARVN). The other three elite forces were the Airborne, Rangers, and Marine Corps. The battalion was under the direct command of the Joint General Staff, with substantial technical support. The mission of the Biệt cách Dù was to conduct parachute operations, secretly infiltrate enemy-controlled areas, gather intelligence, disrupt enemy logistics, and be prepared for combat when necessary. They were also used for tracking down and eliminating enemy special forces units in certain battles.

This special forces unit was established during the Vietnam War as part of the Republic of Vietnam due to the directives of the Republic of Vietnam and the Joint General Staff. In addition to officially acknowledged intelligence-gathering missions, the unit also carried out classified missions directed and ordered directly by the President of the Republic of Vietnam and the Joint General Staff. The Biệt cách Dù was one of the last units to lay down their arms during the events of April 30, 1975, at the Joint General Staff headquarters of the Republic of Vietnam Military Forces.

History begin

Starting in 1960, the U.S. government allowed for the expansion of covert programs to counter communist efforts in Southeast Asia, particularly in Vietnam. In South Vietnam, the 1st Observation Group, part of the Liaison Office, was established. In addition to parachute operations in North Vietnam for intelligence-gathering and counter-Viet Cong activities, the 1st Observation Group also organized irregular warfare units to infiltrate southern Laos. Their mission was to search for and attack supply routes controlled by North Vietnamese forces.

To implement the program in Laos, the Combined Studies Division (CSD) was established, with a focus on Civil Defense. It operated under the guidance of the CIA branch in Saigon and was led by Colonel Gilbert Layton (U.S.) and Lieutenant Colonel Trần Khắc Kính (Republic of Vietnam). A covert program, initially codenamed “Lei Yu” and later renamed “Typhoon” (in English) or “Lôi Vũ” (in Vietnamese), was developed. It included a total of 15 Special Forces teams, each consisting of 14 members, drawn from existing units within the 1st Observation Group. These teams were numbered from 1 to 15 and were assembled at the Typhoon-Lôi Vũ camp, located near the Thủ Đức Replacement Center, to prepare for their missions.

Vietnam War Patch ARVN Special Forces 81st Intelligence XICH QUY Red Devil

In addition, the CSD also organized a Strike Force to conduct mobile attacks on targets identified by the Special Forces teams. This Strike Force was designed to provide support and rescue operations for Special Forces teams when they faced serious threats. As part of these efforts in the Republic of Vietnam, soldiers from the Thai ethnic group in the 22nd Infantry Division were recruited and brought to Thủ Đức for training in parachute operations and special operations. The 1st Airborne Special Commando Company (Đại đội 1 Biệt kích dù) was established under the command of Captain Lương Văn Hơi. Subsequently, the 2nd Airborne Special Commando Company (Đại đội 2 Biệt kích dù) was also formed, consisting of soldiers from the Nùng ethnic group recruited from the 5th Infantry Division, under the command of Lieutenant Voòng Chay Mênh. These were the initial units of the Biệt cách Dù.

After training and organization, the two Airborne Special Commando Companies were airlifted to Kontum and then transported by vehicle to a forward base near Ben Het village. Subsequently, the two Biệt cách Dù teams were tasked with accompanying teams from the Typhoon (Lôi Vũ) Special Forces, including teams 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, and 8, back to the secure base at Ben Het. This mission is considered the first operational deployment of the Biệt cách Dù forces.

Considered a success, two more Airborne Special Commando Companies were established. The 3rd Airborne Special Commando Company was formed from soldiers recruited primarily from the Airborne Division, and the 4th Airborne Special Commando Company was formed from volunteer soldiers, most of whom were Catholics introduced by Father Mai Ngọc Khuê.

In early 1963, the Liaison Office (then known as the Terrain Exploitation Office) was renamed the Special Forces of the Republic of Vietnam, under the command of Colonel Lê Quang Tung. Alongside the parachute teams operating in the north, the trail reconnaissance teams, and enemy bases, the combat units of the Special Forces included the 77th and 31st Special Commando Battalions, as well as the 5 Airborne Special Commando Companies.

The Airborne Special Forces Battalion and the Delta Mobile Strike Force Headquarters

The Airborne Special Forces Battalion and the Delta Mobile Strike

After the 1963 coup, the Special Forces underwent several reorganizations. The Special Forces Group 45, responsible for the parachute teams operating in the North, was separated. In mid-1965, the Special Forces Liaisons were dissolved, and the command structure of the Special Forces was reorganized to be similar to that of U.S. Special Forces for improved coordination and command of Special Forces teams operating within the interior (different from the peripheral operations of the Typhoon Special Forces) across all four tactical zones. Meanwhile, the Airborne Special Commando Companies were combined into the 81st Airborne Commando Battalion, which continued to operate under the command of the Special Forces, maintaining its role in striking and supporting internal Special Forces teams.

An Loc 1972 – Russian-built North Vietnamese T54 tank destroyed by 81st Airborne Rangers.

In addition, the roles of the United States and its allies in special operations in Southeast Asia changed due to the transfer of responsibilities between the CIA and MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam). To coordinate special operations activities in South Vietnam, in June 1965, MACVSOG (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group), the agency responsible for special operations under MACV, established the Delta Mobile Strike Force Headquarters, with the codename B52. This headquarters was tasked with coordinating with the Special Forces of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to command reconnaissance and sabotage activities.

Under this arrangement, mixed Vietnamese-American Special Forces teams, with American soldiers leading the teams but dressed and equipped like the Viet Cong, would infiltrate the Ho Chi Minh Trail and areas controlled by the enemy in South Vietnam. Their mission was to identify enemy troop positions, gather strategic intelligence, monitor the results of U.S. air strikes, conduct raids, and disrupt the logistical infrastructure of the Viet Cong. The 91st Airborne Commando Battalion initially served as the rapid response force to support the Delta Mobile Strike Force. In 1968, the 91st Battalion was renamed the 81st Airborne Commando Battalion.

An Loc 1972 – 81st Special Airborne Brigade

The Airborne Special Commando Battalion

In June 1970, MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) terminated the operations of the Delta Mobile Strike Force and withdrew American troops back to their home country. In August 1970, the Special Forces were also disbanded as their mission of parachute jumps in the North and Laos had concluded, along with beach landings. Special Forces soldiers were dispersed to other branches within the military. Many were transferred to the Rangers and Technical Service branches. However, the Republic of Vietnam portion of the Delta Mobile Strike Force and the 81st Airborne Commando Battalion were reorganized and merged to form the 81st Airborne Commando Battalion, which became a General Reserve Force under the Joint General Staff. The unit retained the special forces badges, was allowed to wear the green beret and the Special Forces insignia, and could wear the red ribbon of the National Order of Vietnam.

81st Airborne Rangers patch

When first established, the battalion had about 900 personnel. Later on, the battalion expanded its numbers and was organized into one battalion headquarters, one Support Commando Company, and three Tactical Commando Companies. This organization was quite different from regular infantry or conventional forces. Each Tactical Commando Company had four commando teams, and each team consisted of 200 soldiers. The total strength of the battalion reached up to 3,000 soldiers.

The great battles

Despite being trained for special operations such as infiltrating behind enemy lines, during critical military situations like the 1968 Tet Offensive or the 1972 Easter Offensive, the Joint General Staff utilized the Airborne Commando Battalion as a rapid response and reinforcement force on the battlefield. The Airborne Commando Battalion, although trained for independent and covert operations, was also accustomed to functioning as regular combat troops. They were skilled at disguising themselves as enemy soldiers, using captured weapons and uniforms, and adapting to the habits and routines of the enemy’s soldiers when needed.

81st Airborne Rangers march into Phuoc Long 1974
  1. The Battle of An Lộc in 1972 was a fierce and brutal battle during the Easter Offensive. The 81st Airborne Commando Battalion, along with the 429th Special Forces Battalion of the Viet Cong, engaged in intense combat that resulted in heavy casualties on both sides. The surviving soldiers had to create makeshift burial grounds on the spot to bury the fallen comrades. It was the members of the Airborne Commando Battalion who tracked down and eliminated infiltrating enemy special forces within the city of An Lộc. This battle marked a significant and heroic chapter in the history of the 81st Airborne Commando Battalion.
  2. The Battle of Quảng Trị ancient citadel in 1972: Due to the significant losses suffered in the Battle of An Lộc, the 81st Airborne Commando Battalion was unable to train new recruits as effectively as the previous generation of soldiers. However, they still joined the combat in Quảng Trị in the latter half of July, playing the role of a strategic reserve unit behind the Airborne Division. As the deadline for retaking the ancient citadel approached, General Lê Quang Lưỡng deployed the Airborne Commando Battalion into the ancient citadel. They directly confronted the main force of the North Vietnamese 48th Regiment, contributing to the Airborne Division’s pushback of the North Vietnamese troops and the recapture of the ancient citadel.
  3. The Battle of Phước Long in 1974: In a final effort to prevent Phước Long from falling into enemy hands, the Joint General Staff considered a plan to airlift the 81st Airborne Commando Battalion into the town to create a buffer zone with the aim of retaking Phước Long. However, as most of the province had already been captured by the Viet Cong, the helicopter landing zones were within the range of enemy artillery. Despite their determined efforts, the Airborne Commando Battalion had to withdraw from Phước Long before the province completely fell into enemy hands.
  4. The Battle of Saigon in 1975: A tactical battalion comprising approximately 1,000 Airborne Commandos, commanded by Major Phạm Châu Tài, was tasked with protecting the Joint General Staff of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces. In this final battle, their resistance slowed down the advance of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces, and they managed to destroy nine armored tanks. However, due to their limited numbers compared to the enemy and a shortage of ammunition, they had to continuously fall back into a defensive position and ultimately surrendered following the orders of President Dương Văn Minh, who had just taken office as the new head of state.
Captain Pham Chau Tai and his teammates prepared to enter An Lao secret area – 1969

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