Rumble in the Jungle: American Tanks in Vietnam

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Rumble in the Jungle: American Tanks in Vietnam

April 18th, 2023

8 minute read

We welcome Capt. Dale Dye, U.S.M.C. (ret) to His article today talks about the use of tanks in the Vietnam War by the United States Marine Corps. Tanks and other armored vehicles were used more in Vietnam than many people realize, and Capt. Dye relates first-hand observations of them in combat.

american flame tank in the vietnam war
M67 “Zippo” flame tanks of the U.S.M.C. 1st Tank Battalion engage the enemy during Operation Doser near Binh Son in the Quang Ngai Province. Image: NARA

Back in the summer of ’67, I was having a brutal macho slugfest with my bunkmate in Staging Battalion at Camp Pendleton. I maintained that my buddy, who was a tanker, was a no-load weenie who would never see real combat. As I was headed for an infantry assignment, my buddy thought I was a bull-goose looney who didn’t pack the gear to specialize in something less potentially lethal. We were both headed for Vietnam, so those things were important to us. We might both get blown away, but status while doing so was a greater concern.

My arguments were based on the kind of pre-deployment training we were getting which emphasized guerilla warfare, avoiding booby traps, and winkling out Viet Cong guerillas in dense jungles. What good would big tanks and other armored vehicles be in that kind of fight? 

us marines fighting with m48 patton tank in hue city during tet offensive
A U.S. Marine scans the street for enemy snipers during the Battle of Hue City on February 3, 1968. Backing him up is an M48 Patton tank. Image: U.S.M.C.

Six months later during Tet ’68 in the Battle of Hue City, I ran across my buddy scrunched into the turret of a Zippo, an M67 flame tank. At this point, I drastically revised my arguments about tankers and close combat. While those of us more directly exposed to rounds, rockets and ricochets on the mean streets of Hue were taking serious casualties, my buddy and his fellow tankers were also getting banged around seriously by NVA rocket gunners who played whack-a-mole with the tanks. It occurred to me, watching his Zippo hose down enemy strongpoints with napalm, that fighting in an RPG-rich environment while perched on a 300-gallon tank of napalm might qualify as dangerous duty.

m67 zippo flame tank demonstration
Marines in an M67 Zippo flame tank could dislodge stubborn enemy positions, as shown in this demonstration for U.S. Navy personnel in 1970. Image: U.S. Navy

And that was the beginning of my interest in armor as used by U.S. Army and Marine outfits during the war in Vietnam. As I was mostly around Marine Corps tankers and armor crewmen, what I have to say here will have a distinctly Leatherneck bias. More will come later in another article about my experiences with U.S. Army tankers and other tracked vehicles used in Vietnam.

Leathernecks and Steel

Because the Marine Corps fights as a self-contained combat outfit with all organic supporting arms and logistics under the same command umbrella, I had the opportunity to observe tanks and tankers in combat quite a bit from 1967 to 1970.

usmc m-48 tank in combat during vietnam war
Leathernecks of 1st Platoon, G Company, 2d Battalion, 7th Marines move up to assault enemy positions during Operation Allen Brook near Da Nang, Vietnam. Image: Cpl. R. J. Del Vecchio/U.S.M.C.

Marine tanks were all variants of the Patton design designated M48A3. They carried a 90mm main armament firing a variety of ammo from High-Explosive Anti-Tank (Heat) to High-Explosive (HE) and the grunt’s favorite Anti-Personnel – Tracer (APERS-T), commonly known as a Beehive Round.

m48 patton tank engages a target in the vietnam war while marines ride on it
U.S. Marines riding atop an M48 tank cover their ears as the 90mm gun fires during a road sweep southwest of Phu Bai on April 3, 1968. Image: NARA

Tanks assigned to infantry-support roles in the two tank battalions of the First and Third Marine Divisions, operating in I Corps (the farthest northern AO adjacent to the DMZ) also sported a .30-cal. co-axially mounted machinegun that was sighted and triggered by the gunner using main-gun fire control sights, and a .50-cal. heavy machinegun either in a cupola atop the turret or hard-mounted pintle on the turret roof.

us marines use m48 tank as rolling cover during the battle of hue city 1968
U.S. Marines use an M48 tank as cover as they advance during street fighting in Hue in February 1968. Image: Staff Sgt. Jack L. Harlan/U.S.M.C.

They were 50-tons of bush-bashing beast, but the verdant jungles that severely restricted speed, constant mine threats and low visibility in many areas kept them a bit restricted. They had shock-effect and firepower, but mobility was a drawback in heavily jungled areas. However, as regular formations of the North Vietnamese Army appeared on various battlefields in Vietnam, tanks came to be much more of a valuable asset.

Tanks, armored personnel carriers and related heavy vehicles proved their worth in fights where improved roads allowed them to exploit their mobility and bring heavy firepower to bear on enemy formations battling to control interior lines of communications throughout the country.

usmc m42 duster in a prepared position at khe sahn
Shown is an M42 Duster in a prepared defensive position at Khe Sahn on 8 April 1967. These armored vehicles were armed with twin 40mm guns. Image: U.S.M.C.

An early and powerful example of this came when my unit was based at Con Thien overlooking the Ben Hai River and the DMZ. We ran regular patrols on adjacent roads to keep supply lines open, and one of our biggest assets was the soldiers from 1st Battalion, 44th Artillery, running M42A1 “Dusters” for us in the road sweeps.

These relatively light tracked vehicles based on the M41 tank chassis, sported a pair of 40mm Bofors automatic weapons that raised hell all over the DMZ and surrounding countryside. It got to the point where Marine units wouldn’t consider running a road sweep without a couple of Dusters rolling along in support.

m42 duster in vietnam at fire base coral
A U.S. M42 Duster supports the 1st Australian Task Force in May 1968. Australian troops battled NVA and VC troops for nearly a month during the Battle of Coral. Image: Australian War Museum/CC BY-NC 3.0 AU

And then came Tet ’68 and the bloody battle in Hue City.

In the Thick of It

In conversation with survivors after the fight in Hue, I learned that Marines were initially reluctant to send tanks into the city. It was basically counter to doctrine that said armor was too often forced into fire-traps on city streets, vulnerable to overhead attacks where their armor was thinnest, and limited turret traverse in narrow confines.

usmc m67 zippo flame tank attacks a vc position in the vietnam war
A U.S. Marine Corps flame tank burns out a VC position while on Operation Elliot on July 7, 1967. Image: NARA

None of those concerns held up when the defecation hit the oscillation in Hue. And Marine tanks were often the deciding factor in street fights that demanded sufficient firepower to blast a stubborn enemy from buildings and concrete strongpoints. A couple of 90mm AP rounds followed by a stream of burning fuel from a Zippo usually turned the tables against NVA defenders.

One of the most haunting images I retain from the Hue City fight is a pulpy NVA corpse standing upright and pinned to a tree by a swarm of flechettes. It might have been a tank round, or one from an Ontos 106mm recoilless rifle — they were all firing Beehive rounds — but the effect was gruesome. The NVA trooper hung like a scarecrow that had been dive-bombed to death by swarms of lethal wasps.

usmc m50 ontos near da nang in march 1965
This M50 Ontos and its two Marine crew move forward during Operation Franklin. The Ontos accompanied 1st and 2d Battalion, 7th Marines in the Quang Ngai Province in June of 1966. Image: U.S.M.C.

Hue was also my first opportunity to see the Marine Corps’ M50 Ontos in action. Most Marines were familiar at a distance with the weird-looking vehicles from seeing them parked in static perimeter defense positions around major firebases. And most had heard the stories about how the Army tried the Ontos out in the late 1950s and promptly decided it was too thin-skinned and otherwise unsuitable for a variety of reasons, notably the need for some poor crew-dog to dismount under fire in order to reload the six 106mm recoilless rifles affixed to the hull.

But the Ontos — “Thing” in Greek — went bang with a six-barreled vengeance, and that was an attractive feature for Marines who had enough suicidal PFCs to sustain the vehicle’s three-man crews. The Marine Corps adopted the Army castoff Ontos and sent it to Vietnam hoping to use it as a mobile fire-support element for infantry.

m50 ontos during operation iowa in vietnam
Marines patrol in the Quang Tin Province of Vietnam during Operation Iowa in April of 1966. Image: U.S.M.C.

Despite initial casualties, mostly from AT mines and RPGs which devastated the light vehicles, Marines stuck by the Ontos, using its brace of 106mm recoilless rifles to good effect when terrain allowed it to follow close behind advancing grunts. But the Ontos was mainly relegated to perimeter defense or convoy escorts duties until things went weird in Hue City and the Ontos came into its own.

us marine rests on top of a m50 ontos
During a break in the fighting in Hue City on February 23, 1968, this Marine catches a few minutes of sleep on top of his M50 Ontos. Image: Lance Cpl. D. M. Messenger/U.S.M.C.

The small, lightweight and fully tracked Ontos was a regular and welcome sight among infantry Marines bulling and blasting their way through enemy defenses in Hue. The crews were nimble and canny in roaring up to a hardpoint and cranking away with rec-rifles fired in pairs or broadsides. No warning was given about the horrendous backblast — and none was needed. When an Ontos was about to open fire — or even looked like it might — we knew to be elsewhere under cover until the smoke and debris cleared.


For the most part, the NVA didn’t employ much armor during the fight in Vietnam. The occasional sighting of armored vehicles on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and the attack by a platoon of PT-76s on the SF camp at Lang Vei in Feb. ’68, were exceptions. In fact, until the massive NVA offensives toward the end of the American involvement (Easter Offensive in ’72 and the final push to end it all in 1975), enemy armor was not much of a worry for allied troops on the ground in Vietnam. But our armor undoubtedly worried them.

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Capt. Dale Dye, USMC (Ret)

Capt. Dale Dye, USMC (Ret)

Capt. Dale Dye, USMC, served 20 years in the Corps including combat tours in Vietnam and Beirut. He is a former enlisted Marine who rose to the rank of Master Sergeant before he was commissioned. After retirement in 1984, he founded Warriors Inc., the premier military consultancy to film and TV production. He is also an accomplished writer, director and actor. His showbiz resume includes more than 50 productions, many of which have won top awards. You can see Capt. Dye's many books here.

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