As retired Gen. Robert Shoemaker tells it, the U.S. incursion into Cambodia during the Vietnam War began on a Sunday.
Shoemaker, now a 91-year-old Bell County resident, was a brigadier general in the spring of 1970. It was his third tour in Vietnam, and he was an assistant division commander of the 1st Cavalry Division at the time.
“(Maj. Gen. E. B.) Roberts, who was the division commander, grabbed me and said, ‘We’ve got to go down and see Gen. Abrams. Gen. (Creighton) Abrams was the commander of the whole Vietnam theater, and his headquarters was in Saigon. So we flew down in a helicopter on a Sunday.”
Shoemaker, who previously served in Vietnam as a battalion and squadron commander for two air cavalry units, quickly learned what the meeting was about. The 1st Cavalry generals were greeted by II Field Force commander Lt. Gen. Michael Davison, a corps-level commander in Vietnam.
The general “talked to us about the war and the way everything was going. And he had a map, and he pointed to Cambodia.”
The North Vietnamese had built up a massive amount of supplies in the area and were using “neutral” Cambodia as a staging area to help launch wave after wave of attacks into South Vietnam against American troops and their South Vietnamese allies.
“And he said, ‘We may have to go in there... clean it out... I’ll give you 96 hours notice,” Shoemaker said, recalling the oral order from Davison.
As Roberts and Shoemaker flew back to 1st Cavalry’s division headquarters in Vietnam, Roberts said, “I can’t imagine the Army doing this, but we better get organized,” Shoemaker recalled.
Shoemaker was appointed to be in charge of the task force that would launch the initial attack into Cambodia — a vast jungle, rural area where the enemy was stockpiling weapons, ammunition, rice and other supplies.
To get the job done, Shoemaker was given five air mobile battalions from the division, along with a brigade from the 25th Infantry Division, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment and the 3rd ARVN airborne brigade comprised of South Vietnamese troops.
All told, combined with support and supply personnel, about 35,000 to 40,000 troops comprised Task Force Shoemaker.
“By the time we went in, I had 12 maneuver battalions under my task force,” Shoemaker said.
The mission was vague, bold and risky: Enter Cambodia — previously off limits — to shatter the North Vietnamese supply lines.
“I wasn’t, nor was anyone else, exactly sure what we were going to run into,” Shoemaker said.
His mission was no more specific than what Davison had told him in Saigon: “Clean it out.”
“Our intelligence was very imperfect in that area of Cambodia. We were not permitted, by our rules of engagement” to cross over into Cambodia. Even the maps soldiers used had “blank” spots where Cambodia was.
Shoemaker still was not sure they were going until he got the order — orally from his commanding general.
“That night, I got all of the commanders together,” including the South Vietnamese commanders, Shoemaker said.
He told the battalion commanders at that meeting, one by one, what he wanted them to do.
“So far as I know, there was never a written order on the Cambodian operation,” Shoemaker said.
“It was one of the few times we scooped the Viet Cong or the (North) Vietnamese.”
And on May 1, 1970, the attack began.
“The basic plan was an assault by the 11th Armored Cav, which had tracked vehicles, and an air mobile assault,” Shoemaker said.
The assault met little resistance.
It was “total tactical surprise,” said retired Lt. Gen. Pete Taylor, a former III Corps and Fort Hood commander and Vietnam veteran. He said the enemy didn’t think Americans would enter Cambodia, and left hundreds of supply dumps mostly unguarded.
“They were confident we weren’t coming,” said Taylor, who, as a major, entered Cambodia with 1st Cavalry’s 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment after the initial six-day invasion.
Shoemaker went from unit to unit in his helicopter, encouraging the troops and taking in the big picture.
“I required every brigade to call me on secure radio every three hours with a report of what was going on,” he said.
A massive number of supply dumps was found almost immediately in warehouses, buildings, buried under ground and “all of the above,” Shoemaker said.
The task force lost two soldiers in the first three days of the attack, and by May 7, the task force was disbanded, and the units reverted back to their normal commands. U.S. forces stayed in Cambodia through June 30, 1970, fighting and uncovering supply dumps the entire time.
U.S. troops found food, vehicles, weapons, including tanks, and “huge stockpiles of the tank ammunition,” Taylor said.
While the mission was hugely successful for U.S. and allied troops in Vietnam, it ignited more protests back in the United States, where the anti-war movement was nearly at its peak.
President Richard Nixon, however, defended the attack, saying it would allow South Vietnamese troops more time to train, and get the Americans out of the war sooner.
“This was to slow them (the North Vietnamese) down,” Taylor said.
“This disrupted their command and control, disrupted their supply lines; it was a total tactical success. ... Everywhere we went, we found stuff.”
Indeed, when Pat Christ, a Harker Heights city councilman and Army veteran, arrived in Vietnam, the Cambodian campaign had just ended, making his first few months in the country relatively uneventful, he said.
Looking back, Shoemaker said he is quite satisfied with how Task Force Shoemaker was carried out.
“Vietnam, for me personally, was a real learning experience. It convinced me that when you’ve got large forces like that, you’ve got to, very carefully, make sure that every commander knows what you want them to do, give them resources and let the horses ride,” Shoemaker said. “I’ve followed that general thought all the rest of my career.”
He went on to become a four-star general and head U.S. Forces Command. He retired in 1982 and has been living in Bell County ever since.