A mainstay of ARVN armored units right up to the fall of South Vietnam.
Operation Lam Son 719 took South Vietnamese forces deep into Laotian territory in February 1971. Intending to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, troops of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) met little initial opposition and set up several Landing Zones (LZs) to support their operations. One of these, LZ31, became the scene of bitter fighting when the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), after concentrating its forces, counterattacked on February 19. The NVA force was composed of infantry supported by large numbers of T-54 and PT-76 tanks.
To bolster the ARVN defenders of LZ31, five M-41A3 Walker Bulldog tanks were sent as reinforcements. The first kill of an enemy tank, a T-54, went to Sergeant Nguyen Xuan Mai’s M-41A3 of the 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry. As the day ground on, determined NVA assaults battered the defenders, but the M-41 crews managed to knock out six T-54s and 16 PT-76s without loss. In the first major tank-on-tank engagement of the war, they had proved they could hold their own against greater numbers of the NVA tanks. This is particularly significant considering the T-54’s superiority in both firepower and armor protection. While Lam Son 719 would not end well for the ARVN on the whole, the battle at LZ31 was a high note for the M-41’s service.
The M-41 light tank, like the bulk of the ARVN’s weapons, began life as an American system that was later distributed overseas under the Military Assistance Program. The lion’s share of its combat service took place in Vietnam. The M-41 was the main tank of the ARVN from its arrival in 1965 until the larger M-48 medium tank started entering Vietnamese service in the 1970s.
The Walker Bulldog story began in July 1946. According to the doctrine of the time, light tanks were used for scouting. When the U.S. Army conducted a review of the tankers’ actual experiences during World War II, it found that light tank units spent 97 percent of their time in nonscouting roles, including offensive and defensive operations. Though the army did want to retain light tanks for the reconnaissance role, it began to accept that the new design would need heavier armament to deal with whatever enemy forces it might encounter. The new experimental tank was designated the T-37 and had advanced features for its day, including an optical rangefinder and powered turret traverse and gun elevation. It was armed with a high-velocity 76mm gun powerful enough to defeat the main Soviet tank of the day, the T-34/85. The new light tank also was air-transportable.
As development continued, changes were made in the design of the turret, including the deletion of the experimental rangefinder. The final version was redesignated the T-41. Prototypes were ready for trials in 1949. After the trials, the Army in 1950, desperate to rebuild the armored force for the Korean War, placed an order for 1,000 T-41s. The tanks were built by Cadillac at their facility in Cleveland, Ohio. The nickname “Little Bulldog” had already been given to the tank but that was changed to “Walker Bulldog” to honor Lt. Gen. Walton M. Walker, killed in Korea on December 23, 1950. American units started receiving the tank in late 1951, and by May 1953, it was given its standard designation of M-41.
American troops generally liked the M- 41. It was reliable, fast and easy to hide or conceal in the field. A few went to Korea for combat testing but saw action only in patrols. On the downside, the M- 41’s engine was loud and its small size meant a cramped interior for the crew. Fuel economy was also poor, although that was partially rectified with later modifications. While some 5,500 M-41s were produced, none saw any combat with American units. The M-41 was phased out before the U.S. entry into the Vietnam War.
More than half the M-41s built were distributed to some two dozen nations under the Military Assistance Program. Initially, South Vietnam’s fledgling armored force was equipped with the American-built M- 24 Chaffee. The M-24 had been a effective light tank in 1945, but by the mid-1960s the ARVN’s Chaffees were worn out and spare parts were increasingly scarce.
Like most armored vehicles the M-41 underwent various modifications that resulted in variant identifiers added to its model number. The Walker Bulldogs delivered to the ARVN in January 1965 were M-41A3s, which were 26.9 feet long and 8.9 feet high. Each M-41 weighed 51,796 pounds and had a top road speed of 44 mph. It was powered by a 500-horsepower six cylinder fuel-injected AOS 895-5 gasoline engine that had a range of 100 miles.
In the four-man crew was a commander, gunner, loader, and driver. The M-41A3 carried 65 rounds of high-explosive, white phosphorous, armor-piercing, high-velocity armor piercing (HVAP) and/or high-explosive antitank (HEAT) ammunition for its 76mm gun. A .30-caliber machine gun was mounted coaxially beside the cannon, and a .50-caliber machine gun was mounted on the turret roof. The tank could be fitted with infrared night vision equipment.
By the end of 1965 five ARVN armored cavalry squadrons were equipped with the M-41A3. The tanks entered combat in October 1965, when 15 M-41s joined the relief force for the besieged Plei Mei Special Forces camp. However, the growing American involvement in Vietnam coupled with the political nature of the ARVN armored units meant the highly valued tanks saw relatively little use. ARVN units were not particularly well-equipped for antitank fighting so tanks were valued for their ability to help crush coups and other political unrest. The commanding officers of armored units were selected more for their political reliability than for their command ability.
During the Buddhist Revolt in May 1966, some ARVN units in the I Corps sector also mutinied. In response, combat-loaded M-41s were taken to Tan Son Nhut airbase near Saigon where they were loaded aboard U.S. Air Force C-133 Cargomaster aircraft. The tank crewmen remained aboard their vehicles, seated in their normal positions. They could not move around during the flight for fear of upsetting the balance of the airplane’s load. The C-133 flew to Da Nang, where the M-41 was offloaded driving down the aircraft’s ramp and straight to the scene of the chaos. The tanks played an important role in putting down the insurrection, giving loyalist troops vital support.
The 1968 Tet offensive did much to change the political nature of the ARVN tank force. The M-41 tankers experienced much combat in support of infantry units, particularly in cities and built-up areas like Saigon. Walker Bulldogs often simply moved up to point-blank range and blasted dug-in NVA or Viet Cong troops out of buildings. The tank crewmen did their job quite well, fighting with skill and determination. After Tet the ARVN leadership recognized that the armored units needed to be more than just a “palace guard” force.
Until Operation Lam Son 719, most of the work of the ARVN armored units involved supporting infantry operations. During Lam Son 719 the ARVN forces initially made gains supported by several understrength squadrons of M-41A3s. Despite the NVA’s initial defeat at LZ31, communist forces continued to attack, forcing the ARVN to withdraw after five days of fighting. The M-41s, artillery, and close air support continued to hammer at the NVA over the next several weeks, together knocking out some 30 more enemy tanks. By midMarch, however, the ARVN was becoming overwhelmed. The withdrawal from Laos quickly devolved into a rout, during which large amounts of ARVN equipment were abandoned, including M-41s and other vehicles. During the retreat one ARVN column was ambushed by the NVA while crossing a stream east of the objective town of Aloui. One ARVN armored unit abandoned four of its M-41s midstream, where they blocked the route for the follow-on units, including the 11th Armored Cavalry that had fought at LZ31. When their infantry support continued to withdraw without them, the cavalrymen were left to fight for three hours before finally moving two of the abandoned tanks aside. The 11th Armored Cavalry had to leave 17 more of its vehicles behind. The NVA immediately took over the tanks and other vehicles, using them as stationary pillboxes until they were destroyed by air strikes. Some of the Walker Bulldogs were recovered by the NVA in the aftermath and later put on display in Hanoi.
On March 29, 1972 the North launched its Easter Offensive. The NVA now had considerable numbers of the more-capable T-54/55 tanks and the Chinese-produced version, the Type 59. Despite its light tank status, the M-41A3 proved consistently capable of destroying the larger enemy tanks, as several M-41s proved during the fighting along the Dong Ha Line in April. ARVN M- 41s also helped retake lost ground at Quang Tri, defended at Kontum and joined the relief force for the battered town of An Loc.
On April 23, 1972, a squad of M-41A3s of the 14th Armored Cavalry was operating at Tan Canh. The NVA attacked using one of its newest weapons, the 9M-14M Malyutka wire-guided antitank missile, codenamed the Sagger by NATO. The first M-41 was struck as it returned to its base through the main gate. The armor of an M-41 was far too thin to resist the new missile and the squadron was effectively destroyed, clearing the way for an NVA armored attack. With the NVA’s increased use of new weapons, the U.S. started supplying its own heavier M-48A3 tank to the ARVN.
The M-41, nonetheless, remained the more numerous tank until the North attacked again in force in March 1975. Without U.S. support, outnumbered and with confused, ineffective leadership, the ARVN stood little chance against the determined invasion. As the NVA pushed south along the coastline, it captured many M-41s, most of them simply abandoned due to fuel shortages. These tanks were then put into action fighting for the North. The last ARVN tanks to be knocked out in defense of the South lost their gun duels with the first two T-54s that subsequently crashed through the gate to the Presidential Palace in Saigon.
When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, the M-41A3s that had been captured three years earlier accompanied its forces. Lack of spare parts, however, soon curtailed the Walker Bulldog’s last combat operation.
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.