The American M24 Chaffee light tank of WWII saw postwar combat in southeast Asia for a quarter-century starting in 1950, first with the French army, then the South Vietnamese army, and finally the South Vietnamese air force.
(A French army M24 Chaffee in combat during the Indochina War.)
(A M24 Chaffee of the ARVN (South Vietnamese army) attacking Gia Long Palace during the 1963 coup.)
(With a PanAm Boeing 707 in the background, a M24 Chaffee of the VNAF (South Vietnamese air force) guards Tan Son Nhut in Saigon. Even as the Vietnam War was being fought, the airport’s civilian side continued to handle commercial aviation. These air force tanks would be the last WWII Chaffees in Vietnam.)
The M24 Chaffee was 18’3″ long, 9’10” wide, and 9′ tall. It had a five-man crew: commander, gunner, loader, driver, and fifth man who operated the hull machine gun and was cross-trained as a relief driver or loader.
The Chaffee was powered by a twinned Cadillac 44T24 “flathead” V8 gasoline powerpack.
The M24 had a General Motors Hydramatic automatic transmission and used torsion bar suspension. Two track types were made, the all-steel T72E1 and the rubber-shoed T85E1. The M24 Chaffee’s top speed was 35mph, which was the same as the smaller M3/M5 Stuart which the Chaffee replaced during WWII.
The turret armor was ¾” – 1″. The main gun mantlet was 1½”. The glacis was 1″, and the rest of the tank varied between 1″ to ¾” with some areas less than that. On paper the M24 Chaffee had only equal protection to the M3/M5 Stuart however the sloping of the armor on the Chaffee produced a superior result.
(Like most WWII tanks the heaviest armor was the main gun mantlet. This was a M24 Chaffee of the South Vietnamese army during 1965. The coaxial M1919 can be seen next to the soldier’s canteen. By this point of the Vietnam War, the ARVN was switching from the WWII M1 Garand to the M16 as its standard rifle.)
The most distinguishing visual feature of this WWII tank was a removable octagon of armor on the glacis. It allowed mechanics access to the M24 Chaffee’s controlled differential, which sent power to the drive sprockets and also used opposed braking to steer the tank. The controlled differential also gave the Hydramatic transmission its reverse gears.
(French M24 Chaffees during the Indochina war.)
(This French M24 Chaffee was destroyed by the Viet Minh in 1954. It is today preserved as a monument in Vietnam. The octagonal armor piece is missing, as is the gearbox. This photo also shows the commander’s “pistol port” open. This feature was obsolescent after WWII.)
The main weapon was a M6 75mm gun, developed at Rock Island Arsenal.
The M6 was originally developed as an air-to-surface weapon (T13E1) for modified B-25 Mitchell bombers to use against Japanese ships. It shared ammunition with the M3 gun (the original main weapon of the M4 Sherman) and had the same ballistics. However the M6 had a thinner, lighter barrel and enhanced recoil mechanism. On the M24 Chaffee, the M6 was set in a M64 mounting which also contained the coaxial machine gun. The M6 had a vertical-sliding, assisted-operation breech. The M6 fired the M72 (solid-shell AP) and M48 (HE-Frag) ammunition, with smoke rounds also available. With the M72 the muzzle velocity was 1,850fps and it could penetrate 3″ of armor at 500yds. A total of 48rds of 75mm ammo was carried.
There were two M1919 machine guns, one coaxial and one in a ball mount. Each had 1,875rds of .30-06 Springfield. On the roof, a M2HB Browning .50cal was installed. There were two locations; forward of the commander’s hatch; and later behind it, as this was more suitable for an infantryman to operate it using the turret as cover. In either case 440rds of 50BMG ammo was carried.
A M3 smoke mortar was fitted in the turret. During WWII this was an annoyance to the crew and they were removed after the war.
(An innovation during WWII was this box on the right rear fender which allowed infantry to communicate with the Chaffee’s intercom system. This was a South Vietnamese M24 during the mid-1960s.)
On the right rear fender a camouflage net was stowed and on the left, several spare track links. On the rear was a rain tarp and a tool to fix broken tracks. Otherwise little else was carried as the M24 design was to be as lightweight as possible.
history of the Chaffee
In pre-WWII American doctrine, light tanks were the “muscle” of reconnaissance elements, backing up armored cars and infantry scouts. It was expected that light tanks be survivable against rifle and machine gun fire, enemy armored cars, and artillery shrapnel. It was not desired that they engage enemy tanks, but given their task they had to be somewhat capable of it.
When the USA entered WWII in 1941, the US Army’s standard light tank was the M3 Stuart, later developed into the M5 and M5A1.
(One of the first French tanks in French Indochina after Japan’s surrender was this M5A1 Stuart. It was marked still with its WWII American star on the glacis, and on the sides a blue & white emblem of France. France used Stuarts in Indochina, in declining numbers, into the 1950s.)
For its era the Stuart was a quality design. However as WWII went on it was increasingly unsuitable with its thin armor, high silhouette, flat sides, and meager 37mm main gun.
The Stuart’s intended WWII replacement was the M7. The M7 made it through testing and a 3,000 tank order was started, however after the seventh tank had been delivered the US Army cancelled the whole order, as it felt the M7 overlapped traits of the M4 Sherman too much.
In April 1943 General Motors started development of a new light tank. It was envisioned that besides the tank itself, a GM “Light Combat Family” of other types (self-propelled howitzer, anti-aircraft vehicle, armored wrecker, etc) would use it as a base chassis. The prototype T24 was put into production as the M24 Chaffee in 1944. The name referenced Gen. Adna R. Chaffee, Jr who developed American tank tactics during the 1920s.
(Chaffees under construction at Cadillac’s Clark Street factory in Detroit during WWII. This particular M24 was the factory’s 10,000th overall tank. It also made M3/M5 Stuarts and M8 Scotts.)
The US Army originally ordered only 1,000 M24 Chaffees and intended it only as an interim type, and only for use in Europe. The first reached Europe in November 1944.
(This posed photo was taken during a WWII training exercise in the United States. The other vehicle is a M29 Weasel. During the Indochina War, the French army would pair these two vehicles up again.)
Due to the Chaffee’s success in Europe, it was released for combat worldwide and the 1,000 tank order was increased to 5,000.
The M24 Chaffee was reliable, fast, and effective. By far the most appreciated trait was the 75mm gun which was twice the firepower of the M3/M5 Stuart. Another minor thing greatly appreciated by crewmen was that the two hull hatches could be opened with the turret jammed in any direction.
When WWII ended in 1945 the entire “Light Combat Family” was completely cancelled by Congress in the very first round of defense budget cuts. Production abruptly ended with the 4,731st Chaffee.
Chaffees which had been massing for the planned final invasion of the Japanese home islands were instead put ashore as the first tanks of the occupation force in Japan. The M24’s light weight was ideal for smaller bridges in the Japanese countryside.
(photo via http://www.m24chaffee.com website)
One bizarre post-WWII project was undertaken in 1946. The interleaved roadwheels and tracks of a surrendered German Sd.Kfz. 8 were mated onto a M24 Chaffee with the turret removed to lighten it. At slow speeds the German layout was superior, at normal operating speeds there was little difference, and above 20mph the German system was inferior. Further research was cancelled.
An upgrade tested in 1947 was the T122, a powered twin .50cal machine gun mount atop the Chaffee’s turret. No funding was allocated for it.
a popular export item
The M24 Chaffee, perhaps unexpectedly in 1945, became one of the USA’s most popular military aid items during the Cold War. Twenty-nine foreign nations eventually operated M24s after WWII, including 9 of the original 11 NATO allies. When Japan rearmed in 1954 the M24 Chaffee was one of its first two tank types, and Japan’s were not retired until 1975. Both Iran and Iraq used them in combat during the 1980s. The final user overall was Uruguay which retired its Chaffees in 2018.
The USA eventually exported over ¾ of the total WWII production.
France began receiving Chaffees while WWII was still in progress. After WWII many US Army M24s in Europe were sold to France in lieu of transporting them back to the United States, and France eventually received 1,254 which is more than 1 out of every 4 Chaffees ever made.
Korean War and end of American service
(Between the end of WWII in 1945 and the start of the Korean War in 1950 some Chaffees had been reassigned to second-tier forces. This one belonged to an Oklahoma National Guard unit federalized for Korean War service.)
When the Korean War began in 1950, M24 Chaffees were the only American armor available on the peninsula. As there was nothing else available they were pressed into service as ad hoc MBTs (main battle tanks) with negative results. For example a company in the 76th Tank Battalion lost 12 of its 14 Chaffees in a two-week span, all to North Korean T-34s. The T-34, a Soviet design of WWII, had a 85mm gun which outranged the M24’s 75mm and could penetrate its armor at any range. Meanwhile the Chaffee’s gun could not penetrate the T-34’s glacis or turret at anything above point-blank range.
Once other tank types appeared, the M24 Chaffee could again be used in its intended role and was an effective asset for the remainder of the Korean War, which ended in 1953. Only 138 M24s were deployed to the Korean War but these WWII leftovers gave outsized good results.
The M24’s “life-cycle” in the American military was compressed and unusual. Development of a replacement started less than a year after the final Chaffee was made. Slowed by post-WWII budget cuts in the late 1940s, the T41E1 prototype was selected for production in August 1950, only 5½ years after the Chaffee’s prototype itself had been approved.
(A M41 Walker Bulldog of the ARVN during the early 1970s. This Cold War-era tank replaced the M24 in South Vietnamese service, as it had in the US Army years previous.)
By 1952 M41 Walker Bulldogs were replacing M24 Chaffees in the US Army. When the Korean War ended in 1953, remaining Chaffees were rapidly phased out. This WWII tank’s career in the United States military lasted barely 10 years.
(Because the M24 Chaffee was such a desirable export item, most were sent abroad after leaving American service. This one was not and instead was expended for development of the BGM-71 wire-guided missile.)
France & the Indochina War
The five provinces of Indochina were French colonies since the 19th century. During WWII, the colonial civil administration remained more or less intact, but with Japanese military forces in the colony. In early 1945 Japan abolished the Vichy colonial authorities and directly occupied Indochina. This did not last long as WWII ended in September.
After WWII France intended to resume colonial control; this being opposed in the eastern three provinces (today’s Vietnam) by Ho Chi Minh’s rebels, the Viet Minh, who had supported the Allies during WWII. There was heavy fighting in late 1945, then a lull for several months until late 1946 when the conflict became a full-blown guerilla war.
The first tanks France used in Indochina were M5A1 Stuarts. This WWII light tank, the predecessor of the M24 Chaffee, performed decently. However the French considered the Stuart too cramped (especially in the tropical heat) and its main gun was too puny for effective use as a field gun and too slow-firing to use against infantry.
In 1950 France began to deploy M24 Chaffees to the war. The M24 was more suited to the terrain and the missions envisioned.
(French Chaffees in Hanoi, the future communist capital, during 1951.)
(French M24 during the Indochina War. The hole in the mantlet was for the gunner’s optics.)
(France also used the larger M4 Sherman tank of WWII, here a M4A1 version, during the Indochina War. It had far superior armor to the M24 Chaffee; the tradeoff being that it weighed much more.)
One advantage of the Chaffee in Indochina was that its lighter weight enabled it to use a wider range of bridges. The lighter Chaffee also exerted less ground pressure per square inch of track than a M4 Sherman, making it more suitable for use in rice paddies or swamps.
The M24 Chaffee had a “wet” ammunition stowage system, with 75mm rounds stored on the floor in double-divided compartments filled with water. To further lighten the tank in Indochina, the French usually drained out the water.
(A French Chaffee in a flooded field near Muong Thanh in 1954. The six-bolt pads inside of the trackway were mounts for the M24’s bulldozer kit which was almost never used. These are a rough way of dating M24 production, as very early-built Chaffees had steel rung footsteps in these locations.)
(The M29 Weasel of WWII was not fully amphibious in a military context, but it was buoyant and could cross small expanses of water. The Weasel used Kégresse-style broad rubber tracks, and the 3,800 lbs vehicle exerted ground pressure of only 2psi making it ideal for rice paddies. On dry land it had a 36mph top speed and could use civilian 72 octane gasoline. The French Foreign Legion armed them with either a WWII French Modèle 1924-M29 or WWII American M1919 as seen here. Weasels were used in combination with larger amphibious vehicles, or with Chaffees.) (photo via ECPAD)
(The M24 Chaffee could use poor-quality bridges which would have collapsed under a M4 Sherman. This photo also shows a popular modification. The original whip antenna for the WWII radio was to the turret’s rear. As the M3 smoke launcher had been removed, its hole on the right front top was used for a second antenna serving a second radio. By this, a M24 Chaffee could relay communications from firebases to tactical units, at the same time the tank’s own radio remained available. Later in the Cold War many export recipients copied this.)
As the Viet Minh never had any tanks, the Chaffees were used as armored reconnaissance vehicles, road convoy escorts, or for infantry support.
(French M24 Chaffee in Indochina. The other WWII vehicle is a M425. These trucks entered American service during the latter part of WWII and were famous as part of the “Red Ball Express”; the wheeled logistics operation moving supplies from Normandy up to the front lines. South Vietnam later also used M425s.)
(French M24 Chaffee on an Indochina battlefield.)
The French used two other WWII American vehicles in cooperation with the Chaffee tanks for the battlefield reconnaissance role during the Indochina war. One was the M8 Greyhound armored car, the other was the M3 White as seen above. This M3 White photographed during the early 1950s is marked with the insignia of the French Foreign Legion’s 3rd Infantry Regiment during a parade for Vietnamese officials. South Vietnam used M3s into the 1960s. Meanwhile in neighboring Cambodia, they were still in combat in 1975.
Dien Bien Phu
The most famous battle of the war was the 54-day siege of this remote French firebase near the Vietnam/Laos border.
Dien Bien Phu was actually ten firebases, seven of which were clustered into the 1½-square mile “core” around the main airstrip, two disconnected outposts, and one named firebase “Isabelle” two miles south guarding a second dirt airstrip.
The base was manned by French Foreign Legion units and ethnic Moroccan light infantry. The Legionnaires had ten M24s of the FFL’s 3rd Squadron of the 1st regiment. The ten Chaffees were divided into three 3-tank units plus one as a HQ tank.
Just getting the Chaffees to Dien Bien Phu was a remarkable achievement itself. At Gia Lam airbase near Hanoi, the French Foreign Legion disassembled them into 180 pieces, of which all but the hulls and turrets could be moved by a half-dozen WWII C-47 Skytrains. For the largest parts, two Bristol 170 airfreighters borrowed from Air Vietnam were used. The tanks were then reassembled by Legionnaires at Dien Bien Phu. The transport / reassembly operation was named “Rondelle II”.
(Reassembly of a M24 Chaffee at Dien Bien Phu.)
When the Indochina war started the Viet Minh had only a very small quantity of pre-WWII French Mle. 1934 25mm anti-tank guns, which had been stolen during the chaos of 1945. It was not particularly effective and in any case, there were far too few. Likewise, other than WWII mortars, early Viet Minh artillery was mainly ex-Japanese Type 41 mountain guns.
During the middle part of the Indochina war, France developed a strategy to hold urban areas and hold major highways, and then goad the Viet Minh into combat with fortified rural firebases. A 1952 victory at Nà San seemed to confirm this strategy.
The French underestimated the Viet Minh and failed to notice that they were adapting. More importantly, communist holdings of anti-tank weapons had greatly increased.
The Viet Minh obtained their first M1A1 Bazookas in 1945, probably from corrupt nationalist Chinese troops who had been assigned to take Japanese surrenders in Tonkin province. In 1949 more were provided by communist China, having been captured from the nationalists during the Chinese civil war. French records indicate that the Viet Minh were using M1A1 Bazookas already in March 1947.
(In Vietnamese military nomenclature, the M1A1 was “60 Ly bazooka”. This one is preserved at a museum.)
The WWII-era M1A1s were later joined by M20 Super Bazookas. Designed towards the end of WWII, the M20 fired a 3.5″ rocket and first saw combat during the Korean War. During 1953 the Chinese provided some M20s it had captured from American troops in Korea.
The USA’s M18 recoilless rifle saw combat late in WWII, including the 1945 Okinawa battle. This 57mm weapon could be fired either shouldered or off the M1917A1 machine gun’s tripod. The Viet Minh captured some from French forces and more came from China, which had captured them during the Korean War. In Vietnamese military nomenclature the M18 was “DKZ 57 Ly”.
So by 1954 the Viet Minh’s anti-armor abilities were significantly upgraded. They also had more artillery, including WWII American M2A1 105mm howitzers, at Dien Bien Phu.
In 1954 the overall French commander, Gen. Henri Eugène Navarre, viewed any possible engagement at Dien Bien Phu as a communist diversion and instead was concentrating on operation “Atlante”, a huge operation in central Vietnam which he hoped would end the war.
The ten M24 Chaffees fired an astonishing 15,000 rounds of 75mm main gun ammo during the eight week engagement, and an untold amount of .30-06 and 50BMG rounds. As the battle crept forward to the “core” firebases, keeping each individual tank replenished was difficult and ammunition was carried by crawling on the ground and loading it up through the Chaffee’s floor escape scuttle.
The battle ended on 7 May 1954 with a French defeat. All ten M24 Chaffees were lost. One was destroyed by a 105mm howitzer shell direct hit, the others disabled or destroyed by bazookas, recoilless rifles, or just by cumulative damage.
(One of the Dien Bien Phu M24s which was destroyed by bazooka hits on 29 April 1954. Legionnaires continued to use the wreck as an ad hoc pillbox.)
(Destroyed M24 Chaffee at Dien Bien Phu. The photo is fitting as the Viet Minh nickname for the Chaffee was “con bó”, or oxen.)
The “Atlante” operation which Gen. Navarre had hoped to be decisive, and which precluded reinforcement of Dien Bien Phu, gave no tangible results. One day after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, France opened negotiations with the communists. Gen. Navarre was relieved of command and in July 1954 France began to extricate itself out of Asia.
Chaffees in the North Vietnamese military
Of the ten tanks of the doomed French Foreign Legion units at Dien Bien Phu, only two were repairable. They were absorbed into the North Vietnamese army in 1954.
(North Vietnamese M24 Chaffee)
At that time North Vietnam had no tanks, so the two Chaffees were used for training in anti-armor tactics. They were also “stars” in propaganda filmstrips. Both took part in a 1955 parade in Hanoi. After that, at least one of the two was kept functional enough to drive until T-34s entered the North Vietnamese army in 1959.
North Vietnam actually briefly had a third Chaffee. During December 1971, a mixed North Vietnamese army / Viet Cong / Khmer Rouge force operating in Cambodia captured intact a Cambodian army M24. It was discovered that the Cambodians had sent it into battle with the 75mm main gun non-operational. None the less, it was drivable and all the machine guns still worked. The communist force used it in combat inside Cambodia until 1 April 1972, when the force dispersed for exfiltration. The tank was burned to prevent its reuse by Cambodia. This was the only time North Vietnam had a Chaffee in active combat.
Chaffees in the South Vietnamese military
(M24 Chaffee of the ARVN (South Vietnamese army) during the 1960s.)
In a bid to legitimize French rule during the Indochina war, on 8 March 1949 the three ethnic-Vietnamese provinces (Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina) had been combined into État du Viêt-Nam (State of Vietnam), an entity within the French overseas union, nominally ruled by the final Nguyen dynasty emperor Bao Ðai. (Ironically during the final months of WWII, Japan had also used Bao Ðai as leader of a short-lived puppet regime.) A new local military was created, the Vietnam National Army or by its French acronym, ANV.
(M8 Greyhound in Saigon in 1951. The ANV used this American WWII armored car in mechanized cavalry units alongside the M24 Chaffees and M3 Whites, just as the French had done and how the later ARVN would.)
The first chief of staff was Gen. Nguyen Van Hinh. An excellent officer, Hinh had been in the French air force during WWII and flown tactical bombers against the 1940 German invasion. After WWII he became the first ethnic-Vietnamese general in the French military.
During 1950, the ANV armored warfare training center was set up at a former Imperial Japanese Army outpost at Da Lat. The instructors were all French. In 1952 it was moved to Thu Ðuc, where it remained until 1972 when the ARVN relocated it to the former “Bearcat Base” near Biên Hòa which was vacated by the US Army. (As of 2022, the Thu Ðuc location is Ho Chi Minh City’s police academy.)
(ANV crewmen with a Panhard 178B at Thu Ðuc in 1952. The 178B was a late-WWII version of the 178A which had fought the Germans in 1940. After the Panhard factory in Firminy was liberated in 1944, production recommenced in 1945 with the B version having a new turret, EM3/R61 radio, and SA35 47mm gun.)
On 21 March 1954 France ceded control north of 17°N (the future DMZ of the Vietnam War) to the communists. During the Indochina war, France more or less accepted that due to the shipping costs a lot of equipment there would never return to Europe. As part of the disengagement, France began to divvy up kit between Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam.
Laos was allocated fifteen Chaffees, of which it actually only got four. The Laotian army had no training on how to maintain tanks, and no real use for such a tiny number, and they were soon out of service.
Cambodia was also allocated fifteen but somehow ended up with twice that.
(Cambodian M24 Chaffees in Phnom Penh during 1963.) (Reuters photo)
The rest of the French M24s in the region went to the ANV, around five dozen tanks if not more.
(A French officer decorates ANV soldiers with M24 Chaffees behind them.)
WWII armor against the Binh Xuyên
One of the ANV’s use of the M24 Chaffee was not against the Viet Minh, but rather against an armed organized crime syndicate, during a weeklong “war” inside Saigon. This conflict is all but forgotten today.
(M24 Chaffees being staged for the 1955 operation. The other WWII vehicle is a M3 halftrack, which South Vietnam used until modern APCs were provided by the USA.)
The Binh Xuyên was an unusual organization; always involved in crime, sometimes in politics, and after WWII “another military” to the French, the ANV, and the Viet Minh. Its armed force was called Bô Ðôi Binh Xuyên and after WWII was armed similarly to the Viet Minh, with WWII rifles and submachine guns of both Allied and Axis origin, along with some mortars and land mines.
The Binh Xuyên predated WWII. During the Great Depression it engaged in extortion, smuggling, and skimming off Saigon’s casinos and opium parlors. During the 1945 Japanese occupation the Kempeitai was aware of the Binh Xuyên but either wouldn’t or couldn’t stop it. Near the end of WWII the Binh Xuyên was led by Ba Duong. The organization had strongholds all through Saigon, especially in the Cholon neighborhood. The Bô Ðôi Binh Xuyên had training camps and weapons caches in the Rung Sat, a swamp south of the capital, and further south in the Mekong delta.
As Japan’s fortunes waned near WWII’s end, Ba Duong ordered raids on Japanese armories in Saigon, stealing Arisakas for use against the French when they returned. He allied the Binh Xuyên to the Viet Minh. This was the Binh Xuyên’s high point militarily, as during September 1945 it actually defeated returning French troops several times and controlled pockets of territory. The alliance with the communists broke down and the Binh Xuyên began fighting both the French and the communists. Ba Duong was killed by a French airstrike in February 1946.
The Binh Xuyên split between those loyal to Ba Duong’s half-brother Duong Van Hà, and those loyal to Lê Van Vien. The latter cooperated with the French: In exchange for using Binh Xuyên thugs to wipe out the Viet Minh inside Saigon, the French looked the other way as the Binh Xuyên racketeered Saigon’s trucking and bus line industries in addition to their other illicit activities.
(Lê Van Vien in his major-general’s uniform.)
In 1949 the figurehead emperor Bao Ðai named Lê Van Vien as “Major-General of Vietnam” enabling him to operate under the color of officialdom; with the Bô Ðôi Binh Xuyên being considered “an army within the army”. (Supposedly, Bao Ðai himself took a cut of the money the Binh Xuyên skimmed from Saigon’s casinos.)
In 1955 South Vietnam decided to rid itself of the “army within the army” and also fired Saigon’s police chief, a Binh Xuyên member. This set off the battle which ran from 27 April to 4 May 1955. The conflict opened with a Binh Xuyên surprise attack on the South Vietnamese GHQ which at that time was in a residential area of central Saigon.
(M24 Chaffee fighting the Binh Xuyên on Saigon’s south side during 1955.)
(AVN radioman armed with a P.08 Luger during the battle against the Binh Xuyên. During the early stages of the Indochina war, France made use of ex-Wehrmacht weaponry shipped from Europe and at least some of it was still in South Vietnamese use in 1955.) (photo via Life magazine)
The fighting was most intense in the Cholon neighborhood and especially on Saigon’s south side, near the city’s famous “Y Bridge”. The area where Vo Van Kiêt Street is today in Ho Chi Minh City was essentially flattened by artillery in 1955.
(The M24 Chaffees were mostly used to cordon off Saigon’s downtown and prevent fighting from spreading there. Another WWII vehicle, the M8 Greyhound, was more nimble in Cholon’s narrow streets and alleys.) (photo via British Pathe)
To say the battle was strange is an understatement. Combat engineers of the Bô Ðôi Binh Xuyên constructed a pontoon bridge over a canal. Another instance saw a South Vietnamese paratrooper unit assault Le Grande Monde casino. During the attack on Lê Van Vien’s personal compound, tigers and crocodiles he kept as pets escaped and were running around Saigon.
Nothing about the conflict was funny however. Thousands of families were made homeless and about 1¼ miles² of Saigon was destroyed.
The battle was a victory for the government. France allowed Lê Van Vien to flee there, probably to safeguard knowledge he had of French intelligence operations in Asia. Remants of the Binh Xuyên hiding in the Mekong delta were eradicated later in 1955.
change in name for the army
The last vestigal military partnerships with France expired at 00:00 on 1 July 1955. On 26 October 1955, Ngô Ðinh Diêm proclaimed the Republic Of Vietnam (aka South Vietnam) with himself as president. Diêm declared the office of emperor void, and exiled Bao Ðai to Europe.
On 30 December 1955, Diêm renamed the ANV to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or ARVN. He also fired the talented General Hinh, as Diêm privately considered him too honest and incorruptible. (Hinh was quickly invited back into the French air force as a general, and worked on development of France’s strategic nuclear forces until his 1975 retirement.)
(M24 Chaffees of the ARVN with A-1 Skyraiders of the VNAF overhead.)
The assignment of the Chaffees in the mid-1950s ARVN was not optimal. Many were in a mechanized cavalry regiment, with two 24-tank squadrons, backed up by subunits of M8 Greyhounds, M3 Whites, and M3 halftracks for the infantry component. The rest of the tanks were ad hoc assigned elsewhere. Almost always, they were “reactive”, being held as a local safeguard, and not capitalizing on the flexibility and mobility of tanks.
(ARVN Chaffees on parade in Saigon.)
In June 1955 the US Army sent its first advisor to the Thu Ðuc training center. The Americans prompted the South Vietnamese to use the Chaffees (of which more were being supplied as American aid) in a more aggressive manner.
The South Vietnamese tended to use the M24s as “motorized bunkers”, fielding them in very small-sized subunits and not travelling far from base. (As a side note, this was not particularly healthy for the tank itself, as driving the M24 at very slow speeds for extended periods on pavement caused the WWII Hydramatic transmission to endlessly “search” for a gear.) The Americans encouraged the South Vietnamese to send the tanks into combat instead of waiting to be attacked.
(ARVN Chaffee in Saigon during the 1960s.)
(Two ARVN Chaffees in the “Iron Triangle” near Ben Cát during 1965.) (Australian War Memorial photo)
American advisors restructured the ARVN. In 1962 the four new armored cavalry regiments had a tank squadron of eighteen WWII M24 Chaffees. The regiment also had a reconnaissance unit of WWII M8 Greyhound armored cars, a combat vehicle squadron of eighteen new M114 fighting vehicles, and two mechanized infantry squadrons of either WWII M3 halftracks or new M113 APCs, with the latter replacing the former. During the late 1960s the M8 Greyhound unit was eliminated but otherwise this structure endured as long as Chaffees were in the ARVN.
(Both the USA and South Vietnam had high hopes for Cadillac’s then-new M114 when it entered ARVN service in 1962. This amphibious vehicle carried a .50cal Browning M2HB, a 7.62mm M60, and three LAW rocket launchers for the third crewman to use dismounted. Each cost $12,264 or $115,215 in 2022 dollars. The M114 was an abyssmal failure. It was unreliable, unsuited for rice paddies, and vulnerable to mines and IEDs. A mine which would cripple a WWII M24 Chaffee would annihilate a modern M114. In some cases the M114 was ripped completely in half.)
The ARVN found the WWII M24 Chaffee satisfactory. One minor issue is that many ARVN tankmen were former M8 Greyhound drivers; in this case the WWII tank was more cumbersome on narrow streets than the wheeled armored car. Another minor issue was the M6 gun’s M48 HE-Frag round; it had a very sensitive fuze which could be set off by bamboo or thick vegetation short of the intended target.
At its peak, South Vietnam’s M24 Chaffee force had 137 tanks.
During 1964 MACV (Military Assistance Command – Vietnam) advised the Pentagon that the WWII Chaffee was in need of replacement and in January 1965, deliveries of M41 Walker Bulldogs began.
the “voting machine”
The ARVN’s Chaffees served in an infantry support role only; the first large matchup between tanks of the North and South armies did not happen until 1971 by when the M41 Walker Bulldog had already replaced it.
Unfortunately during the 1960s, ARVN M24 Chaffees were repeatedly used in numerous coups, counter-coups, and failed coups. South Vietnamese civilians nicknamed the M24 Chaffee “máy bo phiêu” (“the voting machine”) as these WWII-vintage tanks seemed to determine who held power in 1960s Saigon.
(M24 Chaffee in Saigon during an early 1960s coup attempt. Besides having to fight the Viet Cong, South Vietnam’s government was extremely unstable during this time. The WWII M1 Garand rifle was still in ARVN use as seen.) (photo via Life magazine)
The most notorious, and violent, of the 1960s coups was the 1 November 1963 overthrow of president Ngô Ðinh Diêm.
This coup was led by ARVN Gen. Duong Van Minh (aka “Big Minh”), ARVN Gen. Tran Van Ðôn, VNAF Gen. Nguyen Cao Ký, and ARVN Gen. Tôn That Ðinh. The 1963 coup was the third attempt to unseat the unpopular and corrupt President Diêm, with coups in 1960 and 1962 having failed. None of the four primary conspirators were themselves angels or even very compotent; Big Minh in particular was better known as an ageing lout in Saigon’s 1960s nightclub scene rather than as commander of the 1955 operation against the Binh Xuyên or as a WWII guerilla. Meanwhile Gen. Ðinh was a 2-star general at the age of just 37, and widely regarded as being in way over his head.
The coup silently began in late October 1963. ARVN paratroopers at Tan Son Nhut airport were ordered north on a pointless operation against the Viet Cong, as they were thought of as most loyal to Diêm. They were replaced in Saigon by two battalions of South Vietnamese marines sympathetic to Big Minh. Gen. Ðinh ordered twenty M24 Chaffees to be reassigned directly to III Corps which he commaded. Another twenty Chaffees were spread out between the rest of the anti-Diêm units, which began moving towards Saigon at 12:00 on 31 October. By mid-morning on 1 September, they were inside the city.
Outside of Vietnam, what is maybe most remembered about this coup was the damage the WWII M24 Chaffees caused to Saigon’s historical palaces.
Norodom Palace had been the home of the governor-general of French Indochina, and then the South Vietnamese presidency. By late 1963 Norodom had already been condemned due to damage it suffered in the failed 1962 coup. Ngô Ðinh Diêm planned to have it razed and a new residence (the huge Independence Palace later famous for the 1975 surrender) built on the grounds. Diêm had already moved out temporarily to Gia Long Palace.
(M24 Chaffee with Norodom Palace burning.)
Norodom was attacked incidentally to the main assault on Công Hòa Bararcks, which was home to the Presidential Guard unit which had light artilley and anti-aircraft weapons at its disposal.
President Diêm was at Gia Long Palace (ironically two hours before it was attacked, he held a meeting with an American admiral and general there, and expressed apprehension for a coup attempt sometime in the future). Originally the house for Cochinchina province’s French administrator, during WWII it briefly housed the Japanese civil authority for Saigon and for 8 days prior to the arrival of Allied troops, was held by the Viet Minh.
(Gia Long Palace under attack by M24 Chaffees.) (Associated Press wirephoto)
The 1880s architecture and exposed windows hid what was a surprisingly tough nut to crack in 1963. The building had thick masonry, and the basement hid a command bunker with escape tunnels to nearby neighborhoods. Gia Long had large batteries in case electricity was cut, and had a hidden radio post made by the American company RCA. Between 150 – 200 well-armed loyalist soldiers were inside.
(M24 Chaffee at Gia Long. President Diêm escaped through one of the underground tunnels, and was caught the next day and executed. ARVN infantry backing up the WWII tanks looted Gia Long of valuables, and embarassingly posed with the goods for a CBS News cameraman who followed them into the palace.)
From about 16:00 on 1 November, coup forces had the building surrounded but were repeatedly kept out by the well-armed loyalists inside. Gen. Ký ordered two T-28 Trojans to attack it by air. This nearly ended in disaster when they instead hit a US Marine Corps barracks nearby, which thankfully was vacant at the time. On the morning of 2 November, Gia Long was finally taken.
Gia Long Palace was massively damaged by the tanks, machine guns, and an infantry flamethrower. It was repaired at huge expense and housed South Vietnam’s supreme court until the nation’s 1975 collapse. Today it houses Ho Chi Minh City’s municipal museum.
Although both sides in the coup used this tank in active combat, as far as is known there were no M24 Chaffee vs M24 Chaffee encounters.
The coup did not bring stability to South Vietnam. There were two more coups in 1964 and another in 1965.
(A “voting machine” again on Saigon’s streets during the 1965 coup. Originally a bid to oust Gen. Nguyen Khánh and give power to Tran Thiên Khiêm, it instead ended with Khánh gone but Gen. Nguyen Chánh Thi and Air Marshall Ký running South Vietnam.)
end of service with the ARVN
With the ARVN’s adoption of the M41 Walker Bulldog in 1965 and M48 Patton in 1971, the need for the M24 Chaffee of WWII faded. Beginning in the late 1960s, they were pulled from service. Some were used as ad hoc pillboxes around the nation, with the engine permanently deactivated.
(Deactivated Chaffee used as a pillbox in 1969.)
By the end of 1970 they were gone, except for ten tanks in a surprising air force unit.
M24 Chaffees in the VNAF
(VNAF M24 Chaffee patrolling Tan Son Nhut’s perimeter during 1966.) (photo by Randy Stutler)
As the Chaffees were retired from army service, ten of them were transferred to the VNAF (South Vietnamese air force). This most unusual reassignment was done by General (by then, Air Marshall) Nguyen Cao Ký.
(Air Marshall Nguyen Cao Ký) (photo via Life magazine)
Nguyen Cao Ký participated in the 1963 and 1965 coups; and the subsequent junta governments. As much politician as aviator, he was known to the US State Department as “The Unguided Missile” for a propensity to make outlandish and embarrassing statements to the press. During the 1967 election he became vice-president.
Obviously, it is extremely unusual for an air force to have an in-house tank force. Air Marshall Ký’s stated reason was that it was necessary for protection of Tan Son Nhut, Saigon’s mixed military / civilian airport.
(Tan Son Nhut’s passenger terminal during the Vietnam War.)
There was a glimmer of truth to this as indeed, the airport was the most juicy target in all of southeast Asia and regularly came under Viet Cong attack during the late 1960s.
(A M151 MUTT / M60 machine gun combo of the US Air Force at Tan Son Nhut, with a South Vietnamese C-47 Skytrain which had been destroyed by the Viet Cong. The VNAF used the WWII Skytrain to the bitter end in 1975. Later during the Vietnam War, the US Air Force upgraded to M706 Commandos, its own armored vehicle for airbase defense.)
The real reason for Air Marshall Ký’s airmen-crewed tanks was political and not military.
Tan Son Nhut is remembered today for the flightlines of American combat jets. But there were other things located on the grounds; first and foremost the sprawling MACV complex, the spinal cord of American military assistance to South Vietnam. Adjoining it was the smaller CIA center and apron for Air America, the CIA’s “front company” airline.
The trunk terminals for South Vietnam’s two underwater telecommunication cables were at Tan Son Nhut.
On Tan Son Nhut’s southeast edge was the Joint General Staff building. This was more or less South Vietnam’s version of the Pentagon. It had been built after the Binh Xuyên illustrated the danger of having the national GHQ in downtown Saigon during 1955.
(The Joint General Staff building during the Vietnam War. In 1975 it was surrendered undamaged, and as of 2022 is still in Vietnamese military use as the HQ of the 7th Military Zone. It has been remodelled inside but the exterior is largely unchanged.)
For all these reasons, Air Marshall Ký reasoned – probably correctly – that it would be impossible for any future coup to succeed without control of Tan Son Nhut, and the ten WWII tanks manned by his airmen would be the insurance policy to that end.
In August 1971, Ký determined there was no way he could win the rigged 1971 election and he semi-retired, staying out of the public eye. (As a side note, as South Vietnam collapsed in April 1975 he reappeared at Tan Son Nhut, again in uniform and presenting himself as marshall of the VNAF, requesting evacuation to USS Midway offshore which was granted.)
With Ký out of the picture, the VNAF Chaffees continued in service anyways as the Tet Offensive showed that their “cover story” was indeed, actually quite valid.
(VNAF M24 Chaffee at Tan Son Nhut during 1968.) (photo via mikesresearch.com website)
The VNAF M24s were still in service in 1973 when the mass withdrawal of most American servicemen from Tan Son Nhut took place. It was said at the time that they were soon to be discarded.
(VNAF Chaffee at Tan Son Nhut in 1973.) (photo by Randy Snyder)
This may not have been done. The below photo was taken after the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975. It shows a knocked-out M41 Walker Bulldog and M24 Chaffee on the outskirts of Saigon.
Apparently at least one was still fighting to South Vietnam’s final defeat. With that, the quarter-century career of this WWII tank in southeast Asia came to an end.