Friday, March 6, 2020

Essentials for the VC War at Sea

Although Air Force photojournalist Herman Kokojan wrote in his original caption that this Viet Cong soldier observing a prisoner exchange, including 27 American POWs, in Loc Ninh near the Cambodian border on February 12, 1973, was holding an AK47 assault rifle, it is much more likely that he was holding a Chinese Type 56, which were smuggled to the Viet Cong from North Vietnam in huge numbers. Kokojan was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for the images he took that day. (Defense Visual Information Archive)
By Thomas Grubbs
Contributing Writer

The Avtom√°t Kal√°shnikova model of 1947, or AK47 for short, is perhaps the most instantly recognizable firearm on earth. Even those lacking any knowledge of weapons recognize its silhouette from movies or television shows as the go to weapon of the program’s antagonists. Long a staple of militaries, criminal organizations and “freedom fighters” around the world, it is as close to idiot proof as engineers have been able to come.

Cheap to manufacture, easy to use, rugged and reliable, the AK47 remains common more than seventy years after its introduction into the armed forces of the former Soviet Union. Formerly a staple of the Soviet Red Army, it has since been replaced by more modern AKM and AK74s in that country’s service. Yet due to the ubiquity of the AK47 and the fact that the Soviet Union all but gave them away for decades to any group or nation claiming even tenuous association with international Communism, it remains common around the world to this day.
Type 56 assault rifle, right side, one of the many weapons and other artifacts featured in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum exhibit, The Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea, 1950-1975.  (NHHC 1966-207-D/ M.C. Farrington)
The Soviets also exported the production licenses to many of the former Warsaw Pact nations and ideological allies around the world who in turn manufactured their own copies of the weapon and exported them to other nations alongside the Soviet-made weapons. Alongside vodka and works by Dostoevsky, the AK47 is the best-known Russian export product. Of the many knockoffs and copies which exist, none is more common or important than the Type 56 of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)

The Genesis of the Type 56

In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party, under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong, finally won the Chinese Civil War that had been raging since the early 1930s. With the final defeat of the Nationalists in 1947, Mao inherited both the most populous country on Earth and a ruined industrial base and economy. The international situation was not much better: the Cold War between the Capitalist West and the Communist East had begun. It could not be expected that the United States or other western nations would bankroll the rehabilitation of the new PRC, their ideological opponent. Therefore, Mao turned to Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union for assistance in rebuilding his country.
The factory marking on the rifle's left side shows that it was made at State Factory 66 in the People's Republic of China (PRC). (M.C. Farrington
In addition to economic aid and various subject matter experts, Stalin sent weapons to his new ally, including the AK47, to prop up the latter’s armed forces. Even with extensive Soviet assistance, China was unable to design new weapons for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).  It instead was forced to create copies of extant Soviet weapons, including the AK47, to arm its military.
Type 56 assault rifle, left side. (M.C. Farrington)
First issued in 1956, the new assault rifle, codified as the Type 56, became the standard issue small arm of the PLA. It remained in front line usage until its replacement by the more modern bullpup QZB 95 near the end of the Twentieth Century. The Type 56 remains in service with second line and reserve forces within the PLA to this day due to the sheer number produced. It, like its AK47 progenitor, was a popular export weapon from the People’s Republic and remains in service with the militaries of nearly 50 countries around the world.
The Type 56 fire selector switch in the safe (upper) position, with the middle for automatic fire and the lower for semi-automatic. (M.C. Farrington)
Thanks to its near ubiquity in the international arms trade, many have found their way into the hands of criminals and terrorist groups via the black market where it remains common. The Type 56 has also been a weapon of choice in civilian mass shootings thanks to its high rate of fire, availability and ease of use. The international arms export controls applied to the AK47 have, for the most part, not been applied to the Type 56. It was used in the 1987 Hungerford Massacre in the United Kingdom, the Stockton Schoolyard shooting in California two years later and the 1997 North Hollywood Shootout among others. Due to controls placed by the United States Federal Government on importation of the AK47 within that nation’s borders, the Type 56 has been featured in many Hollywood films masquerading as the AK47, including being wielded by Charlie Sheen in the climax of the excellent movie Platoon. In a case of art imitating life, American soldiers did indeed face off against the Type 56 in the jungles of South Vietnam.
Chinese-made life vest found aboard a captured vessel. (NHHC 1968-580-W/ M.C. Farrington)
The PRC and the DRV

China began to cultivate its own set of regional allies once its domestic issues had been mostly settled by the mid-1950s to strengthen its international position. Among the most important of these allies was the new Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). As part of the peace deal which ended the Franco-Vietnamese War (1945-1954), the country of Vietnam was split into the Communist North and Capitalist South.  The PRC, wanting both to support an ideological ally and strike a blow to international Capitalism, became the DRV’s biggest and most important ally. 

Amongst the military aid delivered to Hanoi was the Type 56. Heavier weapons such as tanks, missiles, artillery and aircraft soon followed over their shared land border. At the time, North Vietnam’s primary foreign policy goal was to reunify the country under Communist domination which in turn sparked a Communist insurgency in the Capitalist South. Luckily for the North Vietnamese, American reluctance to expand the Vietnam War outside of Vietnam itself resulted in the comparatively free flow of military aid across the joint land border between North Vietnam and China.
Instruction tag stitched below the collar of the captured Chinese life vest. (M.C. Farrington)
The oceanic route between the two nations plied by freighters carrying aid from both China and the Soviet Union to the port of Haiphong were generally able to avoid the attention of American aircraft attacking North Vietnamese targets for much the same reasons. The United States did not wish to risk an international incident by stopping a Chinese or Soviet freighter. While supplies, both military and civilian, were safe entering North Vietnam, those en route to the Communist Viet Cong insurgency in South Vietnam were fair game for attack by American and South Vietnamese forces.
During the height of Communist attempts at seaborne resupply of Viet Cong forces fighting in the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), there were multiple run-ins with Vietnam Navy (VNN), US Navy and US Coast Guard units, some of which resulted in significant captures of enemy war materiel. This map depicts a number of trawlers intercepted by the VNN Coastal Force and the US Navy's Task Force 115 units, including a notable capture that occurred on June 20, 1966.  (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
There were two routes into South Vietnam that the North utilized for shipment of supplies and weapons, one on land and the other at sea. The land route, familiar to American readers as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was the target of heavy aerial bombing, commando raids and large-scale ground attacks, served as the primary route into South Vietnam for weapons and reinforcements. A second, less easily interdicted route went by sea into South Vietnam’s extensive coastline. In order to strangle this supply line, the United States Navy took the lead in what amounted to a naval blockade of South Vietnam. Unchallenged by North Vietnam’s virtually nonexistent navy, this blockade became one of the most important naval activities undertaken by the American Fleet in the Vietnam War.
A suspicious North Vietnamese trawler seen from a Navy aircraft on Market Time patrol on the morning of June 20, 1966. (Naval History and Heritage Command image
Operation Market Time

This blockade, codenamed Operation Market Time, sought to intercept shipments of weapons from North Vietnam from reaching the South using warships and Coast Guard cutters deployed along the South China Sea coast. A second blockade on the Mekong River that dominated the southern half of the nation of South Vietnam provided a second line of interception for arms shipments. Highly successful and used throughout the Vietnam War, Operation Market Time inflicted severe damage on the Viet Cong’s logistical support networks and became a classic case of how sea power can intervene in military operations far from the coast.
Coast Guard cutter Point League (WPB 82304) stands off in the foreground as the 100-foot-long enemy trawler has just run aground on fire near the village of Ba Dong on June 20, 1966. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
The Museum’s Type 56 was part of a shipment of such weapons seized from a sampan intercepted by Operation Market Time ships off of the coast of South Vietnam that were destined for Viet Cong and North Vietnamese units operating in the South. Also seized by the American vessel was the personal protective gear of the sampan’s crew, proof that even Communism requires the use of life jackets on board its vessels. As is well known, North Vietnam eventually reunited the two halves of the country under its rule in 1975. The Type 56 assault rifle played a major role in that victory as the standard issue assault rifle of the North Vietnamese military.
South Vietnamese Coastal Force vessels attempt to extinguish a fire aboard the enemy trawler, which attempted to sneak past American and South Vietnamese naval forces enforcing Operation Market Time off the South Vietnamese coast. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)

Alongside its AK47 progenitor and the M16 which faced it across the battlefields of Vietnam, the Type 56 remains one of the most common small arms on earth. It remains in production by the Chinese state controlled NORINCO corporation for export to this day. It, like the AK47, is a popular choice amongst militaries in Africa, South Asia and South America because of its rugged reliability and availability of logistical support. Abroad, American forces have continued to face the Type 56 on the battlefield during the Global War on Terror in the hands of terrorist and insurgent groups to this day. In Afghanistan, both Taliban insurgents and the Afghan National Army utilize it as a standard issue small arm alongside AK and AKM type weapons. It has also seen widespread use in Syria by the Free Syrian Army. It is doubtful that the Type 56 will disappear from the world’s battlefields anytime soon. Not unimpressive for a weapon which traces its design back to the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.
American and South Vietnamese personnel offload an estimated 100 tons of supplies, including 316 assault rifles and 222,880 rounds of 7.62mm ammunition, from the captured North Vietnamese trawler in June 1966.  (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
Editor's Note: Thomas Grubbs earned a master's degree in military history from Southern New Hampshire University and is currently a park ranger interpreter at Vicksburg National Military Park. His research interest is in the history of the dreadnought battleship.

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