The PT-76 is a Soviet amphibious light tank that was introduced in the early 1950s and soon became the standard reconnaissance tank of the Soviet Army and the other Warsaw Pact armed forces. It was widely exported to other friendly states, like India, Iraq, Syria, North Korea and North Vietnam. Overall, some 25 countries used the PT-76. 76 stands for the caliber of the main armament: the 76.2 mm D-56T series rifled tank gun.
The PT-76 is used in the reconnaissance and fire-support roles. Its chassis served as the basis for a number of other vehicle designs, many of them amphibious, including the BTR-50 armored personnel carrier, the ZSU-23-4 self-propelled antiaircraft gun, the ASU-85 airborne self-propelled gun and the 2K12 Kub anti-aircraft missile launch vehicle.
About 5,000 PT-76s were built during the vehicle’s lifetime, of which some 2,000 were exported. Over 25 countries employed the vehicle, including Afghanistan, Albania, Angola, China, Congo, Cuba, Egypt, Finland, Guinea, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Laos, Madagascar, Mozambique, North Korea, Pakistan, Poland, North Vietnam, and Yugoslavia.
Aside from its reconnaissance role, it is also used for crossing water obstacles in the first wave of an attack and for artillery support during the establishment of a beachhead or river banks. Soviet PT-76s along with T-54s, T-55s, and Chinese Type 59s, Type 62 tanks formed the bulk of the People’s Army of Vietnam armored forces.
The first successful action of NVA armor in Vietnam was against the Lang Vei Special Forces camp on February 6th, 1968 (they had already been used in the preceding Battle of Ban Houei Sane. Thirteen PT-76s, of the NVA 202nd Armored Regiment spearheaded an assault against approximately 24 Green Berets, 500 Vietnamese irregulars and 350 Laotian Royal soldiers. The defenders fought back with their 106 mm M40 recoilless rifle, and ineffectively with M72 LAWs (one-shot disposable 66 mm Light Anti-Tank Weapon). The Lang Vei camp was overrun, with the PT-76s using their turret-mounted spotlight-equipped heavy machine guns to shoot down any irregulars who panicked and ran out of the underground bunkers. A few survivors broke out and were airlifted to safety.
The first tank-to-tank engagement occurred in mid-1968 when a US reconnaissance airplane observed a PT-76 being washed by its crew in the Bến Hải River in the DMZ (17th Parallel). The Forward Air Control pilot radioed the tank’s position to a nearby M48 Patton tank unit of the US 3rd Marine Tank Battalion. With the FAC adjusting fire, the Patton fired three 90 mm rounds; obtaining a hit with the third round. The tank crew abandoned their vehicle. Shortly afterwards, some returning F-4 Phantom jet fighter bombers, with ordnance to expend, observed the PT-76 and bombed the remainder of the vehicle.
The Battle of Ben Het was the only NVA–US Army tank battle during the course of the Vietnam War, 10 North Vietnamese PT-76 faced American M48 Patton tanks. March 3, 1969, the Special Forces camp at Ben Het was attacked by the NVA 202nd Armored Regiment. The 202nd was given the task of destroying the camp’s 175 mm self-propelled guns. One of the PT-76s had detonated a land mine, which not only alerted the camp, but also lit up the other PT-76s attacking the firebase. Flares had been sent up, thus exposing adversary tanks, but sighting in on muzzle flashes, one PT-76 scored a direct hit on the turret of a M48, killing two Patton crewmen and wounding two more. A second Patton, using the same technique, destroyed a PT-76 with their second shot.
The PT-76 was involved in a landmark incident in armored warfare, in being the first victim of the BGM-71 TOW missile (Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided). On April 24, 1972, the US special experimental 1st Combat Aerial TOW Team arrived in Vietnam. It consisted of two UH-1B helicopters mounting the new BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missile. On May 9, NVA armored units attacked the Ranger camp at Ben Het; the TOW team destroyed 3 PT-76s and broke up the attack.