Vietnam: Cease Fire To
The Delta Rice War
While post-cease-fire fighting in the northern and central provinces of South Vietnam alternately surged and subsided as opposing sides grappled for key terrain, the war in the Mekong Delta became a contest for the rice harvest. Nearly 90 percent of Communist rice requirements, to be filled from South Vietnam sources, were requisitioned in the delta.
For the South Vietnamese, the rice war meant that enemy lines of communication had to be interdicted to prevent shipment of rice to delta base areas as well as to collection points in Cambodia where much of it was transshipped to Communist units in South Vietnam's Military Regions 2 and 3. Intelligence efforts were therefore concentrated on rice requisitioning, transport, and storage. The J2 of the Joint General Staff had estimated that some 58,000 metric tons of rice had been collected in the delta during the 1972 harvest, and the object was to cut this drastically in 1973. For the Communists, the rice war meant controlling more rice-producing hamlets, protecting the forays of rice-requisitioning parties, securing canals used for the movement of rice boats, and preventing intrusions by the RVNAF into storage areas.
The South Vietnamese were motivated by more than the simple purpose of denying the rice to the enemy; besides the obvious political imperative to reduce - or at least limit - the enemy's influence over the delta's population and resources, South Vietnam needed the delta's rice to feed its own people and armed forces. By September 1973, a shortage of rice was already developing in Saigon. An early season drought had disrupted planting, and shipments of delta rice for the year were 326,500 metric tons, considerably behind that of 1972 (465,500). Furthermore, raging floods had struck the coastal lowlands of the northern provinces of MR 1 and MR 2, destroying much of the rice crop and stores.
The enemy's rice production in areas under his control in South Vietnam was negligible, and only forces north of COSVN's domain were normally provided any rice from North Vietnam. Consequently, heavy demands were placed on Cambodian and delta rice. All sizeable NVA forces in Cambodia were sustained by Cambodian rice, and much of this rice was also delivered to COSVN forces inside South Vietnam. The Cambodian rebel forces were experiencing shortages of their own and by the fall of 1973 were becoming increasingly reluctant to permit the NVA to fill rice requisitions in Cambodia. Competition for rice resulted in armed clashes between the two Communist allies and increased the importance of South Vietnam's delta rice.
Since the defeat of Cambodia's 32d Brigade at Phnom Penh in May 1973, the entire Cambodian-south Vietnamese border region from the Gulf of Thailand to the eastern edge of South Vietnam's Hong Ngu District in Kien Phong Province was controlled by NVA and Khmer Communist forces. The only Cambodian government presence was at Samma Leu, a small navy river station north of the border. The frontier area, in some places as deep as 35 kilometers into Cambodia, contained major NVA supply routes and rear service centers. The two most significant centers were in the 0 Mountain complex, opposite the Seven Mountains in South Vietnam's Chau Doc Province. One was the rear base of the NVA 1st Division, the NVA 195th Transportation Group, and the 200th Rear Service Group; the other was NVA Base Area 704, which contained part of the NVA 207th Regiment's supply area.
Near 0 Mountain was the southern terminus of the Ho Chi Minh trail, the beginning of infiltration corridor 1-C serving Communist units throughout the southwestern delta and providing conduits for illegal commerce in rice and other commodities between South Vietnam's border provinces and the NVA's Cambodian base areas. While markets flourished on the Cambodian side of the border for trade with the NVA forces contraband rice and other commodities, South Vietnam garrisoned its border established blocks on the canals, rivers, and trails that crossed the frontier, and patrolled the region vigorously with ARVN and navy units. A major campaign was also started in the summer of 1973 to destroy or force the NVA 1st Division out of its redoubt in the Seven Mountains. Earlier post-cease-fire battles around Hong Ngu had severely damaged NVA forces in this region. Now, as the RVNAF began its offensive against the NVA 1st Division and imposed a well-planned, though indifferently executed, rice blockade, the pinch was felt. As if this were not trouble enough for the Cambodian based NVA, the Khmer Communists decided to force the NVA to leave the border region entirely.
They prohibited sales of Cambodian rice to NVA and VC units, creating a serious rice shortage.
Consequently, COSVN directed that the required rice be requisitioned from South Vietnam's delta and that the blockade be broken. Information concerning this COSVN directive was obtained from ralliers and captured documents The main methods to be used: (1) district and province cadre were to bag rice in the hamlets and move it to secure caches; (2) armed units were to secure all routes used for the movement of rice; (3) armed units were to enter South Vietnamese controlled areas and seize rice; (4) Cadre were to negotiate deals with South Vietnamese villagers who would transport purchased rice to Communist areas; (5) all units were to begin farming on land under their control with the aim of self-sufficiency; and (6) women and children living in VC-controlled hamlets were to enter South Vietnamese markets, buy small quantities of rice and bring it to VC areas, making as many trips as possible but keeping each purchase small to reduce the risk of suspicion and discovery.
In the border area the enemy achieved the most success with tactics number four and six and relied on the mechanism of the market itself to provide the rest of the rice requirement. For example, a kilogram of rice in South Vietnam brought 80 piastres in June and 180 piastres in September, while on the border, in the VC market at Ca Sach, a kilogram commanded 115 piastres in June and 250 in September. The price differential offered in the markets in Cambodia was worth the risk to some smugglers and consequently drew significant amounts of rice across the border.
According to estimates, at least 600 tons of rice was smuggled out of the delta each month, August through October, from the Tan Chau market across the Mekong and up the small canals that laced the swamp and paddy fields to the border. The scope of this smuggling operation depended on complicity on the part of local regional and popular forces, as well as on the Vietnamese Navy at Tan Chau. Reliable evidence indicated that some high-level officials were involved and profiting from the trade. Other routes were used to transport clandestine rice in the border area, but the Hong Ngu-Ca Sach arrangement was the largest.
Meanwhile, fears began to mount in Saigon that Communist rice-procuring would lead to runaway inflation in rice and other commodities. Orders went out from Saigon directing province chiefs to crack down on illegal trade and to tighten the blockade. Thereupon, the chiefs of Chau Doc, Kien Giang, and Kien Phong established restricted, controlled, and free trade zones in each province. The entire border was designated a restricted zone, meaning that no commodity could cross legally. Parts of the Seven Mountains and the Tram Forest of western Ha Tien in Kien Giang Province were also declared restricted zones. Controlled zones were established, primarily in Hong Ngu District, in which citizens could legally possess only limited quantities of commodities. Except for a five-kilometer radius around the district town itself, all of Hong Ngu was either restricted or controlled. Those parts of Chau Doc and Ha Tien adjacent to the Seven Mountains and the Tram Forest became controlled zones, while other parts were free trade zones in which goods could move without restrictions.
The blockade was barely under way when Military Region 4, responding to the Saigon rice delivery plan, instituted far more stringent controls. The Saigon plan, aimed at preventing a rice shortage in the capital and the Central Highlands, made it illegal in the border provinces to move rice or paddy (unmilled) rice anywhere without specific permission, except for small amounts for family consumption. Any unauthorized movement, whether across the border or not, was grounds for arrest and confiscation.
Elements of all police and military forces were employed in the blockade and collection plan. Navy and marine police were responsible for stopping and searching all craft on major waterways. Combined checkpoints were manned by RF, PF, National Police, military police, and sector intelligence sections at all major land crossing points. Each village organized a mobile inspection team made up of police, PF, and local officials, while RF and PF established check points on the roads and highways. Airmobile operations, using regular ARVN forces, were conducted regularly against known VC market places. To check on the entire operation, General Nghi, the region commander, assigned police from the Military Region 4 Special Branch to report directly to him on any evidence of corruption in local officials and units. Inefficiency and corruption in the execution of the plan nevertheless continued to undermine the blockade. Even so, there is no doubt that the blockade worsened the existing rice shortage among the enemy forces in Cambodia.
Desertions increased in the Communist ranks as men became progressively more despondent and hungry. Ralliers and prisoners of war told of extremely austere diets and of little hope for relief. Although relatively ineffective in Hong Ngu, the RVNAF blockade in the Seven Mountains of Chau Doc was very tight; the province chief gave it the highest priority and his personal attention. It was in measure responsible for one of the most resounding RVNAF military victories of the post-cease-fire period: the destruction of the NVA 1st Division.
The attack to drive the 1st NVA Division out of the Seven Mountains was launched in early July 1973 by the 44th Special Tactical Zone, where principal forces consisted of the 7th Ranger Group and the 4th Armor Group (armored personnel carriers). The Seven Mountains was a chain of rugged, forested, cave-pocked peaks stretched in a ragged line from the Cambodian border at Tinh Bien 25 kilometers to below Tri Ton, a district headquarters in the shadow of Nui Co To, the southernmost peak in the chain. Although the tallest of the seven was only 700 feet high, rising as they did from a featureless, often flooded plain, they were spectacular prominences and gave the impression of far greater size.
Just north of the border in the Seven Mountains, Nui O was one of the main bases of the NVA 1st Division, which had moved there from battles around Phnom Penh in the summer of 1972. Establishing defenses as far south as Nui Co To, the 1st Division was primarily responsible for screening and protecting movement along infiltration corridor 1-C, which passed to the west of the mountains. Secondary objectives included protecting rice collection teams, proselytizing, and harassing South Vietnamese communities and military installations throughout the region.
As the 44th's offensive began, intelligence revealed that the NVA 1st Division Headquarters had pulled out of the Nui O base and was established in the Cambodian town of Kampong Trach, north of Ha Tien.
The NVA 52nd Regiment was operating in Cambodia north of Ha Tien, while the 101D Regiment and most of the 44th Sapper Regiment were in the border region south of Nui O. The attacks by fire conducted by the 101D Regiment in Tinh Bien and Tri Ton increased in late July, and the 44th Special Tactical Zone reacted, not only to reduce the threat to the districts, but also to break the screen protecting infiltration corridor 1-C. In late August, a number of sharp contacts between elements of the 101D and ARVN Rangers resulted. Units from the NVA 1st Division infiltrated into positions in Nui Giai and Nui Co To mountains during September, and a concerted drive was started by the 44th Special Tactical Zone to dig them out. The 101D Regiment received 300 fresh replacements from North Vietnam in August and moved into position on Nui Dai in September. As the Rangers, with up to 10 battalions operating, and territorials maneuvered into the mountain strongholds, casualties mounted and the rocketing and mortaring of populated areas by the NVA continued.
Just as a stalemate seemed to have been reached, casualties and the RVNAF blockade began to weaken the 101D and the 1st Division units and the enemy began to break. NVA hospital records recovered by RVNAF near Nui Dai disclosed that units of the 1st NVA Division had lost nearly 900 soldiers to sickness and wounds from the cease-fire to 20 September. Captured on 2 October, two prisoners of war from the 101D revealed that the NVA 1st Division had been deactivated. Soldiers from the 44th Sapper and 52nd Infantry Regiment were transferred to the 101D, which had only 300 men left. The 101D then became a brigade, assumed control of the artillery and support units of the 1st Division, and began operating directly under NVA Military Region 3.
By the end of October, with its battalions down to less than 200 men each, the 101D withdrew from the Seven Mountains into its Cambodian sanctuary. Although it continued to operate in the border region, it never again presented a serious threat to South Vietnamese forces in Military Region 4. The RVNAF 44th Special Tactical Zone and its 7th Ranger Group had accomplished its mission.
There was more to the rice war than the illegal trade and skirmishes along the border. And there was more to infiltration in the delta than that which took place in Kien Giang Province along corridor 1-C. Dinh Tuong Province, with its bustling market capital of My Tho, was the key province in the eastern delta. Through My Tho passed Highway 4 to Saigon, a major channel of the Mekong, and several large canals. One of the principal NVA infiltration routes, corridor 1-A crossed the Cambodian frontier near the border between Kien Phong and Kien Tuong Provinces, traversed the maze of canals through the Plain of Reeds, and ended in the watery wasteland called the Tri Phap (listed as Base Area 470 by allied intelligence) where those provinces join Dinh Tuong. A branch of corridor 1-B from the "Parrot's Beak" of Svay Rieng Province entered the Tri Phap from the northeast. An insurgent base established during the 1945-1954 war, the Tri Phap was partly covered with brush, with little land suitable for cultivation, essentially a swamp that over the years had been laced with permanent fortifications and hidden storage areas. No allied force had succeeded in occupying or inflicting any serious damage to the installation or enemy forces in the Tri Phap. Immediately after the cease-fire, RVNAF units in Dinh Tuong were preoccupied with maintaining security in the central and northern reaches of the province and could not divert the forces necessary to clean out the Tri Phap, even though they were aware of increased enemy activity.
A document captured on 9 August disclosed that the Z-18 Regiment of NVA Military Region 2 was moving into the Tri Phap from Cai Bay District in northern Dinh Tuong Province and that it would probably be replaced in Cai Bay by the Dong Thap-1 Regiment. Information in the document pertaining to planned attacks in northern Dinh Tuong was confirmed by attacks on several outposts on 8 August. Furthermore, aerial photography showed that fields north of the Tri Phap had been planted in rice, part of the NVA's effort to become self-sustaining in the delta. With pressure mounting along Highway 4, however, IV Corps could not then challenge the NVA activities in and north of the Tri Phap. Nevertheless, the RVNAF repulsed, with heavy losses to the enemy, numerous battalion-sized attacks against outposts and fire bases in Cay Bay, Cai Be, and Sam Giang Districts during July and August. In the first week of September alone, enemy casualties in the region were 144 killed, while those of the RVNAF were 17 killed and 78 wounded.
The surge in enemy attacks, which continued through November, was motivated in part, as in the border provinces, by the harvest and marked by Communist attempts to gather as much of it as possible. But beyond that, the enemy objectives were to protect the installations in the Tri Phap, expand the base area there, and use the infiltration corridors from Cambodia without interference from the RVNAF. Success in these ventures would force contractions of the RVNAF defenses along Highway 4, demoralize the soldiers of the ARVN 7th Division charged with the responsibility, and support the proselyting campaign among South Vietnamese troops.
As the year wore on, RVNAF units slowly wore down the four main force regiments in NVA Military Region 2 - the Z-18th, Z-15th, E-24th, and DT1. Despite receiving hundreds of fresh replacements from the north, these regiments gradually lost ground to aggressive attacks. The NVA 207th Regiment, which had suffered so badly in its disastrous Hong Ngu campaign, was required to provide soldiers to replace losses in the E-24th Regiment. These demoralized soldiers were intercepted en route to the Tri Phap area in September; their casualties were heavy and 14 were captured. The NVA 6th Division was disbanded that fall, and its depleted regiments were assigned to NVA Military Region 2. The RVNAF Joint Operations Center provided data on casualties in December that showed nearly 40 percent of all enemy killed during the last half of 1973 died in the delta. Although the figures were estimations the ratio was probably very close to reality, supported as it was by weapons captured and corresponding RVNAF casualties.
The year ended in a flurry of Communist activity throughout the delta. Incidents of ground attacks and attacks by fire reached the highest level since the cease-fire. Losses were heavy on both sides, but no significant changes in the tactical situation were apparent. Nevertheless, a steady erosion of security was under way and most evident in Chuong Thien and northern An Xuyen Provinces, where the 21st ARVN Division was only marginally effective against persistent enemy operations to expand control. Four NVA regiments operated in Chuong Thien - the 95A, 18B, D-1 and D-2 - and they were adequately supported with weapons, ammunition, and replacements through the Kien Giang corridor, despite the frequent successful RVNAF operations near the Cambodian border against this logistical route.
As the first anniversary of the cease-fire approached, no early decision was foreseeable in the delta. Although harassed by increasingly threatening RVNAF offensives, the NVA still maintained control over major infiltration corridors into the delta and managed to gather enough rice to sustain its forces, though some troops were on short rations. Communist strategy had undergone no great modifications; it still focused on acquiring rice, proselyting, and eroding South Vietnam's territorial and population control. Despite severe personnel losses and a few minor military defeats, the NVA was gaining in the delta.
RVNAF Delta Dispositions
The three ARVN divisions in the delta were reacting differently to the deteriorating situation in Military Region 4. True to their records of past performance and in concert with the nature of the leadership they received, they ranged from highly effective to consistently poor. On the high side was the 7th Division, operating principally in Dinh Tuong. Commanded by spartan and austere Maj. Gen. Nguyen Khoa Nam, who was later to command IV Corps and still later to take his own life after the capitulation, the 7th had become particularly skillful in rapid deployment, netting significant catches along the infiltration corridors. As the year drew to a close however, severe rationing of fuel, imposed to compensate for spiraling costs, drastically limited the division's mobility. The permanent withdrawal of RF and PF from exposed positions balanced this disadvantage somewhat, in that General Nam less frequently had to dispatch troops in what were often futile but costly attempts to rescue beseiged outposts; he could select areas of deployment more likely to result in combat with major units or large infiltrating groups. Employing advantages of surprise, superior mobility, and firepower, including effective coordination with the VNAF, the 7th was usually the clear winner in that kind of encounter. Going to the relief of outposts too often drew the relief force into an ambush in which all advantages lay with the enemy.
Major changes in the 9th Division took place toward the end of the year. Its commander, Maj. Gen. Tran Ba Di, was replaced by Brig. Gen. Huynh Van Lac. Of more immediate impact was the reorganization which drew all Rangers out of IV Corps and eliminated the 44th Special Tactical Zone. This change required the 9th to assume responsibility for Chau Doc and northern Kien Giang Provinces, as well as Kien Phong. It turned over its two southern provinces of Vinh Long and Vinh Binh to the 7th Division, recovered its 14th Regiment, which had been under the operational control of the 7th, and released its 15th Regiment to the operational control of the ARVN 21st Division in Chuong Thien Province. Thus, with two infantry regiments, General Lac replaced the equivalent of three Ranger regiments in the northern districts of the border provinces. It was feasible only because the enemy main force in the area had been so severely damaged in the Hong Ngu and Chau Doc battles.
In June 1973 the 21st ARVN Division, which deservedly had the worst reputation for discipline and effectiveness among the divisions in the delta, was given a new commander, Brig. Gen. Le Van Hung, who had done well at An Loc. Although General Hung (who was also to die a suicide) had nowhere to bring the division but up, progress was slow. He gradually replaced ineffective subordinates with combat-proven officers, many from airborne and Ranger units, and observers noted some slight improvements in morale and combat effectiveness. General Hung employed the 15th Regiment, under his operational control from the 9th Division, exclusively in Long My District of Chuong Thien, while his three organic regiments, the 31st, 32d, and 33d, operated throughout the rest of Chuong Thien and northern An Xuyen. The 32d and 33d had few contacts with the enemy, other than receiving attacks by fire; but in late December, the 3d Battalion, 31st Infantry, was ambushed while marching to the relief of an RF outpost, and more than 100 of its men were killed. This event illustrated again longstanding defects in leadership and training in this regiment and supported the DAO's year-end assessment that the division was no more than "marginally combat effective."
Because the territorials were raised and stationed in their home provinces and districts, their numerical strength in each military region was largely a function of the local population. With a population of over seven million, Military Region 4 was authorized nearly three times as many territorials as Military Region 1, and twice as many as were authorized Military Regions 2 and 3.
The regional force soldiers in Military Region 4 were assigned to 144 battalions and 125 separate companies and were employed by 18 Sector Tactical Commands. But nearly all units were seriously understrength due to a combination of factors: combat losses, desertions, ineffective recruiting, and the "flower soldier" practice whereby a soldier was carried on the rolls but for a fee paid to the unit commander he was never required to be present for duty. Overall, RF strength in the delta was less than 80 percent of authorized, and NCO strength was even lower. While most of the battalions carried assigned strengths of 350 to 400 men, out of an authorized 561, some, such as those in Ba Xuyen and Chuong Thien Provinces, were down to 300. With such a reduced assigned strength, as few as 150 soldiers would be present for operations in a typical Chuong Thien battalion, a battalion smaller than a company. Quite understandably, as unit strengths declined, so did combat ability and morale, while desertions increased. Remarkably, the territorials in a few sectors, notably Kien Tuong and Go Cong, maintained high assigned strengths, a reflection of inspired leadership. But overall desertions exceeded recruitments, and strengths continued their slow but steady erosion.
Declining strengths influenced another debilitating situation. A well-intentioned unit training program for territorials had been devised by Central Training Command and ordered executed by the JGS, but the demands of combat on the depleted units made it progressively more difficult for the more embattled of the sector commanders to release RF and PF units for training. Combat efficiency in the most active sectors thus declined still further.
In early 1974, General Vien, Chief of the Joint General Staff, ordered the JGS to investigate, study, and report on the territorials of MR 4. The study revealed some interesting facts. During the first three months of 1974, for example, MR 4 territorials lost 8,852 men killed, wounded, or missing during mobile operations away from fixed bases. In these engagements, they accounted for 5,344 enemy killed or captured, a ratio of about 1.6 to every enemy casualty, excluding the uncounted enemy wounded. The relative weapons losses in these operations was also instructive. While the RF and PF lost about 1,600 weapons, they salvaged about 1,800 of the enemy's. But the most revealing and alarming discovery concerned the comparative losses during enemy attacks on territorial outposts. In the same three-month period, RF and PF casualties, including missing, were nearly 1,300, while enemy losses were only 245, a ratio of 5 to 1. Weapons losses in defensive engagements were even worse - 1000 lost against 100 recovered.The obvious conclusion was that mobile operations by territorials were immensely more profitable than defense of fixed outposts. But the JGS team also found that only 2,192 out of 22,884 offensive operations involving units of company size and larger resulted in combat with the enemy, a poor record attributed to weaknesses in intelligence, operational planning, and techniques. While this judgment was at least partially valid, benefits were derived even from mobile operations that netted no enemy. The confidence of the population in their local forces was strengthened, and the enemy was often compelled to move or discontinue his activities while the territorials maneuvered through the area.
There were 3,400 outposts, watch towers, and bases to be defended in MR 4. These ranged from large complex positions with supporting artillery to remote mud forts garrisoned by weak, under-strength PF platoons. The futility of attempting to defend the vast delta from isolated posts scattered about the paddies, canals, and swamps had been recognized by General Nghi as well as the JGS, but despite the strong desire to reduce the number of posts, to do so would remove all government presence from many contested villages and hamlets, surrendering the population to the Communists. In 1973, nevertheless, MR 4 withdrew forces from 97 outposts while 193 were lost to enemy attacks. Meanwhile, emphasis on mobile operations was increased. Operating in their home provinces, some RF battalions earned hard-fought reputations for aggressiveness and success. Unfortunately, a battalion's achievement in its native sector often impelled the corps commander to deploy it to another province under the operational control of an ARVN division. As often as not, the division would employ the battalion in a particularly hazardous role and give it inadequate logistical and administrative support. Fresh morale problems would develop and, tragically, superior RF battalions were reduced to the level of the majority.
The Vietnamese Navy in the delta was charged with providing security on the major waterways, patrolling the coastline to prevent enemy supply boats from entering, and supporting ARVN and territorial force operations. Although the Navy could boast of low desertion rates, a generally well-maintained fleet of small craft, and higher morale than in the rest of the armed forces, its performance in the delta was far below what it should have been. In good measure, the reason for its ineffectiveness lay in an aversion to coordinating operations with the other services. Although General Nghi, as region commander, had all the authority he needed to direct-coordinated operations involving all forces in the delta, by the time this authority filtered down through the structure it had lost its force. ARVN sector and sub-sector commanders, as well as commanders of tactical units, exercised no authority over naval units and naval commanders consequently remained independent and aloof, often unwilling even to attend sectorplanning and briefing sessions.
There were, happily, some exceptions to this rule. A case in point was the Navy's role in special operations to interdict the NVA's infiltration route through Kien Giang into Chuong Thien (Infiltration partially valid, benefits were derived even from Corridor 1-C). The "brown-water" navy - that is, the shallow draft boats plying the rivers and canals - was especially successful intercepting enemy attempts to cross the Cai Lon River and its tributaries. But while combined operations enjoyed some success interfering with enemy movement interior routes, the "blue-water" navy failed to intercept the enemy's supply craft sailing down the coast from Cambodia. The blue-water boats were too deep of draft to follow suspicious sampans into the shallow inshore waters, and the brown-water responsibilities ended where the waterways emptied into the Gulf of Thailand.
The blue-water navy in the delta operated from two major bases. The 4th Coastal Flotilla, with 26 patrol craft, was based at An Thoi on Phu Quoc Island and was responsible for coastal waters down to the border of An Xuyen Province. There the 5th Coastal Flotilla assumed responsibility which extended around the Ca Mau and northeast along the coast to the MR 3 boundary. The 5th operated 27 patrol craft from Nam Can, a former $50 million U.S. Navy base with excellent dry dock facilities. The brown-water fleet, with 362 boats, operated impelled from 17 locations throughout the delta.
RVNAF Economics and Morale
A melancholy accompaniment to the slow but steady erosion of government influence in the delta was being heard, not only in the delta, but throughout South Vietnam. The outward appearances of a bustling, growing economy, as seen in the prosperous looking shops and restaurants of Saigon and in the dense, noisy traffic that choked its boulevards, scarcely disguised a stagnant commercial and industrial situation but still misled the casual observer. The truth was that galloping inflation had taken hold, and those that suffered most were those to whom the country owed the most, those upon whose strength and constancy survival depended: the soldiers, airmen, sailors, and officers of the RVNAF. The consumer price index rose 65 percent during 1973, but more devastating to the serviceman and low paid public official, whose incomes were fixed at a bare subsistence level, was the fact that rice doubled in price during the year. An unfortunate combination of international and domestic events was responsible for South Vietnam's worst year economically since 1965-66. In 1972 the NVA offensive and poor weather had reduced the expected rice crop, and that disappointing harvest was followed by an even less productive one in 1973. The deficit had to be compensated for by imports at a time when rice on the world market was soaring. This fact, in combination with the domestic shortage, drove the price to the consumer even higher. South Vietnam's tough rice control program was doubtless of some benefit, but it could not thoroughly dampen market-driven trends.
Meanwhile, the U.S. aid dollar, as well as other forms of foreign assistance to Vietnam, was declining in value under the influence of worldwide inflation. Imported commodities therefore entered the country at drastically inflated costs. Cooking oil, laundry soap, and brown sugar, for example, were all selling at 200% percent above 1972 prices; driven by the international petroleum crisis of 1973, gasoline rose by 213 percent and kerosene by 196 percent. And while import prices climbed, South Vietnam's opportunities to earn foreign exchange declined with the departure of the U.S. forces. The U.S. withdrawal also aggravated high levels of unemployment. In 1969, about 160,000 Vietnamese were direct employees of the United States; by September 1973, the number had dropped to less than 20,000. This decline was matched by the disappearance of jobs whose functions indirectly depended on the U.S. payroll in Vietnam.
The severe unemployment greatly affected the families of soldiers because a soldier's family could only survive if it had a source of income other than military pay. Disquieting evidence that the depressed economy and inflated market were having deleterious effects on RVNAF morale and effectiveness began to appear in mid-1973. Reports of particularly heinous instances of venality surfaced, sometimes in official channels, but more frequently in private conversations between DAO people and RVNAF officers whose sensibilities were offended by the corrupt practices of their countrymen, even though they understood the conditions that impelled men to seek dishonorable means to supplement their livelihood. And even when corruption was not mentioned, the serious economic plight of officers and soldiers was cited as contributing to defeats and portending future disaster. Here are some examples:
On 15 December the Communists attacked a position in the Song Bo corridor west of Hue defended by a company of the 1st ARVN Division. According to the new 3d Infantry commander, Col. Hoang Mao, the company incurred only light casualties before breaking and running in panic. Similar performances occurred in other regimental positions, and Colonel Mao attributed this conduct to poorly trained draftees with low morale. The regiment had borne the weight of the NVA's attacks that autumn, and its extended period in the line had aggravated its declining morale, but the root cause of the problem was widespread disaffection in the ranks traceable to the growing deprivations suffered by military families.
The Airborne Division was the elite of the ARVN. It could still boast an all-volunteer force and the high esprit that went with special and rigorous training. But even it was not immune to South Vietnam's economic malady. In a despairing interview with a trusted American friend, a young paratrooper captain, battle tested in Cambodia, An Loc, and Quang Tri, told of demoralization in the airborne as largely the result of worsening economic conditions. Another reason for low morale was the continued commitment of the division - trained and psychologically equipped for difficult offensive operations - in a static defensive role in northern MR 1. Add to this the fact that the division bases were at Tan Son Nhut and Bien Hoa and the soldier's families lived on or near them. In any event, this dedicated 29-year-old veteran deplored the decline of discipline in the division, which he said could be traced to the absence of the airborne spirit in leaders who had recently joined the division, a spirit hard to kindle in the bunkers and trenches of Thua Thien Province.
More importantly, he cited the desperate economic conditions among the troopers' families, which the officers and noncommissioned officers were powerless to relieve. As a direct consequence, the empathetic leader was loath to punish severely any soldier whose derelictions were traceable to despair or concern for his suffering family. Absences, even some desertions, went unpunished, and alcoholism and drug addiction increased, as did incidents of "fragging." (Slang for the practice of murdering or attempting to murder officers or noncommissioned officers; derived from fragmentation grenade, the usual weapon of choice.)
The division commander, Brig. Gen. Le Quang Luong, was acutely aware of the problems, his personal leadership and concern for his men no doubt prevented collapse. In fact, the division fought some of its most effective and gallant engagements in the months following.
Illegal trading in fuel used by the South Vietnamese Navy was a favorite means of income augmentation in the delta. An incident in September in southern An Xuyen Province is illustrative. In September near Vam Song Ong Doc, a small fishing port at the mouth of the Ong Doc River, a Navy boat was reportedly sunk by gunfire and three sailors were wounded, apparently in an ambush set by the VC. But the facts were quite different. It seems that Navy vessels regularly sailed up the coast and called at Vam Song Ong Doc to sell diesel fuel, a commodity in great demand by the fishing fleet as well as the Communists, who used it in their boats. The the 412th RF Battalion had been watching this for some time and finally demanded 1,000 piastres (about $2) per 55-gallon drum sold. After the crew refused, reportedly explaining that all the proceeds had to be sent to the Chief of Naval Operations in Saigon, the RF attacked. Some accommodation was apparently arrived at because before long the boats
were again engaged in the diesel trade, though the market had been moved upriver. Preoccupation with this illegal operation distracted the Navy from its important mission of intercepting Communist boats that were infiltrating the coast with impunity from the Ong Doc River to An Xuyen's northern border.
There were a few documented cases wherein RVNAF officers and soldiers sold weapons, ammunition, and other military equipment and supplies for cash, knowing full well that they were trading with the enemy. But the most despicable of all cases of venality - and reports of these were widespread and persistent enough to deserve credence - were the demands of VNAF helicopter crews for payment from ground troops for the evacuation of casualties. This is not to say that this practice was the rule, but that it happened at all was a vivid commentary on a pernicious flaw and the conditions which spawned
A typical colonel in the RVNAF was paid less than 40,000 piastres per month, the equivalent of about $80.00, this after about 20 years of service, virtually all of it in wartime. Of course he received a few other emoluments, but basically he was supporting a family group of perhaps 10 people on $80 per month. At prices prevalent in the winter of 1973, half of his earnings went for rice. This meant, among other things, that every able person in the family had to bring in some income. Practices ranging from simple nepotism through the entire gamut of activity that well-fed, comfortably-housed Americans might call malfeasance understandably became part of the system. The wonder is that so many honest, devoted officers and public servants managed, through strength of character and with the help of friends and families, not only to survive but also to take care of their less fortunate subordinates.
In September 1973, a JGS evaluation of the structure and employment of Ranger forces culminated in a recommendation from General Vien to President Thieu. Approved by the President, it was developed by 31 December into a plan of reorganization. Essentially the plan's major purpose was to reconstitute a small strategic reserve for employment by the JGS and small reaction forces for the first three military regions. The planners accepted the unpleasant fact that the two general reserve divisions - the Airborne and Marine - were probably permanently committed in Military Region l; a Ranger reorganization would result in a slight surplus of uncommitted battalions and help restore some flexibility to the RVNAF as a whole. The planners also took into account the deterioration of South Vietnamese control in the western and Central Highlands but with unwarranted optimism calculated that Rangers would eventually be redeployed to frontier posts in lost or contested sectors. In any event, the fact that Ranger battalions were programmed for deployment on the borders in the indefinite future provided uncommitted battalions for the present for reserve or other missions.
The planners also recognized the unique situation along the Cambodian border in Military Region 4. The Rangers of 44th Special Tactical Zone around the Seven Mountains and the ARVN regulars and territorials in other reaches of the frontier had all but eliminated the enemy main-force threat and were dealing with some success with infiltration. Thus the decision was made to eliminate the 44th Special Tactical Zone and deactivate its nine Ranger battalions, with officers and men reassigned to battalions in the northern part of the country. This made tactical sense, but unfortunately, the delta Ranger battalions had been recruited in the delta, and the soldiers showed their displeasure at being reassigned from their home provinces by deserting in great numbers. By 1 January 1974, the original 54 Ranger battalions had been reorganized into 45, and each belonged to one of 15 Ranger groups (regiments). Rather than having three different types of battalions - organic to regiments, border defense, and separate - all were to follow one table of organization and equipment.
The new concept of operations for Rangers visualized that 27 forward defense bases, mostly along the Laotian and Cambodian borders in Military Regions 1, 2, and 3, would be occupied by a minimum of one Ranger battalion each. At this time, however, only six of these border posts were occupied by Rangers; the others were inaccessible because of enemy operations or were in enemy hands. Each military region was to keep one Ranger group in reserve, dedicated to the reinforcement or rescue of any threatened or besieged Ranger base. A 30-man Ranger headquarters was established in each of the three military regions where Ranger battalions were assigned to oversee training and administrative matters. Its commander was the corps commander's adviser on Ranger employment. At year's end, Ranger deployment and strength was as shown in Table 3.
[See Table 3: ARVN Ranger Deployment, 31 Dec. 1973]
Military Region 3
RVNAF efforts to open lines of communication to beleaguered bases, interdict NVA logistical routes, and damage enemy base areas and the NVA's response to these actions raised the level of combat in Military Region 3 after Cease-fire II. There were a number of sharp contacts, particularly in Tay Ninh and Binh Duong Provinces, but no terrain changed hands. The VNAF carried out heavy raids against NVA bases in Tay Ninh, Binh Long, and Phuoc Long Provinces, and the NVA retaliated with a rocket attack on Bien Hoa on 6 November that destroyed three F-SA fighters and with a sapper raid on the Shell petroleum storage site at Nha Be on 2 December that virtually wiped it out. The Communists also sent water-sapper teams into South Vietnamese Navy docks near Saigon and sank six small craft. Just a few miles southwest of Saigon, on 15 December, they ambushed an unarmed U.S. Joint Casualty Resolution Center Team and killed a U.S. Army captain, the first American serviceman to die by Communist fire after the ceasefire. This incident effectively ended all efforts by U.S. casualty resolution teams to enter areas not considered absolutely immune from enemy intrusion.
Behind the screen of harassing and sometimes destructive attacks, and beyond the range of effective RVNAF interference, Communist forces in Military Region 3 built warehouses, workshops, roads, and antiaircraft positions, receiving new weapons, combat vehicles, and replacements while assembling a logistical and training base that spread across the northern border of MR 3 from Bu Dop in Phuoc Long to Lo Go in Tay Ninh. The Communists were also# concentrating freshly arrived battalions of tanks, artillery, and antiaircraft weapons, together with infantry replacements for the divisions that were protecting the buildup. By September they had completed the deployment of the 367th Sapper Group from Phnom Penh to Tay Ninh for further employment in the Saigon area.
The NVA strategy in Tay Ninh called for continuing pressure along lines of contact, preventing the RVNAF from probing too deeply into the base area, and undermining the fragile hold the RVNAF maintained on the vital corridor between Tay Ninh City and Saigon. This pressure was exerted from three directions and spilled over prominently into Hau Nghia Province through which the corridor passed into the northwestern suburbs of Saigon. From the Cambodian salient of Svay Rieng Province, called the Parrot's Beak, NVA forces probed RVNAF outposts along the Vam Co Dong River. The river port of Go Dau Ha was kept under constant threat. Since the port was the junction of National Routes 1 and 22, only 10 kilometers from the Cambodian frontier, its loss would sever Tay Ninh and isolate sizable South Vietnamese forces there.
The NVA prevented any RVNAF forays toward its northern Tay Ninh base along local Route 4 (TL-4); this road led into the NVA's growing headquarters, logistical, and political complex around Lo Go, Thien Ngon, Xa Mat, and Katum. Moving within range of the ARVN's 25th Division forward base at the Tay Ninh airfield, the ARVN outpost and communications relay station on Nui Ba Den mountain, and the RF base at Soui Da, the NVA regularly harassed these positions with artillery, mortar, and rocket fire and made resupply of Nui Ba Den hazardous by frequently directing antiaircraft fire and SA-7 rockets at VNAF helicopters.
The NVA exerted strong pressure against the Tay Ninh-Saigon corridor from its forward combat bases along the Saigon River from the Michelin Plantation to the Ho Bo Woods. The Ho Bo area was flat, almost featureless terrain, laced with trenches and tunnels, deeply pocked with ragged lines of bomb craters left by numberless waves of B-52s, its shattered plantations overgrown with head-high weeds and dense brush. Nearly 10 years of battle litter defaced the countryside, and a tangle of tank-tread marks gave it the appearance of an abandoned armored training ground. Hidden beneath were the bunkers and fighting positions of several NVA main force units, the principal occupant being the 101st Infantry Regiment.
The 101st had entered Nam Bo, the southern battlefield, in 1966 from North Vietnam and had been a more or less constant resident of the Tay Ninh-Hau Nghia-Binh Duong region since its first punishing engagements with the U.S. 1st Infantry Division that year. In the summer and fall of 1973, it was backing up local battalions harassing ARVN territorials and elements of the 25th Infantry Division generally north of Highways 1 and 22.
Principal targets for NVA artillery and mortar attacks were Khiem Hanh, a forward base protecting the northern approach to Go Dau Ha; Trang Bang, a principal town and defensive position astride Highway 1 midway between Tay Ninh City and Saigon; Cu Chi, the main base of the ARVN 25th Infantry Division; and the defensive position at Trung Lap north of Highway 1. Although a night rarely passed without some kind of attack against these or smaller posts, major contacts were infrequent. But in one major engagement in late September, the 2d Battalion, 49th Infantry, 25th Division, was caught in a devastating ambush in a rubber plantation between Highway 22 and Khiem Hahn. More than half the battalion were casualties, including 43 killed, and the battalion lost nearly 150 weapons and 18 field radios. Shortly afterward some command changes were made in the 25th, including the division commander and commanders of the 46th and 49th Regiments. The road to recovery was long and slowly traveled for the 49th Infantry, but on the other hand, the 50th Infantry of the 25th Division, during the last half of 1973, enjoyed more successes than failures in sweep operations around Phu Hoa, and in southeastern Binh Duong and Hau Nghia Provinces.
In the only other major contact in the Tay Ninh-Saigon corridor up to the cease-fire anniversary, a Hau Nghia Regional Force battalion met a battalion of the NVA 101st Regiment, reinforced by a local company, northeast of Trang Bang. When the smoke cleared, the Hau Nghia battalion, among the best RF units in MR 3, collected 32 enemy weapons on the battlefield and buried 56 NVA soldiers. RF casualties were 19 killed and 33 wounded.
In the last half of 1973 in southern Binh Long and western Binh Duong Provinces, very little combat took place. The NVA continued its buildup in the Minh Thanh Plantation and the Lai Khe-Ben Cat area, shifted its artillery southward into the Long Nguyen area from where it increased the weight and frequency of attacks against the ARVN bases. But the only ground engagement of note took place in early January just west of Chon Thanh when the 2d Battalion, 8th Infantry, ARVN 5th Infantry Division, was struck hard by the 7th Battalion, 209th Infantry, NVA 7th Division. Charged with blocking Highway 13 and preventing any ARVN advance toward Minh Thanh, the 7th Battalion killed 36 ARVN soldiers in this engagement, wounded 26 others, and captured 85 weapons.
The most significant action during this period in MR 3 took place along Highway 1A between Song Be and Saigon. Continuing to isolate the Phuoc Long capital of Phuoc Binh, NVA troops used artillery, mortars, rockets, and ground attacks against all RVNAF posts and positions along the 75-kilometer stretch of road between Phu Giao and Song Be. They bombarded the airfield at Song Be and attacked the Don Luan post, but the heaviest action took place south of the Phu Giao base as the NVA 7th Division attempted to block the highway and blow the bridge over the Song Be river. The NVA intention was not only to deny ARVN the use of the road and isolate the garrisons north of the bridge, but also to screen the movement of artillery and supplies south from Bu Dop in northern Phuoc Long to forward combat bases in the dense forests north of Bien Hoa and Xuan Loc. In fact, the NVA itself was using sections of Highway 1A between Bu Dop and Phu Giao for the movement of artillery.
The ARVN 5th Division was roughly handled by the NVA 7th Division between Lai Khe and Phu Giao, and one result of the 5th's consistent failures was the relief of its commander and his replacement in November by Col. Le Nguyen Vy. (Colonel Vy was later to take his own life upon the surrender of his division to the NVA on 30 April 1975.) The 18th ARVN Division fared much better under the leadership of an aggressive commander, Brig. Gen. Le Minh Dao (who was to surrender to the Communists after a gallant defense of Xuan Loc in April 1975), and Highway 1A was kept open as far as Phuoc Vinh. The 18th also saw action around Xuan Loc and in its southern sector of Phuoc Tuy, but nothing decisive was accomplished by either side.
The NVA seige of Tong Le Chon continued through the year, and the 92d Ranger Battalion's defense was rapidly becoming legendary. But the cost was high. After a brief respite following Ceasefire II, the shelling resumed, moderately enough at first, but reached crescendo proportions later in the year as the NVA added 120-mm. and 160-mm. mortars and 122-mm. and 130-mm. howitzers and guns to the batteries ranging on the camp. Antiaircraft artillery, including 37-mm. and 57-mm. guns om the newly formed 377th Antiaircraft Artillery Division at Loc Ninh continued to make supply difficult and evacuation next to impossible.
The NVA 200th Battalion, which had been used in local security missions in the Tay Ninh logistical area, was assigned to the infantry element of the NVA siege force. One of its platoon leaders rallied to the South Vietnamese side in September with some interesting comments on the conduct of the operation. He said that in June the NVA organized a company to collect parachuted supplies that fell outside the Tong Le Chon perimeter, which between April and June amounted to about 80 percent of all supplies dropped. After June, according to this rallier, VNAF techniques had improved to the point where only 10 percent of the drops were recoverable by the company. He asserted that an understanding had been reached between the ARVN Rangers and the NVA whereby the C-130's dropping supplies would not be fired upon so long as the company would not be opposed as it collected the supplies outside the perimeter. This assertation cannot be corroborated, but it fits the general character of the situation at Tong Le Chon. !>
If there was a tacit withholding of fire against the C-130's at Tong Le Chon, it certainly did not apply to helicopters. Many attempts were made to fly helicopters into Tong Le Chon to evacuate casualties and land replacements. Between late October and the end of January, 1974, 20 helicopters attempted landings; but only 6 managed to land and 3 of these were destroyed by fire upon landing. In the last week of December 1973, a CH-47 Chinook helicopter was destroyed as it landed, the 13th helicopter hit by enemy fire on a Tong Le Chon mission during December alone. Casualties were 9 killed and 36 wounded. Another crashed and burned in January, and as the anniversary of the cease-fire came and went, 12 seriously wounded soldiers of the 92d Ranger Battalion remained in the beleaguered camp.
South Vietnam's leadership was concerned and frustrated over the NVA buildup north of Saigon. Largely beyond reach of ARVN artillery and protected by large and mobile NVA infantry formations, the NVA was openly constructing a modern, mechanized, heavily fortified logistics and communications center. In late October President Thieu decided to attack this enemy complex with air strikes. The concentrated attacks did not begin until 7 November, and South Vietnam made known that they were in response to the NVA's 6 November rocketing of Bien Hoa Air Base, an indication it still felt obliged to rationalize offensive operations in terms of retaliation for NVA cease-fire violations.
Not a part of the concentrated program, a single attack was made in late October against Xa Mat in Tay Ninh Province, a small hamlet on the border with Cambodia which had been named as a "point of entry" in Article 4 of the "Protocol to the Agreement Concerning the International Commission of Control and Supervision," but at which no ICCS team had been posted for the simple reason that the Communists did not want their activities at Xa Mat observed. The only report DAO received concerning the air attack was through an agent who passed through Xa Mat. According to his account, the market, a fuel dump, and about 60 structures were destroyed.
Another separate attack was made on 6 November, the day the NVA rockets destroyed three F-5As at Bien Hoa, when the VNAF made 33 fighterbomber sorties against NVA concentrations around the ARVN base at Don Luan. Military Region 3 claimed the destruction of numerous fighting positions, about 100 enemy soldiers killed, and four secondary explosions.
From 7 November to 5 December, spotty records revealed about 800 sorties of fighter-bombers, including A-1s, F-5s and A-37s were flown. It began with attacks against Bo Duc and Loc Ninh areas. Although the results of the Bo Duc strike were not reported, Military Region 3 claimed good results against Loc Ninh storage facilities, including fuel, and antiaircraft positions. A contrary version was given by Brig. Gen. Le Trung Truc, a VNAF officer on
detached duty in the office of the President. General Truc said that most of the bombs landed miles from the targets, that attacking fighters released at excessively high altitudes to avoid antiaircraft fire, and that poor targeting, poor execution, and low VNAF morale were to blame for the meager results. Criticisms such as these, from RVNAF commanders as well as from U.S. observers, persisted throughout the campaign and certainly had some merit. Even the enemy antiaircraft gunners complained, according to an agent reporting on a Katum strike, that the VNAF flew too high to be reached by their 37-mm. guns.
Lest there be an assumption that VNAF fighter pilots lacked courage to fly through flak, they did habitually assume high risks in attacking enemy forces while in support of ARVN infantry. The inhibition against flying too low through heavy antiaircraft fire stemmed more from the realization that no ARVN unit was in peril and perhaps more cogently that, under the constraints on military assistance, lost airplanes would not be replaced and damaged ones would be grounded for months awaiting repair. On the strikes against Loc Ninh on 30 November and 3 December, pilots reported flak between 4,000 and 12,000 feet and bomb release altitudes were between 7,000 and 10,000 feet. While these release altitudes were too high for precision bombing and rocketing, they did produce some visible results, although VNAF attacks had no lasting effect on the enemy's capabilities.
Attempts by the JGS and Military Region 3 to assess the damage to NVA installations were frustrated by the lack of an aerial photographic system in VNAF as well as by the remoteness of the areas attacked and the dense foliage that concealed many of the targets. Agents filtered back with a few reports, and these were probably accurate as far as they went but were far from comprehensive. Pilot reports were also used to assess bomb damage but these may well have been colored by wishful observations. A brief summary of the campaign is given in Table 4. [See Table 4: VNAF Strikes, Oct.-Dec. 1973 (date/location and targets/sorties)]
On the first anniversary of the Paris Agreement in early 1974, the Communists issued statements presenting their views on the cease-fire and the situation in South Vietnam. Hanoi published a "White Paper" assailing U.S. and South Vietnamese "provocations." Its charges were accompanied by the rattle and roar of thousands of trucks coursing south across the DMZ and through Laos in a mammoth "transportation offensive" started in December 1973. Thousands of tons of supplies were accumulating in the southern stockpiles, and by the cease-fire anniversary the NVA had sufficient stocks to support an offensive comparable to that of 1972 for over a year. Meanwhile, NVA engineers extended their fuel pipelines into the A Shau Valley in Thua Thien Province, and the Laotian pipeline was passing through the tri-border junction into Kontum Province. During the year following the cease-fire, the NVA increased its artillery and tank strength in the south at least four-fold.
Despite some surges of concentrated effort, such as the MR 3 air campaign of November and the aborted attempts to advance on the NVA logistical base at Duc Co, the RVNAF was unable to interfere significantly with the NVA's steady accumulation of logistical and combat strength. One major inhibiting factor was the growing density of NVA antiaircraft defending the major logistical corridors and troop concentrations. In the year following the cease-fire, the NVA added one air defense division and at least 12 regiments to the expeditionary force so that by the cease-fire anniversary 2 air defense divisions and 26 regiments were deployed in South Vietnam. Included in the force were SA-2 and SA-7 missiles and radar-controlled guns; these, in particular, forced the VNAF, which had none of the sophisticated electronic counter-measures employed by the U.S. Air Force in such a high-threat environment, to operate above effective attack altitudes.
Preparations for resuming the offensive were being made north of the DMZ in concert with the buildup in the South. The NVA strategic reserve was being reconstituted, and most of its fighting elements were being concentrated in Thanh Hoa Province between Hanoi and Vinh. Here the NVA I Corps was organized in the fall of 1973, and the 308th, 312th, and 320B Divisions, having returned from the Quang Tri front, were assigned to it. Adding to reserve strength, the major elements of the 316th Division returned to North Vietnam from northern Laos, and the 341st Division, located immediately north of the DMZ, was reorganized from its territorial status into a deployable infantry division. The sixth major element of the NVA strategic reserve, the 308B Division, was still in garrison in the Hanoi area. Compounding the already tenuous situation facing the RVNAF in Kontum and Pleiku Province, the NVA 968th Division began deploying from southern Laos into the western highlands of South Vietnam, and by the end of January 1974 its 9th and 19th Regiments were already there.
As the RVNAF leadership and the DAO observers in Saigon viewed the situation, the warning was clear: although there existed a rough parity of military power deployed in the South, considering the obviously heavier requirements on South Vietnam to protect a dispersed population and long lines of communication, the RVNAF could retain not even one division in general reserve. The planned defense possessed no flexibility whatsoever, and adjustments were possible only by giving up terrain and usually population along with it. On the other hand, the NVA not only possessed considerable flexibility in choosing objectives and selecting forces to employ, but it also had six full-strength infantry divisions, adequately supported by artillery, tanks, and supplies, to throw into the battle at the decisive moment. Furthermore, improvements made in roads southward and the absence of U.S. air interdiction reduced North Vietnamese deployment times to the point where a surprise appearance of the NVA reserve became a worrisome possibility.
Note on Sources
References used in describing the situation in the delta during the last half of 1973 included, most importantly, reports and studies made by J2/JGS, translated and retained by DAO Saigon Intelligence Branch; similar reports of rallier interrogations and captured documents; DAO Intelligence Summaries and reports; operational reports and intelligence information from headquarters IV Corps; reports from the U.S. Consul General, Can Tho; a JGS report on the status of territorial forces in Military Region 4; and the author's own notes recorded during meetings with the J2/JGS, and visits to Military Region 4.
The section on morale in the RVNAF was derived largely from reports by U.S. Military Attaches who had regular contact with knowledgeable Vietnamese officers, from DAO Saigon Economic Reports, and from recorded observations made by liaison officers of DAO Intelligence Branch.
Information on the Ranger reorganization came from the DAO Saigon Quarterly Assessment, December 1973, and reports from offices of the U.S. Embassy.
Combat activity and the air campaign in Military Region 3 came from personal observation by the author, reports by the principal liaison officer from DAO Intelligence Branch with the VNAF, and information reports from the Consul General, Bien Hoa, the U.S. Embassy, and DAO Saigon. Chapter 8 The Decline of U.S. Support
Military Assistance, Fiscal Year 1974
U.S. military assistance to South Vietnam was "service funded." This meant that, unlike other programs funded by Congress in a military assistance appropriations act, the money for support of the Vietnamese military was contained in the Army, Navy, and Air Force sections of the Department of Defense appropriations bill. A carryover from the days of active U.S. military participation in the war, the Military Assistance Service Funded (MASF) program for Vietnam became obsolete with the departure of American forces from Indochina in January 1973. But months passed before the Defense Department, the Services, and the Congress could adjust to the changed situation with a new military assistance program. In the interim, DAO Saigon requisitioned supplies and equipment for the RVNAF under continuing congressional resolution authority, based on the program of assistance developed jointly with South Vietnam's Defense Ministry and JGS in early 1973 and in anticipation of adequate funds in the Defense Appropriation Actfor fiscal year 1974.
The U.S.-funded part of the RVNAF budget for fiscal year 1974 called for expenditures of $1.1 billion. But on 19 December 1973, Rear Adm. T. J. Bigley, Director for East Asia and Pacific Region, International Security Affairs (ISA) Department of Defense, cabled General Murray warning that the Senate committee had reduced service-funded military assistance for Vietnam and Laos to $650 million of new obligational authority in the 1974 Defense Appropriation bill. The House committee had recommended slightly more than $1 billion, and the two committees in conference agreed to $900 million. Admiral Bigley told General Murray that Vietnam's share of the $900 million would be about $813 million. Although the ceiling for Vietnam and Laos spending during the fiscal year was set by the Congress at $1,126 million, General Murray was asked for ideas on how the Vietnam MASF program could be adjusted to the lower limit of FY 74 money. (Msg, Bigley to Murray, 192200Z Dec 73, Log 907-73.)
Meanwhile, Headquarters Department of the Army, taking note of the reduction being contemplated in the Congress, suddenly cut off all operational and maintenance funds for Vietnam for the rest of the fiscal year. When General Murray found out about this, he asked Ambassador Graham Martin for authority to tell Lt. Gen. Dong Van Khuyen, Commanding General of the Central Logistics Command, so that the Vietnamese could adopt some procedures to conserve supplies until the new appropriation made more money available. The Ambassador refused on the grounds that disclosure would be too unsettling politically. (The near disastrous result was that the South Vietnamese continued requisitioning and using up supplies at their usual rate. With a four-month order-to-ship time, the supply line dried up in April and the system was never to recover.)
Less than 24 hours later, Admiral Bigley had General Murray's reply, which was prefaced with the remark that General Murray was not able to discuss the cut with the South Vietnamese authorities because of the political sensitivity. He would leave that onerous task to Ambassador Martin. He also pointed out that Admiral Bigley's request for an immediate response precluded a detailed review of the MASF program; he could offer only rough observations. First, the source of prior year funds - theoretically $313 million which would bring the Laos and Vietnam programs up to the $1,126 million ceiling authorized by Congress - had not yet been identified, and about $723 million of the FY 74 program had already been obligated. This meant that if the true ceiling turned out to be $813 million - that is, if the additional $313 million could not be found - only $90 million remained to carry the Vietnam program for the six months remaining in the fiscal year. Add to this about $200 million worth of unbudgeted critical shortages already identified - shortages that were the result of the unexpectedly heavy combat actions of 1973 - and anyone could see that a dangerous situation was developing.
General Murray's list of critical shortages included $180 million for ground ammunition, $5 million for medical supplies, $4.3 million for subsistence, $8 million for air ammunition, and an undetermined sum to buy or operate more landing ships, tank (LST), as a hedge against the enemy's capability to close the land route to Hue. General Murray tentatively identified budgeted savings of $33 million by eliminating the RVNAF dependent shelter program, a project that had high morale value for the armed forces and had been promised by President Nixon. Improvements to lines of communication would also be cut, and spare parts for ships and
aircraft reduced to a critical level. Although he offered some other saving alternatives, General Murray admitted that none was feasible. He also noted that the considerable cost of packing, crating, handling, and shipping of military assistance supplies had not been budgeted; these costs would also have to be borne within the ceiling.
The day after Christmas, Ambassador Martin sent his analysis of the military assistance situation to the White House. Trailing General Murray's hurried response by six days, the Ambassador's message contained a more complete review, and the shortfalls in the program had been refined by General Murray and his staff. Consequently, the shortage cited by Ambassador Martin was more than double that earlier anticipated by General Murray. The Ambassador's message is quoted here in full (Msg, Martin to White House, 26 Dec 73, Log 930-73.):
1. It seems quite clear that a new review at the highest levels of the future priorities to be accorded U.S. Military Assistance to the Republic of Vietnam is imperative. Although we tend to concentrate, quite properly, on the still existing deficiencies in the ARVN in order to correct and improve them, such concentration leads us to overlook the inescapable act that the process of "Vietnamization" so ably implemented by General Abrams with the assistance of all the U.S. Armed Services has, in fact, worked out very well. The ARVN has not only held well, but has up to now kept the other side off balance. If we remain constant in our support, and determined to carry out the commitments we have made at the highest level, we have every right to confidently expect that the GVN can hold without the necessity of U.S. armed intervention. Therefore, the additional resources necessary to discharge the commitments already made will, in reality, return enormous dividends in the achievements of U.S. objectives not only in southeast Asia, but throughout the world.
2. Perhaps it will contribute to perspective to recall that in the last six months we have witnessed an evident consolidation of internal support for President Thieu and his administration; the reorganization of that administration to better cope with the economic realities, and the conclusion of economic agreements with the FRG, France and Japan which will help surmount current problems and act as a catalyst in attracting other donors. The joint GVN and U.S. actions in publicizing massive North Vietnamese violations of the Paris agreements has successfully conditioned world reaction to accept the strong GVN reactions to these DRVN violations as quite proper and natural responses to North Vietnamese aggression. The highest officials of the Polish and Hungarian ICCS Delegation have privately informed us that they estimate the NVN/VC forces control 20 percent less territory than on January 28, 1973. Politically, the NVN/VC proselytizing has clearly been unsuccessful. Obviously, Moscow and Peking have been informed that, both politically and militarily, the initiative is passing to the GVN side.
3. Yet the military capability of NVN forces is now greater than at the time of the Easter 1972 offensive. Whether it will be utilized in another major force offensive or be maintained as a deterrent to GVN elimination of PRG forces is a decision which, I believe, has not yet been taken in Hanoi. It will be greatly influenced on their estimate of the will, the morale, and the military capability of the RVN. This in turn, will be greatly conditioned on the RVN estimate of the present validity of our commitments to them.
4. It is a bit hard here in Saigon to determine the practical effects of the just passed defense appropriation bill on our ability to carry out the commitments made solemnly and unequivocally by the U.S.G. to the GVN. However, we have received some preliminary indications of Washington thinking that trickle half way around the world. If these are only partly true, then we are in considerable danger of very soon being in open, glaringly obvious default of those commitments.
5. The immediate repercussions on the increasingly evident self-confidence and up-beat morale of the GVN and the ARVN, while not possible to calculate with precision, will certainly be adverse and could be more serious. The short range effect on the presently delicate and fragile relationship with the Soviets, the Chinese, the Middle East and even with Europe, should we welsh on our commitments here, can best be determined in the White House. But it seems self-evident that the one most single precious commodity we possess just now is the faith of others in the constancy and reliability of American commitments. The cost of our failure to keep it here, even in dollar terms, will be incalculably greater than the immediate sums that now seem to be in question.
6. I am quite aware that reserves of all the services have been dangerously depleted by the emergency demands of enhance, enhance plus, and the recent emergency requirements for Israel. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the armed services can find ways to meet our requirements, if only our civilian leaders will unequivocally establish the overriding national priority that must be accorded meeting these requirements.
7. Before the January agreements, at the time of the January agreements, after the January agreements, again at the time of the June communique, and most especially at the San Clemente meeting in April between President Nixon and President Thieu, we have reiterated the commitment that we will maintain the armament level existing on a one-for-one replacement basis. Yet, almost from the beginning every action we have taken seems, upon review, to have been calculated to convince senior officers of the ARVN that we were not really serious about keeping that pledge. Of the many examples I will mention only two:
8. The fact is that with 52 percent of the VNAF total personnel strength in training, it is understandable that maintenance of VNAF aircraft would constitute a problem. Both the VNAF and we have instituted corrective action with the help of the USAF. Yet when suggestions are received from Washington to add 8 perfectly flyable FSA's to those scheduled to be removed for "corrosion control," and it just so happens that the addition of this particular number coincides with the need perceived in Washington for Iran and Korea repayment, the RVNAF and ARVN quite naturally wonder about the purpose of this kind of game playing. The current end result is that President Thieu has ordered the VNAF to inflict maximum possible damage in retaliatory raids in response to DRVN violations of the ceasefire, but to lose no aircraft in the process since all will be desperately needed when a major force attack is made. Consequently, the VNAF, although willing and able to aggressively press low level attacks, are not permitted tofly low enough over targets to achieve the precision results of which they are capable. If I could inform President Thieu that replacements of FSA's would be automatic, the results would be startling. Under present circumstances I cannot do this, despite the fact that we are committed to do so.
9. The second example is that despite the commitment for one-for-one replacement, despite the pace of the fighting since the "ceasefire" in January and June which has resulted in a greater total of casualties than the total of U.S. casualties during our years of active engagement, USARPAC's tentative ammunition replacement through the balance of this fiscal year would leave a projected balance on 1 July far below the ceasefire level that represents a minimum safety position against both enemy capabilities and also present estimates of their intentions. The following table graphically illustrates the problem. [In thousands. First figure is cease-fire level; second is projected, end June.]
[See Table 5: Arms Replacement: Cease-Fire vs. Current Levels]
10. These rounds have been selected as examples because they are unique to ARVN ammunition requirements. As used in the Delta the 40 MM round has effectively increased mobility of ARVN forces in resisting enemy activities. The 60 MM and 81 MM ILLUM are mortar rounds substituting for heavy artillery requirements within the small ARVN defense perimeters. The 60 MM LAW is the main ARVN weapon for defense against the very real enemy tank threat which now exists.
11. These are only two examples, but are enough to underscore the problem. The quickest, easiest and least expensive way to achieve the objectives we have formally set for ourselves is to reaffirm the priorities already established and permit the armed services to proceed with the implementation of the programs they now have before them. Original estimates were made on the assumption that the ceasefire would be reasonably respected by the other side. Given the increased level of military activity throughout South Vietnam we estimate that we will need a minimum of $494.4 million more than the projected $1,126 in FY 74. This is broken down as follows:
$180 for ground ammunition. $69.7 for equipment not called forward or above program levels. $200 for priority RVNAF requirement (estimate). $10 for medical supplies. $3 to operate additional LST's. $4.3 for subsistence. $9 for air munitions. $18.4 for POL. $494.4 total.
12. The addition of this total of $494.4 million to the $1.126 billion brings us to the total of $1.62 billion we will need in the fiscal year to reasonably discharge our commitments. I reiterate I am fully aware of the burden this will put on the services but I also reiterate my conviction that, given clear and unequivocal statement of the priorities and goals by the highest levels, their ingenuity and resourcefulness will find the way to implement such decisions.
The next day Admiral Bigley clarified the funding situation somewhat in a message to General Murray. (Msg, Bigley to Murray, 272200Z Dec 73, Log 936-73.) Since $826.5 million had already been obligated, only $300 million remained for both countries for the last half of the fiscal year, despite the fact that $562.1 million of unobligated prior year funds remained.
Meanwhile, General Murray clarified the requirement for funds above the originally budgeted amount and specifically identified the critical need for ammunition funds. (Murray to Brig. Gen. Richard H. Thompson, ODCSLOG, DA, 2 Jan 74, Log 09487.) About $221 million was necessary to build up ammunition stocks and only $43 million remained of unobligated FY 74 funds. General Murray was not a patient man; considerate of others, thoroughly professional, perceptive, and highly skilled in the use of colorful language, but not patient. From Christmas on he had been on the receiving end of a plethora of vague - and sometimes inaccurate - messages from Washington and Honolulu concerning cuts in the MASF program, none of which provided him or the RVNAF staffs the information they required to plan fuel and ammunition usages, flying hours, maintenance or any other budgeted military activity for the next six months. His small capacity for forbearance virtually disappeared by 11 January, and he asked for the answers he hadbeen searching for since first warned of the impending MASF reductions. In a message to CINCPAC and the Department of Defense (ISA), he put it this way (Msg, Murray to Brig. Gen. Charles A. Jackson, CINCPAC/J8, 11 Jan 74, Log 038-74.):
1. During the past month there has been a deluge of front and back channel messages from services and DSAA on FY 74 status and impact of new legislation.
2. Information appreciated but nothing conclusive or consistent enough to lock in on where we actually stand. No two messages cite the same figures, and volume of information has created much concern, many questions and virtually no answers.
3. Cannot determine whether funds here have been cut or, if so, from what to what. Reduction intimated, but nothing concrete. Concerned chiefly that dollar apportionment among RVNAF services may be out of balance before year-end since MILDEPS handle funds separately.
4. Understand FY 74 ceiling for Vietnam and Laos $1, 126 million, including $900 million NOA (new obligational authority). Reportedly, $814 million of NOA is Vietnam and $86 million Laos. Do not know Laos and Vietnam breakout of total $1,126 million or significance of $226 million difference above NOA. All this too inconclusive to establish meaningful priorities for requisitioning balance of year or to know to what extent service and country priorities should be inter-related.
5. Basic questions (applicable to Vietnam - not Laos) are:
A. Do we now have FY 74 country dollar ceiling to be managed overall as in regular MAAG, or do our services at Washington still have separate ceilings managed through channels to DAO service divisions?
B. What is country ceiling (or service ceilings)?
C. What are other dollar restrictions, if any, e.g., MPA, PEMA etc,?
D. What is NOA dollar limitation, and what is service breakout of NOA, if service ceilings apply?
E. What is exact significance of difference between NOA and ceiling, and what is service breakout, if service ceilings apply?
6. Propose CINCPAC become focal point for clarifying current funding status and for funneling DSAA and MILDEP funding developments to DAO balance of FY 74. This in consonance with MASF category IV procedures and would eliminate or reduce uncertainties, confusion and message traffic. Also assist in staying within ceiling contraints. With ground ammo alone running at over a million dollars a day, matters can get quickly askew unless we know that such a pace is within the ceiling and appropriation restraint.
The response he got from Hawaii shed some light - diffused though it was - on the subject. The news was not all comforting. (Msg, Jackson to Murray, 160413Z Jan 74, Log 053-74.) The Defense Department comptroller had determined that Vietnam's share of the new obligational authority would be about $820.5 million rather than the original $813-814 million estimate. But the question regarding the $1,126 million ceiling, and where the money would come from to permit obligations up to it, was not definitely answered. The administration was planning to ask the Congress to raise the authorization to $1.4 billion for FY 74; this, according to CINCPAC would "allow use of all possible dollars, including prior years." CINCPAC reminded General Murray, although General Murray was already painfully aware of it, that much of the $820.5 million of FY 74 money had already been obligated, and the ceiling increase was required to authorize additional obligations, assuming that prior year funds could be found and used.
Answers to General Murray's other questions were deferred for further study. But the most crucial issue, how much total money would be available for the FY 74 program, remained in doubt, although Washington advised General Murray on 20 January that a supplemental increase would be requested of Congress to bring the country program up to $1,054.8 million. (Msg, Maj. Gen. Peter C. Olenchuck, ODCSLOG, DA, to Murray 202208Z Jan 74, Log 066-74.)
This amount would reduce the concern in Saigon substantially, but Congressional response to such a request would most likely be negative. Meanwhile the war continued and supplies dwindled as moratoriums were imposed on requisitioning pending the outcome of the budgetary impasse.
General Murray did not wait for further definitive word from Washington or Hawaii. Early in January he began a series of conferences with the RVNAF logistics staff, principally with General Khuyen and General Cao Van Vien, Chief of the Joint General Staff, to impress upon them the need to conserve supplies, particularly ammunition. Without divulging all that he knew about the FY 74 program, he urged them to apply strict controls against the likelihood of diminished resources. General Vien reacted immediately. New available supply rates (ASR) were applied on all critical ammunition items on 25 February, reducing further the ASRs General Vien had ordered on 25 January.
Meanwhile, General Murray continued to receive new interpretations of the money situation from Washington. The $1,126 million ceiling on obligations during FY 74 for Vietnam and Laos, whether from current or prior year funds, was reiterated. Against this ceiling, the Department of Defense had allocated $700 million for the Army (of which $301 million was ammunition for Vietnam), $26 million for the Navy, and $400 million for the Air Force. Since $826.5 million had already been obligated as of 30 November 1973, only $229.5 million remained for all services (and this included funds for Laos). In this message, General Murray was advised that the Department of Defense was planning to ask Congress to raise the ceiling to $1.6 billion, rather than to $1.4. (Olenchuck to Murray, ODCSLOG, DA, 0422107Z Feb 74.)
General Murray viewed this information with some skepticism, since he understood the mood of the Congress and the effects of Watergate on President Nixon's Vietnam commitments about as well as anyone did in Washington. The most he could plan on was the Vietnam share of the $1,126 million, which by this time had been refined by the Department of Defense to $1,059 million.
In early February, General Murray tried to explain in a message to CINCPAC and Washington why the ceiling imposed overly severe restrictions on the Vietnam program, how the situation had changed since the program's drafting in early 1973, and the impact of those changes on RVNAF requirements. Since the FY 74 program had been agreed upon, significant price increases had occurred in equipment and fuel and the level of combat anticipated for a cease-fire period did not pertain. Increasing enemy capabilities created a high-threat environment; an inflation rate of 65 percent in South Vietnam drove subsistence costs correspondingly up; the imposition of a ceiling after 75 percent of the funds had been obligated left no flexibility for adjustment of priorities; the inability to identify the status of prior year funds to be applied to the $1,054 million ceiling created the possibility of overcommitment and compelled the suspension of all Army requisitions for the past two months; the apparent inclusion of other unanticipated costs within the ceiling, such as packing, crating, handling, and shipping further reduced the amounts available for RVNAF support; and bookkeeping adjustments had placed considerable FY 73 costs onto FY 74 funds. (Msg, Murray to Lt. Gen. William G. Moore, CofS, CINCPAC, 0910332 Feb 74, Log 130-74.)
Vice Adm. Raymond Peet, Director of Military Assistance in the Department of Defense, appreciated General Murray's lucid assessment and assured him that it would help support the Secretary of Defense's request to raise the congressional ceiling to $1.6 billion. (Msg, Peet to Murray, 222212Z, Feb 74, Log 168-74.)
Formal hearings on appropriations for South Vietnam began in the Senate Armed Services Committee on 12 March 1974. Meanwhile, the severe controls Generals Vien and Khuyen had placed on ammunition expenditures were having some saving results. By mid-April, however, the on-hand stockage of the most critical item of ammunition - 105-mm. howitzer, high explosive - was still dangerously low; only about 52 days of supply remained and less than that if high consumption rates required to repel a major offensive were applied.
Aside from the opposition of many influential members of the House and Senate to any sizable assistance for Vietnam, the Department of Defense and the services were further handicapped in their efforts to convince the responsible committees that additional monies should be made available for Vietnam because seemingly no one in any Defense agency knew how much prior year money had been obligated or what supplies and equipment had already been provided. In any case, the Senate Armed Services Committee refused to raise the $1,126 million ceiling on 3 April, responding in large measure to Senator Edward M. Kennedy's leadership. The next day, the House rejected the administration's request to raise the ceiling to $1.6 billion, as well as a compromise increase to $1.4 billion. The issue was dead, but the Defense Department kept trying. It informed the House and Senate Armed Services Committees that it had discovered $266 million of unobligated prior year funds and asked to have this amount excluded from the ceiling. The committees agreed that this would be proper, but on 6 May, the Senate passed a resolution, sponsored by Senator Kennedy, to the effect that any expenditures over $1,126 million in FY 74 would be illegal.
The dispute between the administration and Congress over the FY 74 Vietnam program, clearly won by the latter, was only the preliminary to the main event: the fight for the FY 75 authorization and appropriation.
By imposing rigid controls, the RVNAF managed to survive through the summer. Many of its vehicles were on blocks, its aircraft grounded because of parts and fuel shortages, its radios silent for lack of batteries, and its far-flung outposts suffering from inadequate artillery support. The stream of supplies had dwindled to a trickle, and weeks would pass after the start of the new fiscal year before the pipeline would again be flowing.
Meanwhile, General Murray arrived in Washington at the end of April 1974 to consult with the Defense Department and services on military assistance programs. He followed this visit with a brief, much needed vacation and returned to Vietnam toward the end of May. On 23 May, Admiral Bigley cabled General Murray that the House had passed the Defense Authorization Bill for FY 74 with the familiar ceiling of $1,126 million for MASF, while the Senate Committee was recommending $900 million. The best compromise in committee conference that Defense could expect was a $1 billion ceiling, but the likelihood that this would be trimmed on the Senate floor was great. The Admiral asked General Murray to furnish some impact statements describing the results in Vietnam if the authorized program for FY 75 were $1,126 million, or reduced respectively to $900 million, $750 million, or $600 million. (Msg, Bigley to Murray, 23211 87Z May 74, Log 353-74.)
General Murray saw Admiral Bigley's message upon his return from Washington. His staff began working on the reply immediately, and a 30-page message, carefully drafted by General Murray and bearing the unmistakable marks of his incisive rhetoric, was dispatched on 1 June. (Msg, Murray to Bigley, 0111157, June 74, Log #377-74.)
It would seem from half way around the world that enormously effective use could be made of Secretary Schlesinger's comments to the press on 21 May. The most telling argument is the point he made so eloquently that it was we who told the South Vietnamese that we would give them the tools and they would have to finish the job. It was we who undertook a commitment to replace their combat losses on a one-for-one basis. It should be emphasized that all of us hoped in January 1973, at the time of the cease-fire, the other side would really observe it. It should be kept in mind that the GVN losses not only in manpower, about which we can do nothing, but in materiel have not been replaced as we promised. The importance of the above needs to be reemphasized after reading Senator Kennedy's comments during the debate on his amendment to eliminate the $266 million repayment authority. The Senator was extremely careful to try to point out that his proposed amendment would not really cripple the South Vietnamese military effort and implicitly recognized the obligations which the Secretary had pointed out, as recorded above. Therefore, it would seem useful to take the Secretary's comments as the point of departure and to drive home that any further reductions will seriously cripple the South Vietnamese capability to defend themselves and will be a violation of the clear understandings they had from us at the time of the ceasefire.
General Murray then reviewed the current situation and the impact FY 74 funding constraints had on the RVNAF. "Cuts and economies have mortgaged the future," he told Washington. The entire program was in trouble. Because stock replenishment had been at a virtual standstill for over four months, the stockage of many common supplies was below safety levels. Included in this category were clothing, spare parts, tires, batteries, and M-16 rifle barrels. Despite intensive management of shortages to afford minimum combat support to engaged units, the deadline rate on vehicles, weapons, and communications equipment was bound to increase during the next quarter. In other words, even if the authority to requisition the supplies needed were provided at that moment, the lag in order-to-ship time would prevent immediate recuperation.
When it had first become apparent that the assistance program was in trouble, economies had been made in the usage of motor vehicle and marine fuels. The RVNAF staff had estimated that they could afford to operate about 70 percent of the vehicle and naval fleets. But even this drastic measure was not enough. The reduction in the fuel program permitted support of only 55 percent of South Vietnam's equipment operating at severely curtailed levels.
The quality and responsiveness of the medical service had also suffered. Stocks of supplies, many of which were in the lifesaving category, were seriously depleted, such as blood collection bags, intravenous fluids, antibiotics, and surgical dressings. Meanwhile, hospital admissions of wounded increased from 8,750 per month during the first three months of 1974 to over 10,000 per month by summer and would continue to rise as enemy operations intensified. The onset of the wet monsoon would bring with it the scourge of falciparum malaria in the northern provinces, and the supply of insect repellent for the troops was exhausted. In fact, the total supply picture was bleak. Roughly half the items on stockage lists were not there, and shipments into the depots had fallen off dramatically: from about 24,000 metric tons received in March to less than 8,000 in May.
Other effects of the cut-back in funds were readily apparent. The moratorium imposed on requisitions prevented the timely ordering of essential parts for the engine-rebuild program, and the lack of certain long-lead-time parts would soon stop production lines of truck and jeep engines, as well as power generators. The dependent shelter program was cancelled in its entirety. The ARVN engineers had to adopt less expensive and less durable methods in the program to improve lines of communication, a temporary saving to be offset by increased maintenance costs.
Because of the severe controls placed on ammunition usage, and because ammunition was given top priority for available funds, the stockage of ammunition had remained relatively constant during the last half of the fiscal year. Nevertheless, an NVA attempt to seize and hold the Iron Triangle had imposed new demands on the system. These demands were likely to increase. Roughly 177,000 short tons of ammunition had been on hand in South Vietnam at cease-fire. Including ammunition in transit through April 1974, DAO calculated that only 121,000 short tons would be available by the end of that month. With only $301 million allocated for ammunition purchase in FY 74, it would be impossible to regain the cease-fire ammunition posture. That amount of ammunition, $301 million worth, could be used in less than three months of intensive combat and would disappear in nine months even at the austere rates imposed by JGS.
The adequacy of ammunition stockage had no been foreseen as a problem when the Military Command, Vietnam, was preparing to turn over the management of U.S. military assistance to DAO, Saigon. The MACV planners expected that the cease-fire would take hold enough to permit cutting ARVN ammunition usage by up to 70 percent in some categories. Further, it was anticipated that by reducing the allowable expenditure rates, the level of combat would drop accordingly, providing more encouragement for a true cease-fire environment to develop. While the U.S. could and did impose ammunition restrictions on the RVNAF through the budgetary process and by establishing "defense expenditure allocations," which amounted to dictating the number of rounds that could be expended per weapon per day, unfortunately no such restriction applied to the NVA. Consequently, as the tempo of combat increased, the ARVN was compelled to exceed the expenditure limits, and the funds allocated to replace the stocks were not sufficient. Furthermore, although the RVNAF exceeded the rates on which the $301 million allocation was based, the ammunition expenditures were far below those of prior years, even though the level of combat in many individual engagements was equivalent to the most intense periods of the 1968 and 1972 offensives.
While ammunition constituted a management problem for the DAO and JGS, the impact of the restrictions in the field was immediate and often decisive. Experienced infantrymen, accustomed to carrying six grenades into battle but now limited to two, responded with less confidence and aggressiveness to orders to advance and were less tenacious in holding threatened positions. Defenders in beleaguered outposts, restricted to two or three mortar or artillery rounds, were not inclined to wait and watch enemy sappers break through the wire and drag their recoilless rifles into firing position after ARVN artillery had fired its meager allocation. Artillery was limited to clearly identified targets, and harassing fires were stopped altogether. While experienced infantrymen and artillerymen could argue the worth or extravagance of such fires placed on trails and suspected assembly areas, they made enemy operations more difficult and hence had some value, however difficult to quantify. Although tactical and long-line communications were in poor condition, the need to economize still pertained. The RVNAF took measures to reduce the consumption of radio batteries by 25 percent. By combining nets, such as air/ground with command, they reduced the number of radios in operation and even then could plan on operating fewer than 20 days per month. As tactical efficiency suffered, casualties mounted. After noting that 41 percent of the authorized stockage list for tactical communications equipment had been depleted, General Murray reported (Ibid.):
Equipment in the combat divisions is suffering between 30 to percent deadline rate. The divisions are losing communication flexibility and in MR 2 can no longer provide telephone and teletype communications to attached forces such as ranger units that do not possess VHF TO/E assets. The AN/PRC-25 radio operational readiness had decayed to 67 percent. 848 module and other repair parts ASL lines are at zero balance and are stopping the repair production lines for this radio. AN/FGC-25 teletype equipment in the area communications system is suffering from lack of repair parts. ARVN has adjusted to priorities and are reducing tactical divisions to 40 percent of authorized TO/E teletype assets. Equipment will be withdrawn from the divisions and used in the area communications system where the high volume of record traffic is processed and transmitted. Continued depletion of communications parts stocks is creating a catastrophic threat to an already seriously degraded tactical communications posture.
Long-line communications, which the U.S. mission also relied on for its own needs, were in similar difficulty. Even though emergency action had been taken to reprogram FY 74 funds for the long-line system, all communications were expected to decay, and if sufficient funds were not provided in FY 75, a collapse could be predicted.
The funding pinch was felt in the VNAF program as well. Requisitioning of essential "move-shoot-communicate" items for aircraft and supporting equipment had been severely curtailed since January 1974. The result was that one-fifth of the force was grounded for maintenance, a condition bound to worsen before FY 75 funds would have any effect.
The situation with ground combat equipment was similar. For example, in early March, the deadline rate for medium tanks was 25 percent, by mid-May, the lack of repair parts had forced the rate to 35 percent. The availability of armored personnel carriers, the main fighting vehicle of the armored cavalry, was sinking to only one-half of organizational strength. In December 1973, RVNAF's mobility, exemplified by the air movement of the ARVN 23d Division from Kontum and the rapid shift of the 22d Division to cover the gaps, had been crucial in rescuing Quang Duc Province. This mobility had all but vanished with the decline in funding for maintenance requirements and the skyrocketing costs of all supplies, particularly fuel.
Military Assistance, Fiscal Year 1975
Such was the situation facing the RVNAF as Congress began to deliberate the FY 75 military assistance program. A proposal of $1.45 billion had been developed in Saigon in September 1973 based on requirements and prices known at that time. After hearings on the FY 75 Military Procurement Bill, the House Armed Services Committee recommended $1.4 billion for the FY 75 Vietnam MASF Program, but the House on 22 May passed its version of the bill with a $1.126 billion limit.
Although in the ten intervening months much had happened to change priorities, the changes could be managed under a $1.45 billion program, and the critical elements could be done within a $1.126 billion ceiling. General Murray was especially concerned about the need to expand depot repair facilities. Below $1.126 billion, this requirement was out of reach. But the greatest problems were caused by inflation. Ground ammunition was programmed at $400 million; when April 1974 prices were posted, the cost was $500 million. The prices of other common, high-volume supplies had undergone comparable increases. What had appeared to be a generous program during the 1973 planning days had become an austere one.
Another matter of concern was that South Vietnamese Air Force and Navy equipment losses had not been replaced in FY 74 and the U.S. commitment to replace losses on a one-for-one basis had not been fulfilled. Although surpluses existed in some categories at cease-fire and all lost equipment need not have been replaced, the almost complete lack of replacements hindered tactical operations, particularly those of the VNAF. Specifically, as General Murray pointed out, VNAF pilots were taking such extreme measures to reduce losses that their bombing and strafing techniques were ineffective. VNAF had lost 281 aircraft since the cease-fire (including 66 transferred to the USAF) and had received only eight O-1's as replacements. The Navy had lost 58 ships and boats, and none had been replaced. In essence, if the FY 75 program were held to $1,126 million, the minimum operational requirements of the RVNAF could be supported, but one-for-one replacement of losses could not be accomplished, and very little investment inlong-term projects was possible. The current restrictions on mobility - only 49 percent of the vehicles would be operated, for example - and the severe controls on ammunition usage would be continued. General Murray concluded his discussion on RVNAF capabilities under the constraints of a $1.126 billion FY 75 program with an unequivocal, prophetic statement: RVNAF would be capable of defending the country against the FY 74 level of enemy activities and of countering country-wide high-points of enemy activity, but not capable of defending against a sustained major offensive. (Ibid., msg. of 1 Jun 74.)
Reductions below the $1,126 million ceiling could only have a disastrous effect on RVNAF capabilities and morale, and correspondingly enhance the enemy's potential. If the ceiling were reduced to $750 million, no investment program, that is, equipment buys, could be supported at all. Critical operational requirements - fuel, ammunition, spare parts, medical and communications supplies - would not be met. The construction program would be eliminated. VNAF flying hours would be further reduced. Training would be slashed severely, as would the maintenance programs of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The impact on RVNAF capabilities would be that the RVNAF could no longer defend the country against a level of enemy activity approximating that of the past 12 months. A program of $750 million "would cause the GVN to abandon large segments of the country and weaken possibilities and probabilities of a negotiated settlement."
In his concluding paragraph, General Murray summarized the impacts of successively austere support (Ibid.):
In the final analysis, you can roughly equate cuts in support to loss of real estate. As the cutting edge of the RVNAF is blunted and the enemy continues to improve its combat position and logistical base, what will occur is a retreat to the Saigon-Delta area as a redoubt. In a nutshell, we see the decrements as follows: (a.) $1.126 billion level - gradual degradation of equipment base with greatest impact in out-years. Little reserve or flexibility to meet a major enemy offensive in FY 75. (b.) $900 million level-degradation of equipment base that will have significant impact by third or fourth quarter of FY 75. No reserve or flexibility to meet major offensive in FY 75. (c.) $750 million level - equipment losses not supportable. Operations ("O") funds would not support hard-core self-defense requirements. Any chance of having Hanoi see the light and come to conference table would be sharply diminished. If enemy continues current level of military activity, RNVAF could only defend selected areas of country. (d.) $600 million level - write off RVN as bad investment and broken promise. GVN would do well to hang on to Saigon and Delta area. The Vietnamese are a determined people, capable of defending themselves and progressing economically, provided they are given the tools we promised them when we decided to end our own military participation. $1.450 billion will provide the essential elements of a viable defense.
On 11 June, the Senate passed the FY 75 Military Procurement Bill with a $900 million limit on Vietnam MASF. In Senate-House conference the limit was raised to $1 billion, and a bill including that amount was signed by the President on 5 August. But it soon became apparent that the appropriation for Vietnam would be much less. On 23 and 24 September, the House and Senate appropriated only $700 million for Vietnam in the Defense Appropriation Bill for FY 75. The $1 billion ceiling became irrelevant. The $700 million appropriation, furthermore, covered all shipping expenses, certain undelivered FY 73-74 items and commitments, as well as the operational costs of the DAO itself, leaving less than $500 million to be applied to the operational requirements of the RVNAF.
His term of assignment completed, and facing retirement, General Murray left Saigon in August and devoted his final active duty days to squeezing as much out of the $700 million and prior year funds as possible. Meeting with Defense officials and service chiefs, he managed some small successes. But none could reverse the trend of diminishing U.S. support.
Meanwhile, Deputy Commander of USSAG, Maj. Gen. Ira Hunt came over to Saigon from his headquarters in Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, to fill in as Defense Attache until the newly appointed Maj. Gen. Homer Smith could arrive. General Hunt continued the conferences and working sessions between DAO and RVNAF staffs to revise the MASF program within the $700 million appropriation, which at that time was all but certain. The ARVN would get about $410 million, half of what it needed. Army ammunition requirements alone, originally estimated at $400 million, would be $500 at 1974 prices. The VNAF would receive about $160 million, less than 30 percent of its requirement, while the Navy would have to make do with about $9 million.
Draconian measures were applied. Only 55 percent of available transportation could be fueled, and tactical movement required the approval of the corps commander. Bandages and surgical dressings were washed and reused, as were other disposable surgical supplies such as hypodermic syringes and needles, intravenous sets, and rubber gloves. Replacement criteria for combat boots were changed from six to nine months, and the issue of boot socks dropped from three to two pairs per year. Ammunition issues were even more rigidly controlled than before. In the Air Force, squadrons were reduced from 66 to 56; no replacements were ordered for 162 destroyed aircraft; flying hours, contractor support, and supply levels were further reduced; and 224 aircraft were placed in storage, among them all 61 remaining A-1 bombers, all 52 C-7 cargo airplanes, 34 C-47 and C-119 gunships, all 31 O-2 observation airplanes, and 31 UH-1 helicopters. Among other operational reductions, the Navy inactivated 21 of its 44 riverine units. This was hardly the posture for an armed force on the eve of its final battle for survival.
Note on Sources
General Murray's message file was a prime source of information. Ambassador Graham Martin contributed his own message on the subject, and General Murray provided the author a comprehensive review of the entire chapter, adding significant new information and insight.
The author participated in frequent discussions on the subject while in DAO Saigon and referred to his own notes and recollections. The DAO Security and Assistance Division's fact sheets and reports were also essential sources of precise fiscal data.
Newspaper accounts were used to report congressional activity and DAO Saigon Quarterly Assessments were used for information concerning the status of RVNAF during this period.
Chapter 9 1974, Year of decision
Critical decisions leading to an end to the third Indochina war were made in Washington and Hanoi in 1974. In Washington, Congress reduced military assistance to South Vietnam to below operating levels, a decision that seriously undermined South Vietnamese combat power and will to continue the struggle. While in Hanoi, taking fresh heart from the political fall of Richard Nixon and waning Congressional support of the war, Communist leaders decided that 1975 would be the year of final victory.
Estimates and Plans
In early October 1973, the DAO, Saigon, suggested that North Vietnam had three courses of action from which it would select the one most likely to provide the earliest achievement of its national goal, the conquest of South Vietnam. The first was political: creating a recognized government within South Vietnam capable of competing in the economic and political struggle. The second a limited military offensive designed to create a military, economic, and political situation beyond the capability of South Vietnam to handle. The third a major military offensive to cause the immediate collapse of South Vietnam's government and armed forces.
The DAO postulated that North Vietnam would base its decision for 1974 primarily on expectations of Soviet and Chinese military and economic support and on an assessment of the probable U.S. reaction to an escalation of the war. Enough was known about external Communist assistance and the size of NVA stockpiles, however, to conclude that logistics would not inhibit a major NVA offensive. On the other hand, little could be said about the reactions of the Soviets or Chinese to a major NVA offensive, nor could anyone estimate with confidence the influence they could or would exert on the North Vietnamese. But the DAO did know that North Vietnam's leadership was cognizant of the decline of U.S. support for South Vietnam and would not be inclined toward caution.
The political option would be indecisive because the VC infrastructure was too weak, South Vietnam too strong, and a reversal would take a long time. The great effort under way by the NVA to improve its offensive capability in the South indicated overwhelmingly the inclination toward a military course of action. The DAO concluded that North Vietnam was not yet ready for a major, decisive offensive - despite heavy infiltration of replacements, some NVA units in the South were still too far understrength - but that as the failures of the political struggle became more evident, the NVA would embark on a phased offensive, to create gradually conditions beyond the capacity of South Vietnam to cope with. While pursuing this military course of action North Vietnam would continue political and economic actions to support it and proceed with the development of the military strength required for a decisive offensive.
In the early spring of 1974, Hanoi's military leaders met to study the resolutions of the Lao Dong Party Central Committee's 21st Plenum. The DAO had scant knowledge of this event at the time, but the strategic concepts that emanated from this council paralleled remarkably the Saigon assessment. In a post account, Senior General Van Tien Dung, the architect of the final offensive, described the situation as viewed from Hanoi (quotes from Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report: Asia and Pacific, vol. IV, no. 110, Supplement 38, 7 Jun 1976):
. . . the party Central Committee's 21st Plenum held in October 1973 set forth the method of combining the political military and diplomatic struggles and pointed out: The path of the revolution in the south is the path of revolutionary violence. No matter what the situation, we must firmly grasp the opportunity and the strategic offensive line and effect leadership to advance the southern revolution. True revolutionary strength is both an urgent and a basic requirement in the new situation. In March 1974 the Central Military Party Committee went into session to thoroughly study and implement the party Central Committee resolution. The committee asserted: The Vietnamese revolution may develop through various transitional stages, and it can only achieve success by way of violence with the support of political and military forces; if the war resumes on a large scale, a revolutionary war will be waged to win total victory. The southern revolution must firmly grasp the concept of strategic offensive. We must resolutely counterattack and attack the enemy, and we must firmly maintain and develop our active position in all respects.
The conference of the Central Military Party Committee completed its work and presented its plan to the Central Party Committee, which approved it. Orders went out to the military regions, directing training and maintenance preparations in the North and prescribing offensive operations for the expeditionary army in the South. How these operations were conducted, why some succeeded and others failed, is the subject of this and the following chapters. Major events occurred in each military region, and only in the delta of South Vietnam's Military Region 4 and the border areas of Svay Rieng Province, Cambodia, was the RVNAF the clear victor. In Military Region 3, although the ARVN eventually ejected the NVA from the Iron Triangle, this costly success was vastly overshadowed by the critical loss of Phuoc Long Province to the NVA. In the highlands of Military Regions 1 and 2, all remaining outposts fell to NVA attack and the protective screen around Hue and Da Nang continued to decay.
The Tri Phap Campaign
Cambodia's Svay Rieng Province is a 60-mile long salient, only 16 miles wide at its neck, thrust into the rich delta of Vietnam, ending in what was called the Parrot's Beak 30 miles west of Saigon. Although the Cambodian government maintained a garrison at the province capital, it did so only at the sufferance of the NVA, which controlled the rest of the province and did not consider the hostile Cambodians a threat of any significance. The only threat to the NVA in Sway Rieng came from the RVNAF operating out of the provinces which enclosed the salient on three sides: Tay Ninh, Hau Nghia and Kien Tuong. As far as the South Vietnamese were concerned, Sway Rieng and the sizable enemy forces and bases it contained constituted a serious threat to the security of the three bordering provinces and was the source of infiltration and support of enemy forces throughout the northern delta. Consequently, the RVNAF maintained outposts and operational bases as close as possible to the international frontier to slow the movement of enemy forces and supplies into South Vietnam.
North of Tay Ninh City the RVNAF was at a disadvantage. The forests of northern Tay Ninh Province belonged to the NVA, and the principal port of entry, Lo Go, could be reached only by air strikes. But from Tay Ninh City south to Hau Nghia Province, the RVNAF maintained bases west of the Vam Co Dong River that impeded the free flow of enemy traffic out of Sway Rieng as well as contraband traffic into it. From these bases the South Vietnamese periodically probed into the border region but rarely intruded into Cambodia. During much of the year, the flat, marshy land was under water, but even when the weather was suitable for large expeditions into Cambodia, the RVNAF were restrained for political reasons and by the realization that the forces required to achieve significant gains were rarely available. The RVNAF strategy for the Hau Nghia flank was therefore one of active defense west of the Vam Co Dong.
The situation was quite different on the Kien Tuong side of the salient. Maintaining large forces in central Kien Tuong, principally the Z-18 and Z-15 regiments, the NVA operated major infiltration corridors through the province, anchoring this logistical system on a vast base area around a location called Tri Phap. The South Vietnamese held the province capital of Moc Hoa and a base at Long Khot, both of which were well within 105-mm. howitzer range of NVA artillery in Sway Rieng, but there were great reaches of uncontrolled, unoccupied territory between the Cambodian border and the first major population concentration along National Highway 4 (QL-4) through My Tho. Another important element of the threat was contributed by the NVA 5th Division, which had operated out of Sway Rieng Province in both directions, through Tay Ninh to An Loc and south toward My Tho. In early 1974, the 5th was north of Tay Ninh City, but available for operations into Kien Tuong and Hau Nghia.
Although South Vietnamese forces were not strong enough to contain the NVA in Sway Rieng, they could in Military Region 4 impose limits on the enemy's freedom of movement, make resupply of troops costly and difficult, and inflict high casualties. To do this much, the RVNAF had to hold Long Khot and Moc Hoa, seize the enemy's logistical and operational base around Tri Phap, and protect National Route 4 between Cay Lay and My Tho.
In January 1974, intelligence information became available to Maj. Gen. Nguyen Vinh Nghi, commanding IV Corps and MR 4, indicating that elements of the NVA 5th Division were being ordered to Dinh Tuong Province from Tay Ninh. Later in the month, advance elements of the division were detected in the division's Sway Rieng base.
Two NVA soldiers captured on 27 January told their interrogators that a battalion of the division's 6th Regiment had been sent south to reinforce the understrength NVA Z-18 Regiment in the Tri Phap area. Their testimony, along with that of four recent ralliers and captured documents, also indicated that the Dong Thap 1 Regiment, which traditionally operated in Dinh Tuong, was still badly understrength, though it had recently received 300 NVA replacements following its December 1973 battles, and would also probably receive more replacements from the 6th Regiment, 5th NVA Division. The interrogators also learned that the Z-15 Regiment had just received about 200 replacements from the North but that it was short weapons and ammunition.
Meanwhile, RVNAF outposts, patrols, and air observers detected enemy transportation elements moving past Tuyen Binh on infiltration Route 1A. Some of these were intercepted, and the ARVN captured large quantities of rice and ammunition, as well as an NVA transportation company commander.
Time became important. If the 5th were allowed to occupy the Tri Phap, it would be extremely difficult to dig out, and the threat to Route 4 would become intolerable. The previous year's experience had shown General Nghi that his troops were capable of driving into and probably clearing the Tri Phap of the NVA elements, particularly if he moved fast while the NVA regiments were still reforming and receiving replacements. If he could establish a base of operations at Tri Phap, he could deny a vital logistical complex to the 5th NVA Division, one that it would require for operations in Dinh Tuong.
On 12 February, the 12th Infantry Regiment of the 7th ARVN Division, reinforced with two battalions of the 10th Infantry and two troops of armored cavalry in personnel carriers, attacked through Tri Phap from the east and advanced to the Kien Phong-Dien Tuong Province boundary. Three days later, the 14th Infantry Regiment, 9th ARVN Division, reinforced with one battalion of the 16th Infantry and two troops of armored cavalry, attacked east from My An District town and linked up with the 12th Infantry on the western edge of the Tri Phap. This two-pronged attack was followed on the 19th by an attack by the 10th Infantry Regiment, minus the two battalions attached to the 12th, from Hau My village in northern Cai Be District, north to clear the southern edge of the Tri Phap. Completely enveloped, the enemy in the Tri Phap suffered heavy losses in men, supplies, ammunition, and food. Elements of the Z-15 and Z-18 were identified in the battle, but most NVA casualties were among rear service troops. Another element of the 5th NVA Division, the 6th Battalion, 174th Infantry, was also identified in the heavy fighting around My An on the western edge of the Tri Phap, indicating that earlier intelligence concerning probable deployment of elements of the 5th from Tay Ninh was valid. Enemy casualties were heavy that first week of the Tri Phap campaign; over 500 were killed, and the ARVN captured tons of ammunition and nearly 200 weapons. ARVN casualties were light in comparison.
Fighting flared through most of Kien Tuong and Dinh Tuong Provinces for the rest of February and until the last week of March. The center of action remained in the Tri Phap where the NVA again reinforced, this time with the Dong Thap I Regiment which was sent north to join the Z-18. The ARVN kept up the pressure, and in successive weeks killed another 250 enemy, capturing as many weapons. Meanwhile, COSVN directed NVA Military Region 3 (the southern delta command) to launch widespread attacks to take the pressure off Kien Tuong and Dinh Tuong. Replacements, up to 3,000 according to two ARVN soldiers who escaped from captivity in Cambodia, were being readied for assignment to units in Sway Rieng Province.
Unable to counter RVNAF advances on the battlefields, the NVA resorted to an increased terror campaign throughout the delta. On 9 March they fired one 82-mm. mortar shell into the primary school yard at Cai Lay while the children were lined up waiting to enter their classes. Twenty-three children died instantly; 46 others were badly wounded. Far to the south, in Bac Lieu, terrorists tossed a grenade into a religious service killing 9 and wounding 16.
ARVN operations on the My An front, that is, on the western edge of the Tri Phap area, were being supported out of Cao Lanh, with supplies coming up from Giao Duc on interprovincial Route 30. The forces on the eastern edge of the Tri Phap and those fighting north around Moc Hoa were being supported along Interprovincial Route 29 (LTL-29) out of Cai Lay. The ARVN successfully countered NVA attempts to cut these two routes.
The first phase of the Tri Phap campaign slowly wound down during the last part of March. The Dong Thap I Regiment picked up 150 replacements, freshly arrived from North Vietnam, and NVA Military Region 2, whose regiments were being so badly abused in the Tri Phap fighting, received 200 replacements who had been previously destined for Military Region 3. Reinforcing success in the last week of March, General Nghi sent the 7th Ranger Group against the NVA Dong Thap I Regiment in the Tri Phap, where the Rangers killed over 30 and captured more weapons.
By the end of March, more than 1100 enemy had been killed in the Tri Phap campaign, while the ARVN had about 700 wounded but fewer than 100 killed. Nearly 5,000 tons of rice and paddy were captured, along with over 600 weapons, 8 tons of ammunition, and a large haul of weapon accessories, radios, and other military equipment. Three NVA regiments, the Z-15, Z-18 and Dong Thap 1, had been severely mauled, and the Tri Phap base area was denied to the 5th NVA Division.
Work began immediately on the construction of fortified positions in the Tri Phap, enough to provide for posting an ARVN regiment there. The NVA Z-15 Regiment, meanwhile, was recuperating in southwestern Dinh Tuong Province, attacking ARVN outposts and preparing to return to the Tri Phap. On 26 April two NVA battalions attacked the RF battalion base at the village of Tri Phap. In a complementary attack farther south on the Kien Phong-Dinh Tuong Province boundary, the Dong Thap I Regiment struck an RF outpost. Although temporarily successful, the enemy soon faced ARVN's 14th Regiment and a troop of the 2d Armored Cavalry and was routed with heavy casualties. Meanwhile, the 11th Infantry counterattacked in the Tri Phap and restored the lost position. The ARVN, by the first week in May, was therefore in firm control in the Tri Phap, with four RF battalions holding strong positions there. NVA forces in the area were weakened and demoralized, but elsewhere in the delta they kept up their campaign of terror as the slow deterioration of local security continued. Although abductions and assassinations were predominant, the enemy attacked another school. On 4 May, eight rounds of 82-mm. mortar fell on the school at Song Phu, in Vinh Long Province. Six children were killed and 28 wounded.
Elephant's Foot and Angel's Wing
A glance at the map of the Sway Rieng salient shows two minor prominences whose names described their shapes. On the southwest side was the so-called Elephant's Foot, appearing on the verge of crushing Moc Hoa, the capital of Kien Tuong Province. Against the underside of the elephant's leg was the Vietnamese village of Long Khot, less than 1,000 meters from the Sway Rieng border. As the RVNAF vigorously pursued the Tri Phap campaign, the NVA increased pressure against RVNAF defenses around the Elephant's Foot.
Opposite the Elephant's Foot, bordering the Vietnamese provinces of Tay Ninh and Hau Nghia, what was known as the Angel's Wing spread toward Go Dau Ha, the port on the Song Vam Co Dong through which passed the main highway between Tay Ninh and Saigon. The southern tip of the Angel's Wing dipped toward an ARVN fire-base at Duc Hue, and the Sway Rieng border only five kilometers away nearly enveloped this exposed position. The Angel's Wing and Duc Hue became the focus of heavy action in the spring and early summer of 1974 as the RVNAF sought to reduce the threat to the Saigon-Tay Ninh line of communication and inflict damage on the NVA 5th Division as it concentrated in southern Sway Rieng.
The NVA 5th Infantry Division was perhaps the most versatile of all Communist divisions; at least it was called upon to perform missions of extreme diversity. In the Nguyen Hue offensive of 1972, it participated in the Binh Long campaign, and after suffering heavy casualties in the jungles and plantations around An Loc, invaded the paddies and swamps of the Mekong Delta. Forced to withdraw, it sent elements to relieve the battered NVA forces in the forests of Quang Duc. In early 1974, it pulled these units back to bases in Tay Ninh and dispatched some battalions again to the delta to try to save disintegrating defenses in the Tri Phap. This mission failed in the face of powerful ARVN attacks, and COSVN ordered the division to assemble forces in southern Sway Rieng. From here, generally centered on Chi Phu, it could direct forces against southern Tay Ninh, Hau Nghia, and Kien Tuong. In early February an advance element of division headquarters began moving toward the Angel's Wing from Tay Ninh, and by mid-March it was established there east of Chi Phu.
Although units of the 6th and 174th Regiments of the 5th Division had fought in the Tri Phap battle, other battalions of these two regiments were in the Angel's Wing along with divisional artillery. South of Duc Hue, the K-7 Sapper Battalion of Long An was ready to strike. On 27 March at 0300 the attack began on the RVNAF base at Duc Hue. Defending against two battalions of the NVA 6th Regiment was the ARVN 83d Ranger Battalion. Across the border in Cambodia NVA 105-mm. artillery fired at the defenders while recoilless rifles and heavy mortars (120-mm.) bombarded the garrison from closer ranges. Although 30 ARVN Rangers died, the NVA infantry assault failed to break the position; the two battalions of the 6th NVA Regiment were forced to wihdraw, leaving 95 dead on the battlefield, together with a large number of weapons.
Under orders to maintain a loose siege of the Duc Hue post, the NVA, assisted by the local sapper battalion, blocked the only land access to the camp and continued the artillery bombardment but abandoned the idea of taking it by storm. On the ARVN side, the 25th Division committed a task force consisting of a battalion of the 46th Infantry, a battalion of the 50th Infantry, and a tank company to break the siege. Fighting raged in the paddies east and north of the camp for several days, and the VNAF provided effective support to the counterattacking infantry, losing an A-1 fighter-bomber and an observation aircraft to SA-7 fire. Meanwhile, the ARVN task force command post was hit by NVA 107-mm. rocket fire and the commander was one of those killed.
As April wore on, the threat of renewed assaults on Duc Hue by the NVA 5th Division remained. The situation was particularly dangerous because the 7th and 9th NVA Divisions were probing aggressively in the eastern part of Military Region 3. Lt. Gen. Pham Quoc Thuan, III Corps Commander, determined that he must reduce the threat to his western flank and the Tay Ninh corridor while he had the opportunity to do so. And if anything was to be done, it would have to be done soon to beat the onset of the southwest monsoon. After the rains started, most of the land around Duc Hue and the Angel's Wing would be under water.
The plan was complicated but workable. General Thuan used 18 of his own maneuver battalions and flew to Can Tho where he coordinated with General Nghi for a supporting attack by 2 IV Corps battalions from the Moc Hoa sector.
The details and timing of the operation were carefully safeguarded, and few, if any, Americans in the U.S. Mission knew anything about it until 27 April when 45 sorties struck targets in Cambodia and known and suspected bases of the 5th NVA Division. These strikes began Phase I, which lasted through the 28th and included infantry sweeps by two RF battalions between the Song Vam Co Dong and the northern shoulder of the Angel's Wing. Meanwhile, the 49th Infantry Regiment, less one battalion, and the 7th Ranger Group, also short one battalion, left assembly areas near Hiep Hoa on the Song Vam Co Dong and advanced westward through the swamplands, past Duc Hue to the Cambodian frontier. To the south, three RF battalions provided security by conducting reconnaissance in northern Long An Province, generally between the Bo Bo Canal and the Song Vam Co Dong.
Another supporting maneuver, which quickly developed into a major operation, was the attack into Sway Rieng Province south of the Elephant's Foot by two battalions from MR 4. The northernmost of the two advanced from the border area north of Moc Hoa and established a blocking position near the local route 1012 that led eastward from an assembly area occupied by the 5th NVA Division. The other battalion crossed midway between the Elephant's Foot and the tip of the Parrot's Beak and established a lodgment on the southeastern edge of the enemy's logistical base and assembly area in Sway Rieng.
While Phase I of the ARVN sweep into Sway Rieng was getting started, the NVA on 28 April struck heavily at Long Khot, an ARVN post and district town at the inside curve of the Elephant's Foot. Whether the attack was preplanned or reactive was unknown. Regardless, enemy tanks were reported at first by the defenders. Later, aerial observers correctly determined that the vehicles were captured M-113 armored personnel carriers. The defenders held strongly against the NVA's 275th Regiment and 25th Sapper Battalion of the 5th NVA Division. More than 100 sorties were flown on the 28th against NVA positions, weapons, and vehicles in the Sway Rieng area, many of them in support of Long Khot. On this same day, the ARVN at Long Khot captured nine prisoners from the NVA 275th Regiment and four from its supporting artillery, which had been employing 122-mm. guns and U.S. 105-mm. howitzers, as well as AT-3 antitank missiles and SA-7 antiaircraft missiles. Many enemy weapons were salvaged, and 75 enemy soldiers were counted dead on the battlefield.
Not only were the Long Khot defenders tenacious and prepared for the onslaught, but the VNAF proved its worth in close support as over the two days, the 27th and 28th, it flew 188 tactical and logistical sorties in the Sway Rieng Campaign. In a departure from normal practice, the 3d Air Division supporting III Corps in the Sway Rieng campaign, located a forward command post at Cu Chi alongside the III Corps forward command post in order to improve coordination and responsiveness. Combat pilots returned to their bases with encouraging, morale-building reports about enemy troops throwing down their weapons and running when faced with low-level strafing.
By the night of 28 April, 11 ARVN battalions of infantry, RF, and Rangers were conducting screening, blocking, and reconnaissance-in-force operations as a prelude to Phase II of the Sway Rieng sweep. Meanwhile, the VNAF was assaulting enemy troop locations and bases, and Long Khot was fighting off a violent NVA armor, artillery, and sapper-infantry attack.
In Phase II, originally planned by General Thuan to encompass only three days of armored sweeps into the Cambodian bases of the NVA 5th Division, three columns drove west, generally parallel to each other, crossing the frontier west of Go Dau Ha and penetrating as deeply as 15 kilometers into Sway Rieng before wheeling south and southwest into Hau Nghia Province. Making the main effort and the deepest penetration was Task Force 315 with the 15th Armored Cavalry Squadron, the 64th Ranger Battalion, and a company of medium tanks as its striking force. Supported by a composite battery of 105-mm. and 155-mm. artillery this northernmost column crossed the border through the paddies south of Highway 1 and attacked west, turning south short of the swampy ground east of Chiphu, following local route 1012 toward the blocking position held by a IV Corps battalion near Ph Chek. It was screened on its right flank by a mobile RF battalion that advanced along Highway 1 about 12 kilometers inside the international frontier. Along the center axis, which started about 2,000 meters south of Task Force 315, was Task Force 318, built around the 18th Armored Cavalry Squadron, a Ranger battalion, a tank company, and a howitzer battery. This column drove west for about 10 kilometers before turning inside the sweep south by Task Force 315.
Task Force 310, the only one of the attacking columns without tanks, had a battalion each from the 18th and 25th Infantry Divisions and the 3d Troop, 10th Armored Cavalry. Along with a supporting howitzer battalion it crossed into Sway Rieng just north of the southern tip of the Angel's Wing, along Cambodian Route 1013, and wheeled south inside Task Force 318, generally along the international boundary.
In reserve at Go Dau Ha General Thuan had two companies of medium tanks of the 22d Tank Battalion, a cavalry troop from the 1st Armored Cavalry Squadron, a battalion of infantry from the 18th Division, and a battery of 105-mm. howitzers. Designated Task Force 322, this powerful force was ready to exploit opportunities uncovered by the attacking echelons.
The 3d Armored Brigade controlled operations from Go Dau Ha. Fifty-four UH-1 helicopters mustered for the campaign were effectively used in surprise air assaults into enemy defenses. Secrecy was more rigidly enforced in this campaign than perhaps any operation since the cease-fire, partly because it was important to surprise the 5th NVA Division in garrison, ard partly to conceal, for political reasons, an ARVN offensive into Cambodia.
By 29 April, Task Force 315 had penetrated about seven kilometers into Cambodia and, at the cost of only one wounded, had killed nearly 50 enemy and captured one prisoner. To the south, Task Force 318 had experienced similar success, killing nearly 60 and capturing 5 while suffering only 6 wounded. The following morning, the 315th continued the attack, killing 40 more and sustaining light casualties. Meanwhile, the VNAF was pounding the enemy with nearly 200 sorties, accounting for nearly 100 killed, destroying many storage and defensive positions, and knocking out mortar and antiaircraft positions.
As the threat to the 5th NVA Division base in southern Sway Rieng became critical, the NVA was compelled to reduce the pressure at Long Khot and concentrate on attempting to relieve the E-6 and 174th Regiments and logistical installations lying in the path of the ARVN armored thrusts. By the end of April, nearly 300 NVA soldiers had fallen in ground combat, over 100 more had been killed by VNAF air strikes, and 17 prisoners of war were in ARVN hands. On the other hand, the speed, audacity and superior air-ground coordination that characterized the RVNAF attack had kept friendly casualties extremely low: only 21 killed and 64 wounded. In fact, success was so striking that General Thuan elected to extend the operation a few days.
Westward, over in the Elephant's Foot, matters were becoming desperate for the 275th NVA Regiment and its supporting troops. The 7th ARVN Division had moved a forward command post into Moc Hoa and was controlling the operation of two task forces then committed in the Elephant's Foot. One was composed of the 15th Infantry, 9th ARVN Division, and part of the 16th Armored Cavalry Squadron; the other included the 10th Infantry and elements of the 6th Armored Cavalry Squadron. In 12 days of fighting in the border area, these two mobile task forces killed 850 NVA soldiers, captured 31, collected over 100 weapons, and suffered fewer than 300 casualties, including 39 killed.
Making the adjustments required by the situation, particularly the fact that the most lucrative enemy contacts were being made in the southern sweeps of the 318th and 310th Task Forces, General Thuan ordered Task Force 315 withdrawn from its northern axis on 2 May and returned to Go Dau Ha where it reverted to reserve. Meanwhile, Task Force 322 was committed and advanced about four kilometers into the center of the Angel's Wing, and the infantry battalions of the 25th ARVN Division continued their sweep between Duc Hue and Go Dau Ha. By 6 May the land route to Duc Hue Camp was secured and was being improved by ARVN combat engineers, the threat to the vital road junction at Go Dau Ha was substantially reduced, and the ARVN was in complete control of the battlefield. The tank-heavy 322d Task Force turned south and headed for Ba Thu, the long-held NVA base on the border southwest of Duc Hue. On 10 May, the offensive ended, the last ARVN forces began their march homeward. Their sortie had killed nearly 300 NVA soldiers, captured 17, collected 100 weapons, and seriously disrupted the communications and logistics of the 5th NVA Division.
But this was the last major South Vietnamese offensive. The severe constraints on ammunition expenditures, fuel usage, and flying hours permitted no new initiatives. Although the RVNAF could react strongly to local threats within supporting distances of major bases, outlying threats were beyond their capability to cope with. For South Vietnam, a decline had begun to develop early in 1974 and would prove irreversible.
Note on Sources
The DAO Monthly Intelligence Summary and Threat Analyses for the period October 1973 to February 1974 were used as the basis for the first part of this chapter, also Senior General Van Tien Dung's account of the final offensive.
Operational data on the Tri Phap and Cambodian battles came from DAO Saigon fact sheets, reports, and weekly intelligence summaries, as well as from J2/JGS weekly summaries. Gaps in the information were filled in by reference to the author's notes and to reports from offices of the U.S. Embassy, Saigon.
Chapter 10 Strategic Raids
We have seen how the vigorous RVNAF attack into the Tri Phap in February had thwarted the NVA attempt to sever Saigon from the delta at My Tho and had prevented the NVA 5th Division from establishing a base from which to extend its operations southward into Dinh Tuong, and westward toward Saigon through Long An. Denied this approach, the 5th NVA had concentrated between the Elephant's Foot and the Angel's Wing in Cambodia, threatening the district headquarters at Moc Hoa, but, more seriously, preparing to occupy the narrow strip of marshland between the Svay Rieng border and the Vam Co Dong River, the last real barrier between the Cambodian border and Saigon, only 30 miles away. NVA success would have strangled Tay Ninh Province, since the seizure of Go Dau Ha would end all land and water communications between Saigon and the province capital. The RVNAF had dealt with this threat by the daring armored thrust into Cambodia beginning in late April. Suffering severely, the NVA 5th Division was never again to seriously threaten the South Vietnamese in this sector.
But in spite of these encouraging operations, the North Vietnamese were pressing ahead with what they called their strategic raids campaign against the crucial defensive perimeter of bases north of Saigon. The first to fall was the relatively unimportant outpost of Chi Linh.
In defense of Saigon, the 5th ARVN Division had its main base at Lai Khe, about 25 miles due north of the capital. This base, in fact, was the last strongly held position with an uninterrupted connection to Saigon. A few miles north, the 5th Division maintained a series of strongpoints, generally in the vicinity of the deserted hamlet of Bau Bang. North of Bau Bang, National Route 13 passed through dense jungle and was blocked by NVA units, usually the 9th NVA Division, the 7th NVA Division, or independent regiments of COSVN. The ARVN maintained a major garrison and artillery firebase at
Chon Thanh, near the junction of National Route 13 (QL-13), which continued north to An Loc, and Local Route 13 (LTL-13), curving northeast to the ARVN base at Don Luan, about 25 miles away. About halfway to Don Luan, where Local Route 13 crossed the Song Be, the RVNAF had a small firebase called Chi Linh, manned by the 215th Regional Force Company with a platoon of two 105-mm. howitzers.
The 7th NVA Division attacked Chi Linh in the first week of April, quickly damaging the two howitzers and destroying the ammunition dump. On 5 April the 3d Battalion, 141st Regiment, with the division's 28th Sapper and 22d Artillery Battalion supporting, overran the base. By the 10th, about half of the defenders and 20 dependents had straggled into Don Luan or Chon Thanh. The rest, about 50 men, remained unaccounted for.
With the elimination of Chi Linh, the 7th NVA division enjoyed unimpeded movement along Local Route 13 between Chon Thanh and Don Luan, from north to south along the Song Be corridor, and had reduced the effectiveness of the defenses of Don Luan and Chon Thanh.
Tong Le Chon
Situated alongside the Saigon River on the Tay Ninh-Binh Long border, Tong Le Chon had been under siege since the cease-fire. By March 1974, the situation was becoming desperate for the defending 92d Ranger Battalion. Seriously wounded soldiers could be neither treated nor evacuated. Resupply was by parachute drop only. Morale in the camp was deteriorating under the strain of isolation and constant heavy bombardment. The cost of the continued defense of Tong Le Chon, as a symbol of gallantry, was exceeding its real worth. The human suffering was incalculable, but the expense in flying hours, ammunition, and other logistical support was great. As scarce resources became even more scarce, it was clearly time to reassess priorities and determine how best to end this intolerable situation.
As of 15 March, about 255 officers and men of the 92d were still alive in Tong Le Chon, and five of these were critically wounded. On 20 March Lt. Gen. Pham Quoc Thuan proposed to the Chief of the Joint General Staff, General Cao Van Vien, that one of three methods be selected to relieve the 92d Battalion. First, a division-sized operation could be launched from An Loc to secure a corridor through which the 92d could be withdrawn, replaced, or reinforced. Second, the commander of the NVA siege forces could be enjoined to permit the orderly and safe withdrawal of the 92d, surrendering the camp to the enemy. Third, the 92nd Battalion commander could be ordered to plan and execute a withdrawal - by exfiltrating in small groups - bringing out all his men, including the sick and wounded.
General Thuan realized at the outset that only the third plan was even remotely feasible, as General Vien and his staff no doubt understood. How could an ARVN division be expected to punch through from An Loc to Tong Le Chon when repeated efforts to attack even a few miles north of Lai Khe had failed? How could a division be assembled when the road to An Loc was held by the NVA, and even if this obstacle could be overcome, where would a division be found for the mission? The inescapable fact was that all ARVN divisions were heavily committed coping with other threats.
The second option was equally unrealistic, if for different reasons. There could be no "surrender." The political repercussions would be unmanageable for President Thieu, and the precedent could portend future such capitulations, some possibly with less than adequate justification.
Only the third option had any merit, but the decision could not be made at the JGS or at III Corps Headquarters. Matters of this import, even though essentially tactical, had to be settled at the presidential palace.
Meanwhile, as the problem was being studied, the situation at Tong Le Chon was becoming critical. The intensity of the enemy's artillery and mortar attacks increased greatly in the week of 17-24 March. In the Two-Party Joint Military Commission meetings in Saigon, South Vietnam's representative warned the Provisional Revolutionary Government that if the attacks on Tong Le Chon did not cease, the VNAF would launch devastating attacks against enemy bases in Tay Ninh and Binh Long. In fact, the VNAF did fly 30 or more sorties around Lo Go in Tay Ninh and around Tong Le Chon on the 23d. But the NVA bombardments continued. NVA artillery used against Tong Le Chon between 22 and 24 March included 122-mm. rockets, 122-mm. howitzers, 120-mm. mortars, and nearly 1,000 rounds from 82-mm. and 60-mm. mortars. Many of the bunkers and fighting positions were badly damaged. Enemy sappers attempted to break through the defensive wire on the night of 21 and 22 March but were driven off. On the 21st, the commander of the 92d Battalion, Lt. Col. Le Van Ngon (who had been promoted ahead of schedule in recognition of his courageous leadership at Tong Le Chon), sent a message to Colonel Nguyen Thanh Chuan, commander of the 3d Ranger Command at An Loc. Colonel Ngon said, in effect, get us some support or destroy this camp. He asked for more air strikes, although it was already apparent that the VNAF could not materially change the situation. He asked for a ground relief column, but he probably knew as well as did Colonel Chuan that this could not succeed. In emotional desperation, he asked for air strikes on his own camp as the only feasible alternative to surrender, which he said he and his men would never do.
Colonel Chuan relayed this urgent message to General Thuan. General Thuan replied that he had received no response from the JGS to his earlier proposals for evacuation or relief. By this time, the survivors at Tong Le Chon included 254 Rangers, 4 artillerymen, 7 stranded helicopter crewmen, and 12 field laborers. Of this force, 10 were seriously wounded and 40 slightly wounded. Sappers on the nights of the 24, 25, and 26 March penetrated three of seven rings of barbed wire before being forced to withdraw.
The unrelenting bombardment and repeated sapper attacks continued through the month and into April. Still no initiatives or decisions emanated from the presidential palace, III Corps, or 3d Ranger Command to ameliorate the suffering or offer hope to the defenders of Tong Le Chon. While nearly 1,000 rounds of mortar and artillery fire were falling on the base the night of 11 April, Headquarters, III Corps, received a final request from Colonel Ngon: give us authority to abandon the camp. Whether General Thuan conferred with General Vien or President Thieu is not known, but at 2330 that night he ordered Colonel Ngon to defend at all costs.
Shortly after midnight, the defenders of Tong Le Chon reported that sensitive papers were being burned. Later they requested that VNAF stop dropping flares over the camp because they were moving out. Radio contact with the Rangers was broken until 0900 on 12 April, when a radio operator outside the camp responded to a call. By that time the march to An Loc, some 10 miles northeast through the jungle and enemy lines, had started. The ranks of the wounded had swollen by 14 during the night's action, and 35 more were wounded during the withdrawal. All wounded were brought out; those who could not walk were carried. In the firefights during the withdrawal four more Rangers were killed, but even these bodies were carried on to An Loc.
It was a remarkable feat of courage and leadership to bring a group of 277 men, many of whom were wounded, out of an encircled position, and arrive inside friendly lines with 268. In fact, the outstanding success of the operation led many observers, Vietnamese and Americans alike, to suspect that the enemy had somehow collaborated in the withdrawal. Although possible, this is quite unlikely. Not only would the arrangement have had to be approved at a high echelon, but also the North Vietnamese would certainly have exploited the propaganda value of such an event. Furthermore, an eyewitness report on the NVA occupation of the camp strongly refuted such speculation.
According to a NVA participant, following an intensive artillery preparation, a ground attack of infantry and tanks had forced the Rangers to give up the position, but the defenses were so heavily mined that the NVA was unable to get through the barriers until the 13th. The Communists found that all equipment had been destroyed or removed and all wounded had been carried out. Only two Ranger bodies were found, and only one ARVN Ranger was captured. This NVA soldier ended his report with the comment that the attacking NVA infantry had been ordered to block the withdrawal but had disobeyed the order for fear of the RVNAF air and artillery fire, and that the discipline displayed by the ARVN 92d Ranger Battalion was extremely high, much higher than that found in NVA or VC main forces.
Although the record was clear that Colonel Ngon had disobeyed orders by withdrawing, he was not punished, but the battalion was dissolved and its men sequestered from the press. The official South Vietnamese position was that the camp had been overrun in clear violation of the cease-fire, and appropriate protests were made to the ICCS and the Two-Party Joint Military Commission. On 13 April, VNAF flew 19 sorties against what remained of the camp. The last of the survivors entered the An Loc perimeter on 15 April. The 92d ARVN Ranger Battalion had clearly distinguished itself by enduring the longest siege of the war and by conducting a remarkable withdrawal under fire.
With Tong Le Chon obliterated, the NVA had unrestricted use of its important east-west line of communication between Tay Ninh and Binh Long and controlled the Saigon River corridor from its source to Dau Tieng.
In Binh Duong, the NVA's strategic raids campaign began on 16 May with a coordinated attack by the 7th and 9th NVA Divisions on Phu Giao and Ben Cat. ARVN 25th Division operations in Hau Nghia, Tay Ninh, and Cambodia had, by 10 May, significantly diminished the threat of the NVA 5th Infantry Division to the western approaches to Saigon, but the NVA 7th and 9th Divisions, in the jungles and plantations north of the capital, were in fair fighting form. Replacements had been received, trained, and integrated into the force; supplies had been stockpiled and moved into forward positions; and the divisions had received their orders.
The 7th NVA Division forces that had taken Chi Linh were still responsible for the zone of operations generally on the east side of National Route 13 (QL-13). Their main objective in the imminent campaign was the bridge at Phu Giao, where interprovincial Route 1A (LTL-1A) spanned the Song Be. Their capture of this bridge, and its controlling terrain, would isolate the 5th ARVN Division's regimental base at Phuoc Vinh and provide the forward positions needed for subsequent attacks toward Phu Cuong, the Bing Duong provincial capital, and Bien Hoa with its huge air base and logistical concentrations.
The 9th NVA Division was west of National Route 13, concentrating in the old secret zone, the Long Nguyen, north of the famous Iron Triangle. From here its artillery regularly bombarded the ARVN 5th Division base at Lai Khe, but its objectives in this May campaign were farther south. It would strike into the Iron Triangle, try to sever National Route 13 at the district seat of Ben Cat, and open the Saigon River corridor nearly as far south as Phu Hoa. By accomplishing this latter objective, it could position artillery to reach Tan Son Nhut Air Base and support operations against the ARVN 25th Division at Cu Chi. By cutting National Route 13 at Ben Cat, it would isolate the ARVN base at Lai Khe and, in coordination with the 7th NVA Division, threaten Phu Cuong and eventually Saigon.
A glance at the map shows the strategic location of the Iron Triangle. Bounded on the north by the jungle and overgrown rubber plantations of the Long Nguyen, it was enclosed on the west by the Saigon River and on the east by the smaller but unfordable obstacle of the Thi Thinh River. The Thi Thinh joined the Saigon River near Phu Hoa, at the southern apex of the Triangle, 7 miles from Phu Cuong. Phu Cuong itself, the capital of Binh Duong Province, was an important industrial and farming center and contained the ARVN Engineer School. It was linked by a major highway with the large ARVN base at Phu Loi (called Lam Son) and, farther east, with Bien Hoa. Lying as it did in the center of the Saigon River corridor, at the junction of Routes 13 and 1A, and only 10 miles from the outskirts of Saigon, Phu Cuong was vital to the defense of Saigon.
The terrain within the Iron Triangle was flat, almost featureless, and covered by dense brush and undergrowth. The clearings, especially in the northern part, were thick with elephant grass, higher than a man's head. The surface was scarred by countless bomb and shell craters so that vehicular movement off the narrow, rough dirt roads was nearly impossible. Even tracked vehicles had difficulty. A vast network of tunnels and trenches, most of them caved-in and abandoned, laced this ground that had been the scene of battles since the early days of the second Indochina war.
A weak string of three ARVN outposts protected the northern edge of the Triangle, from Rach Bap on the west, close by the Saigon River, along local Route 7 (TL-7B) to An Dien on the Thi Thinh River opposite Ben Cat. Each of these outposts, including Base 82, which was midway between Rach Bap and An Dien, was manned by a company of the 321st RF Battalion. Another country road passed by the Rach Bap outpost: local Route 14 (LTL-14) which generally paralleled the Saigon River from Tri Tam, through Rach Bap, and veered to the southeast through the Triangle, crossing the Thi Thinh River before it joined Highway 13 (QL13) north of Phu Cuong. The NVA had blown the bridge on Route 14 over the Thi Thinh a few weeks earlier, but the stream could be spanned by pontoon sections. About midway between Rach Bap and the Thi Thinh crossing of Route 14, the ARVN had another small firebase.
Frequent sweeps and some semi-fixed defensive positions north of Cu Chi manned by the ARVN 25th Division and Hau Nghia Regional Forces screened the western flank of the Triangle, but enemy resistance in the Ho Bo woods, opposite Rach Bap, and the formidable obstacle of the Saigon River, as well as a lack of resources, limited the influence that the 25th could exert on the situation within the Triangle.
The ARVN was strong with infantry, armor, and mutually supporting fire bases and outposts in Ben Cat District east of the Thi Thinh boundary of the Triangle, but only one bridge, a weak span, connected the district town and the Triangle hamlet of An Dien.
Such was the situation on the eve of the initiation of the strategic raids campaign in western Binh Duong Province. As mentioned earlier, this was a coordinated attack, with the 9th NVA Division conducting the main effort in the west, while the 7th NVA attacked in the east against ARVN positions along Highway 1A near Phu Giao. The distances between the two thrusts were too great, concurrent attention of the III Corps commander however, to provide for mutual support, and the ARVN III Corps was able to deal with separate operations. For these reasons, although they occurred simultaneously and demanded the concurrent attention of the III Corps commander and his staff, they can best be described sequentially, beginning first with the Iron Triangle attack of the 9th NVA Division.
Iron Triangle Attack
The attack began with heavy artillery, rocket, and mortar concentrations falling on Rach Bap, Base 82, and An Dien on the morning of 16 May. The RF company at Base 82 abandoned its bunkers, many of which had collapsed under the weight of the bombardment, late that afternoon. Rach Bap held out until about 0300 the following morning, its surviving defenders withdrawing in the direction of An Dien. The fighting was fierce in An Dien on the 16th, but by the night of 17 May, NVA forces held the flattened village and its defenses. Remnants of an RF battalion, however, held the western end of the Thi Thinh bridge in a shallow blocking position, while the eastern end, by Ben Cat, was secured by ARVN forces. The enemy dug in around An Dien but was unable to dislodge the RF positions at the bridge.
Two infantry regiments of the 9th NVA Division, with about ten T-54 and PT-76 tanks, were employed against the dispersed 321st RF Battalion. The 272d Regiment overran Rach Bap and continued the attack south into the Triangle along Route 14, while the 95C Regiment attacked Base 82 and An Dien. The 271st Regiment was held in reserve.
The RVNAF at Ben Cat were unable to counterattack the NVA immediately at An Dien because the bridgehead held by the RF was too shallow to protect the crossing of any large forces, but General Thuan quickly began reinforcing Ben Cat. Task Force 318 arrived in Ben Cat District on the afternoon of the 16th and on the 17th began reinforcing the RF holding the bridge and moving against the enemy's blocking positions west of the bridgehead. The weakness of the ARVN bridgehead and the strength of the enemy positions in An Dien, which included antitank guns and tanks, made it impractical to send any armor of the 318th across the An Dien bridge at this time.
Meanwhile, the 322d Task Force moved from Tay Ninh Province to Phu Cuong and was ordered to prepare to attack into the Triangle along Route 14 (LTL-14) in order to oppose the 272d Regiment, which was moving south from Rach Rap.
VNAF aerial observers and photography on 17 May revealed two T-54 tanks inside Base 82, which VNAF fighter-bombers destroyed the next day, and four more in the An Dien base. Initial negative reactions at ARVN III Corps Headquarters to the seemingly hasty, if not unwarranted, withdrawal of the RF companies from their positions softened somewhat when the size and composition of the enemy force was revealed.
Six months would pass before the situation existing before 16 May would be restored along the northern edge of the Iron Triangle. The campaign was never officially divided as such, but major operations fell into four distinct phases. In the first, 16-17 May, the NVA had captured the northern edge of the Triangle and launched a major column into the center of this strategic approach to Phu Cuong. In the second phase, 18 May to 5 June, the ARVN counterattacked and regained control of An Dien. Four months later, on 4 October, ARVN troops concluded the third phase by reoccupying the devastated wasteland that was once Base 82. Finally, on 20 November ARVN infantry re-entered Rach Bap, concluding the last phase of the 1974 Iron Triangle campaign.
An Dien Counterattack
General Thuan greatly underestimated the strength and tenacity with which the 9th NVA Division would defend An Dien, although he had accurate intelligence concerning the size, composition, and location of the enemy. His initial plans for the second phase, which proved unrealistic, called for virtually simultaneous recapture of the three lost bases by about 22 May. Perhaps the remarkable successes his corps troops had in repulsing the NVA 7th Division attacks on the Phu Ciao front had given him this unwarranted overconfidence.
Except for the few ARVN infantry and engineers that were thrown across the Thi Thinh River to reinforce the An Dien bridgehead, the first major ARVN unit to move into the Triangle was a battalion of the 43d Infantry, 18th ARVN Division, which crossed on Route 14 north of Phu Cuong. Shortly reinforced by the rest of the regiment, this element, followed by the 322d Armored Task Force, was to attack Rach Bap and Base 82. Meanwhile, the 318th Task Force would cross the An Dien Bridge, pass through An Dien, and proceed to Base 82. Three Ranger battalions attacking south out of Lai Khe were to strike Base 82 from the north. None of this worked as planned. The 43d Infantry became stalled after advancing only four or five kilometers north. Then, the tracked vehicles of the 322d Task Force found the going extremely slow in the dense brush and cratered terrain. General Thuan, concerned lest this armored force become bogged down and have a bridge blown behind it, ordered its withdrawal. He discovered, meanwhile, that the An Dien bridge had been seriously weakened by enemy artillery (including AT-3 missiles) and would not support the tanks of the 318th Task Force. Under enemy observation and, sporadically, heavy mortar and artillery fire, ARVN combat engineers attempted to repair the bridge. Casualties mounted, and the work progressed very slowly. About the same time, the 7th Ranger Group, with three battalions, moved southwest out of Lai Khe, crossed the Thi Thinh River and advanced on Base 82. The Rangers were immediately opposed in the thick jungle and rubber plantation by the dug-in troops of the NVA 9th Division, and their attack stalled well short of the objective.
While III Corps was experiencing great difficulty getting moving, it was pounding An Dien with heavy artillery fire. The North Vietnamese responded in kind against ARVN batteries and the stalled Ranger and infantry columns and sent sappers into an RF command post just south of Ben Cat, where they destroyed a 105-mm. howitzer and routed most of the small garrison.
The VNAF, meanwhile, gave only limited support. NVA antiaircraft artillery and SA-7 defenses were plentiful in the area, forcing VNAF aircraft to high altitudes. On 24 May, an armored cavalry squadron of the 25th ARVN Division launched a diversionary attack from Go Dau Ha east toward the Boi Loi Woods. General Thuan's purpose was to cause enough of a threat here to prevent the 9th NVA Division from committing its reserve, the 271st Regiment, against either the 318th or the 322d Task Forces. By the 25th, the armored cavalry squadron had passed Suoi Cau without encountering any resistance, and another supporting maneuver began with two battalions of the 50th Infantry, ARVN 25th Division, moving north from Phu Hoa along the west bank of the Saigon River.
On 25 May, General Thuan met with the commander of the 18th ARVN Division, Brig. Gen. Le Minh Dao, and with the commander of the 3d Armored Brigade, Brig. Gen. Tran Quang Khoi, to coordinate the following morning's attack. At that time, the 43d Regiment was about seven kilometers south of An Dien, about to attack north, while the 3d Armored Brigade was preparing to send a cavalry squadron and a Ranger battalion across the An Dien bridge.
Although the enemy's heavy mortar and artillery fire had so weakened the bridge at An Dien that the cavalry could not follow the Rangers, by nightfall the 64th Ranger Battalion was dug in on the eastern edge of An Dien Village. The 43d Regiment was again ordered to resume the attack north, and the 7th Ranger Group, coming down from Lai Khe, was ordered to take Base 82 by night attack on 27 May. Because no progress was made General Thuan on 28 May decided to try a fresh approach. First, he turned the operation over to General Dao, told him to move his 52d Regiment over from Phu Giao, gave him operational command of the 7th Ranger Group, which was still north of Base 82, and attached to Dao's 18th Division a reinforced squadron of the 3d Armored Brigade. Since it would take two days to relieve the 52d Regiment on the Phu Giao front and move it into position at Ben Cat, the new operation was scheduled for 30 May. Delays in the relief and movement forced General Dao to set the date ahead to 1 June.
With the Rangers still holding the shallow bridgehead opposite Ben Cat and the 43d Regiment making slow progress attacking the dug-in 272d NVA Regiment south of An Dien, General Dao sent the 2d Battalion, 52d Regiment, across the Thi Thinh River on an assault bridge south of Ben Cat on 1 June. Once across, it turned north to attack the defenses of the 95C NVA Regiment in An Dien. Meanwhile, the reconnaissance company and an infantry company from the 18th Division crossed the An Dien bridge and advanced toward the village. Casualties on both sides were heavy that day in An Dien as the commander of the ARVN 52d Regiment committed his 1st Battalion behind the 2d. The 9th NVA Division responded by assaulting the ARVN infantry that night with infantry and at least 10 tanks. The two battalions of the 52d held their positions and were reinforced by the 3d Battalion the next afternoon. Meanwhile, ARVN combat engineers were clearing the road past the An Dien bridge. Working at night with flashlights to avoid enemy observation and fire, they removed 38 antitank mines from the route of advance.
Weakened by casualties, the 52d Infantry made very little progress on 2 and 3 June, and the 43d Regiment was still being blocked by the NVA 272d Regiment. General Dao then ordered his 48th Infantry across the Thi Thinh south of Ben Cat, to pass through the 52d and take An Dien. While the NVA artillery continued to pound ARVN positions, two battalions of the 48th crossed into the Iron Triangle on the night of 2-3 June.
The fighting at An Dien Was especially fierce on 3 June as the NVA used tanks against ARVN infantry. Armed with light antitank weapons, ARVN infantry knocked out at least four enemy tanks in the final day of the battle. On 4 June, troops of the 18th ARVN Division finally entered An Dien, and on the 5th overran the last position of the NVA's 95C Regiment, which had since been reinforced by elements of the 9th NVA Division's 271st Regiment. On the morning of the 5th, two battalions of the 48th and two of the 52d were holding An Dien, bracing for a counterattack. One Ranger battalion was in a blocking position north of the destroyed village, while another secured the An Dien bridge. The 43d Regiment was still stalled by the NVA's 272d Regiment's defenses south of An Dien. The 7th Ranger Group had not been able to advance toward Base 82 from the north, and a new major ARVN attack would be required to advance past the positions held in and around An Dien .
NVA soldiers captured by the 18th ARVN Division in An Dien told of horrendous losses in the three battalions - the 7th, 8th, and 9th - of the 95C Regiment. Fourteen surviving members of the 9th Battalion were captured when the last strongpoint fell on 5 June. They said that casualties in the 8th and 9th Battalions between 16 May and 4 June were 65 percent, that a company of the 7th Battalion had only one man left, that a company of the 8th Battalion was totally destroyed, and that the 9th Battalion lost two complete companies. These accounts were confirmed by the large number of bodies left on the battlefield and by the quantity of weapons and equipment captured. ARVN losses were substantial, but none of its units were decimated as were those of the 9th NVA Division. Well over 100 ARVN soldiers had been killed in action, and the hospitals held over 200 wounded from An Dien, while 200 more suffered light wounds not requiring evacuation.
The expected NVA counterattack came on the night of 5-6 June as two battalions of the 271st Regiment, 9th NVA Division, supported by up to 14 tanks, attacked from two directions. The ARVN 18th Division held and its infantrymen knocked out 5 tanks and damaged 5 others.
The second phase of the Iron Triangle campaign was over with the recapture of An Dien, and General Thuan was anxious to get the attack moving again toward Base 82 and Rach Bap. Although the An Dien bridge would soon be in condition to carry the tanks of the 318th Task Force - one company of armored personnel carriers had already crossed into An Dien - a knocked-out T-54 tank blocked the narrow road from the bridge into An Dien. Swampy ground on each side prevented bypassing the tank, and it had to be blown off the road with demolitions. ARVN combat engineers were laboring at this task while infantrymen of the 18th Division were holding the perimeter around An Dien.
The first of several attempts during the third phase to retake Base 82 began on 7 June 1974 when the 318th Task Force finally brought its tanks across the Thi Thinh River and passed through the 18th Division position in An Dien. While the 52d Infantry of the 18th Division remained in reserve holding the An Dien perimeter, two battalions of the 48th Infantry moved south and west to protect the southern flank of Task Force 318 as it attacked along Route 7 (TL-7B) toward Base 82. To the south, the 43d Regiment maintained contact with the NVA 272d Regiment. Meanwhile, the 9th NVA Division had withdrawn the remnants of the 95C Regiment from action and placed its 271st Regiment at Base 82, where it prepared deep, mutually supporting defensive positions. Clearly indicating its resolve to conduct a determined defense along Route 7 in the Iron Triangle, COSVN sent the 141st Regiment of the 7th NVA Division south from its position along Highway 13, north of Lai Khe, to reinforce the 9th Division north of Base 82. The9th Division meanwhile began shifting the 272d Regiment north from the southern part of the Iron Triangle to assist in the defense of Base 82 and Rach Bap.
The wet summer monsoon had arrived in Binh Duong Province. Rains and low cloud cover further reduced the effectiveness of VNAF's support of the attack. A dense rubber plantation northwest of Base 82 provided excellent concealment for supporting defensive positions and observation of local Route 7, the only avenue of approach available for ARVN armor. Dense brush covered the southern approaches to the base and concealed more enemy supporting and reserve positions. The only fairly open terrain was on either side of Route 7 where high grass offered no concealment to the ARVN column but reduced the visibility of ARVN tanks and infantry to a few meters. Furthermore, this approach was under the observed fire of the 9th NVA Division's supporting artillery, which included 120-mm. mortars, 122-mm. howitzers, 105-mm. howitzers, and 85-mm. field guns. Infantry mortars, 82-mm. and 61-mm., added to the indirect fire, and, in addition to the B-41 antitank grenade launchers carried in great numbers by the NVA infantry, NVA soldiers were amply equipped with the new Soviet 82-mm. recoilless gun, a superb weapon.
By the evening of 8 June, Task Force 318 reached its first objective, Hill 25, about 1,000 meters short of Base 82. There it fought a battalion of the NVA 271st Infantry, killing 30 and capturing 10 while taking light casualties. The prospects seemed bright for recapturing Base 82 by the following day, and General Thuan told General Dao of the 18th ARVN Division that Rach Bap should be taken by 15 June. But on 10 June Task Force 318, advancing very slowly in two columns, one north of Route 7 and one south, was struck by a battalion of the NVA 271st Infantry supported by four tanks and a heavy concentration of mortar, howitzer, and rocket fire. Four of Task Force 318's tanks and one of its personnel carriers were knocked out but personnel losses were light. By nightfall only 200 meters had been gained, the enemy's minefields and 82-mm. recoilless guns having stopped the task force 800 meters short of Base 82.
No progress was made on 11 June, but ARVN artillery and VNAF pounded the base. Antiaircraft fire was intense and kept the VNAF fighter-bombers above their most effective attack altitudes. Meanwhile, General Thuan, determined to get the attack moving again, directed Brig. Gen. Khoi, commander of the 3d Armored Brigade, to assemble the 315th Task Force at Ben Cat and send it across the Thi Thinh to reinforce the attack. The 315th was to move southwest and attack Base 82 from the south, while the 318th continued its frontal assault. Farther south, another change was taking place. Detecting that all but one of the NVA's 272d Regiment's battalions had moved north toward Route 7, General Dao left only one of his 43d Infantry battalions in the Phu Thu area, placing the balance of the regiment in reserve.
By noon on 12 June, the 315th Task Force had reached a position about 1,600 meters southeast of Base 82. At this point, General Dao changed the original concept of a two-pronged attack from the east and south. As soon as the 315th was ready to attack, he would withdraw the 318th to defend the eastern approaches to Ben Cat that had been weakened by the commitment of the 315th against Base 82. Thick brush, rough terrain, and accurate enemy artillery fire prevented the 315th from making any gains on 13 June. In fact, as the 318th withdrew from contact, it left positions much closer to the objective than those reached by the 315th.
In another change in plans, General Dao proposed to General Thuan that two battalions each from the 43d and 52d Regiments take over the attack role, while the 315th remained in its defensive perimeter southeast of Base 82. The infantry battalions would move into the rubber plantation and attack from the north. General Thuan agreed and left for JGS headquarters to ask for a new ammunition allocation for the attack. He returned to his headquarters in ill humor, for General Khuyen, the RVNAF Chief of Logistics, was unable to satisfy this request.
By 15 June, the two leading ARVN 43d Infantry battalions, one of which was attempting to swing north of Base 82 from An Dien, had made very little headway against strong resistance and heavy enemy artillery fire. In contacts south of Route 7 on the 17th, prisoners of war were taken from the 272d Regiment, soldiers who had recently arrived in South Vietnam and had been assigned to the 272d for only three days before their capture. ARVN casualties continued to mount, troops were desperately fatigued, artillery support was too severely rationed, and the weather all but eliminated effective air support. On 21 June, General Thuan ordered a halt in the attempt to take Base 82, while a new approach, better supported by artillery fire, could be devised. Consideration was also given to replacing the 18th Division, whose troops had been in heavy combat for a month, with the 5th Division.
Instead of relieving the 18th, General Thuan decided to try his armor again. Holding the infantry in position, he sent the 318th and 322d Task Forces back into the Triangle, one north of Route 7, the other generally along the road. The enemy's antitank defenses, primarily employing the 82-mm. recoilless gun, stopped the attack once again, destroying 13 personnel carriers and 11 M-48 tanks between 27 June and 1 July, even though ARVN artillery and the VNAF supported the attack with 43,000 rounds and 250 sorties. The tired infantrymen of the 43d Regiment tried once again to take Base 82 from the south on 1 July but got nowhere.
On 2 July, General Thuan finally decided to relieve the 18th Division and replace it with the 5th. The armored task forces would be withdrawn for rest and refitting. General Thuan allowed his commanders ten days to complete the relief; he wanted it done gradually and expertly so that constant pressure could be maintained against the enemy. In order not to weaken the 5th Division's defenses north of Lai Khe, elements of the 18th Division's 52d Regiment, which had seen little action, and two battalions of the 25th Division's 50th Infantry were attached to the 5th Division in the Iron Triangle. The relief was accomplished on schedule, and a relative calm settled over the Base 82 battleground.
The 9th NVA Division also made adjustments during the last part of June and the first weeks of July. While the 272d Regiment retained defensive positions in the southern part of the Iron Triangle, the 95C Regiment, refitted and with fresh replacements, returned to the Base 82 area and assumed responsibility for its defense. The third regiment of the 9th NVA Division, the 271st, held defensive positions in the Base 82 area, primarily to the north and northeast. Meanwhile, the 141st Regiment of the 7th NVA Division returned to its normal area of operations north of Lai Khe, and artillery support for the 9th NVA Division was assigned to the 42d NVA Artillery Regiment. The 75th NVA Artillery Regiment moved from the Ben Cat area to support the 7th NVA Division east of Route 13.
The 5th ARVN Division made no determined effort during July or August to alter the status quo. The NVA, however, pulled the 95C Regiment out of Base 82 and replaced it with the 141st Regiment of the 7th NVA Division, in time to meet the next concerted ARVN effort to take Base 82.
By autumn the 8th Infantry, 5th ARVN Division, had been selected to try to plant South Vietnam's red and yellow banner on Base 82, having replaced its sister regiment, the 7th, in the Iron Triangle. Prior to an attack scheduled for 7 September, ARVN reconnaissance patrols had successfully reached the base's perimeter. The 8th Regiment formed a task force around its 1st and 2d Battalions, reinforced by the 5th Division Reconnaissance Company and a small armored troop with three M41 tanks, three M-48 tanks, and three armored personnel carriers. The 1st Battalion advanced south of Route 7, while the 2d Battalion, with the reconnaissance company and the armored troops, advanced on an axis north of the road. Unopposed and moving quickly the two battalions reached the outer defenses of Base 82 in the early morning of 7 September but could go no further that day. Faced with barbed wire and mines and under fire from the front and flanks, the 8th Infantry dug in. As the rain of enemy shells continued, much of it heavy 120-mm. Soviet mortars, the 8th kept digging and improving fighting positions with logs overhead.
On 8 September, the NVA shelling increased, and at 1600 it began to rain, ending all VNAF aerial observation and air support for the 8th Infantry. As the rain increased, so did the enemy bombardment, 1600 rounds falling in one hour, and the battlefield was obscured in smoke. ARVN infantry could hear the approach of tanks. One column of T-54's came out of the rubber plantation and forest to the north, and another line of six advanced from the south. The three ARVN M-48's withdrew, and at 1800 hours, nearly caught in a double envelopment, the 8th Infantry fell back, first about 300 meters where the leaders attempted to establish a new line, then 300 meters farther back where the troops of the 8th rallied and held on the western slope of Hill 25.
With victory seemingly so close, General Thuan was deeply disappointed by the rout of the 8th Regiment, and his disappointment changed to anger when he learned of the relatively light casualties suffered by the 8th: 6 killed, 29 missing, and 67 wounded. But even if the 8th Infantry leaders on the scene could have held their troops in their exposed positions in front of Base 82, the regiment probably could not have survived the NVA counterattack. In any case, General Thuan ordered an immediate investigation of the circumstances of the 8th Infantry's failure and subsequently dismissed the regimental commander. On 11 September, the 8th Infantry was replaced in the Iron Triangle by the 9th, and the final phase of the fight to retake Base 82 was about to begin.
All three battalions of the 9th Infantry moved into position on the west slope of Hill 25. Combat losses since the start of the NVA offensive in May, combined with the slow flow of the replacements into the regiment, had reduced battalion strength to under 300. Between 12 and 18 September, the 9th concentrated on reconnaissance, planning, and improvement of positions. As the ARVN 9th Regiment prepared for the attack, the NVA was beginning to execute another relief in the Ben Cat battlefield. The 141st Regiment of the 7th NVA Division made preparations to leave the Base 82 area and turn over its defense once again to the 95C Regiment of the 9th NVA Division.
With the 2d Armored Cavalry Squadron protecting the right (north) flank, and two Ranger battalions protecting the left, the 9th ARVN Infantry Regiment began its attack toward Base 82. The two attacking battalions, the 3d Battalion on the right, north of Route 7, and the 2d on the left, crossed the line of departure on Hill 25 on 19 September. Moving slowly, with excellent reconnaissance and effective artillery support, the ARVN infantrymen methodically eliminated, one by one, the enemy's mutually supporting bunkers that lay in a dense pattern all along the route of advance. Although the NVA infantrymen defended tenaciously and their artillery support was heavy and accurate, they gradually gave ground. On 29 September, the 1st Battalion relieved the weary 3d Battalion, and the relentless attack continued. On 2 October, the 2d Battalion, 46th ARVN Infantry, 25th Division, was committed to reinforce the 2d Battalion of the 9th Infantry. Before midnight on 3 October, as enemy artillery and mortars were still firing heavy barrages, a 12-man assault team from the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry, attempted to breach the barbed wire and scale the earthen wall. An antipersonnel mine detonated, disclosing the team's position, and heavy fire from the base pinned it down. Very early the next morning, the NVA infantry counterattacked, forcing the withdrawal of the assault team. But it became apparent to the ARVN commander on the ground that victory was within grasp. A 100-round concentration of 155-mm. howitzer fire, which he requested, had the desired effect: enemy resistance and return fire was notably diminished by 1300, and a half hour later NVA infantrymen were seen climbing out of their crumbling fortress and running to the rear. At 1500 on 4 October the 1st Battalion, 9th Regiment, raised South Vietnam's flag over Base 82, ending a bitter four-month struggle and the third phase of the Iron Triangle campaign.
Return to Rach Bap
Calm returned to the Iron Triangle as the remnants of the 95C and 272d NVA Regiments withdrew from Base 82. For three days, even the NVA artillery was silent. Meanwhile, far to the north of the Ben Cat battleground and in the COSVN rear area, a significant event was taking place. Recognizing the need to plan and coordinate the operations of multi-divisional forces, COSVN organized a corps headquarters in the Tay Ninh-Binh Long region and designated it the 301st Corps. This corps would soon direct the combat operations of the 7th and 9th NVA Divisions, separate regiments, and additional formations already en route from North Vietnam.
After the long and costly victory at Base 82, General Thuan decided to rest the tired troops of the 5th ARVN Division and turned his attention to sending his 25th Division to clear out the enemy bases in the Ho Bo area west of the Iron Triangle. The ARVN defenses around An Dien and Base 82 were taken over by Regional Forces and Rangers. For what became the fourth phase of the campaign, III Corps Headquarters worked on plans to resume the attack to retake Rach Bap, the last of the three outposts still remaining in enemy hands. General Thuan also recognized the need to clean the enemy out of the southern part of the Iron Triangle, around Phu Thu, and a plan encompassing Rach Bap, Phu Thu, and the Phu Hoa area west of the Iron Triangle began to take shape. But on 30 October, before the execution of the plan, President Thieu relieved General Thuan of command of Military Region 3 and III Corps and replaced him with Lt. Gen. Du Quoc Dong. Other important command changes took place on the same day. The II Corps Commander, Lt. Gen. Nguyen Van Toan, was replaced by Maj. Gen. Pham Van Phu, and Maj. Gen. Nguyen Khoa Nam became the new commander of IV Corps, in place of Lt. Gen. Nguyen Vinh Nghi. Only I Corps was untouched, where Lt. Gen. Ngo Quang Truong retained command.
General Dong immediately surveyed the situation in the Iron Triangle and reviewed the plan of his predecessor, which as modified became operation Quyet Thang 18/24 (Operation Will to Victory). Battalions from all three divisions of the corps were committed; D-Day was 14 November. The 9th Infantry of the 5th ARVN Division, the victors of Base 82, started from An Dien and marched west, along Route 7, past Base 82 toward Rach Bap. The 48th and 52d Regiments of the 18th Division crossed the Thi Thinh River south of Ben Cat and entered the Iron Triangle and attacked west toward the Saigon River. Elements of the 50th ARVN Infantry, 25th Division, were already in this area. Meanwhile, the 46th ARVN Infantry and one battalion of the 50th moved into the plantations north of Phu Hoa District Town to prevent enemy infiltration across the Saigon River.
Along Route 7, the 9th ARVN Infantry advanced without incident until 19 November when sharp fighting west of Base 82 resulted in over 40 ARVN soldiers wounded. The enemy withdrew leaving 14 dead and many weapons and radios behind. The next morning, Reconnaissance Company, 9th Infantry, entered Rach Bap unopposed. The Iron Triangle campaign was virtually over, although mopping_up operations continued in the south along Route 14 until 24 November. Measured against the costs and violence of the earlier phases of the campaign, this final chapter was anticlimactic. Casualties on both sides were light, and contacts were few and of short duration. The NVA had given up its last foothold in the Iron Triangle with only token resistance in order to replace losses, reorganize, re-equip, and retrain the main forces of the new 301st Corps for the decisive battles to come.
As mentioned earlier, the NVA 16 May offensive in Binh Duong Province was a two-division attack, with the 9th NVA Division west of Route 13 into the Iron Triangle and the 7th NVA Division east, against Phu Giao District. The principal 7th Division objective was the bridge on Interprovincial Route 1A (LTL-1A) over the Song Be south of the major ARVN 5th Division base at Phuoc Vinh and northeast of the Ben Cat-Iron Triangle battlefield.
The 7th NVA Division on 5 April overran the ARVN outpost at Chi Linh. After taking Chi Linh, the division's 141st Infantry Regiment remained in the Chon Thanh area until detached for duty in the Iron Triangle under the 9th NVA Division. Meanwhile, the other two 7th Division regiments were preparing for the May offensive in the jungles around Phu Giao. The 165th NVA Infantry Regiment was west of Route 1A and north of the Song Be; the 209th NVA Infantry Regiment was south of the Song Be, with battalions disposed on both sides of Route 1A. But sometime before 16 May, the 165th crossed the Song Be and moved into attack positions in the Bo La area, south of Phu Giao, and the 209th moved north to positions close to the Song Be bridge. The 7th NVA Division's plan called for the 165th to attack ARVN positions and block Route 1A south of the bridge, while the 209th would seize the bridge and its controlling terrain.
The defense of the Song Be bridge was the responsibility of the 322d RF Battalion, while the 7th and 8th Regiments of the ARVN 5th Division and the 318th Task Force were in position to provide support from the Phuoc Vinh base south to the Bo La area. Based on good intelligence, the 8th ARVN Infantry attacked assembly areas occupied by elements of the 209th NVA Infantry on 15 May. The disruption caused by this attack was probably largely responsible for the poor showing made by two battalions of the 209th which, the following morning, attacked RF outposts around the Song Be bridge. In any event, the troops of the 322d RF Battalion fought off the attack, losing a few positions but maintaining control of the key terrain and the bridge.
Meanwhile, the 165th NVA Infantry Regiment had better success in attacking the Bo La area, managing to hold enough of Route 1A to prevent reinforcements from breaking through to the bridge. But its accomplishment was short-lived. The 5th ARVN Division reacted immediately and sent its 7th Infantry Regiment and the 315th Task Force north to break the block on Route 1A. Casualties on the ARVN side were light, but the NVA lost heavily; the 209th was especially hard hit by ARVN artillery and air strikes in the bridge area. By 23 May, despite reinforcement of the 165th NVA Regiment by a battalion of its sister regiment, the 141st, the ARVN tank and infantry counterattack had cleared the road to the bridge and beyond to Phuoc Vinh. Although the 7th NVA Division maintained its 165th and 209th Regiments in the Phu Giao area for the rest of the summer, the strategic raids campaign in eastern Binh Duong Province was a failure, essentially over a week after it began, and the ARVN successfully countered the sporadic attacks the enemy continued to make along Route 1A in the Phu Giao area.
The strategic raids campaign in Bien Hoa Province differed from that in Binh Duong, principally because the main objective, the sprawling air and logistical base at Bien Hoa, was beyond the reach of large NVA formations. But even if a main-force regiment could have penetrated the Bien Hoa defenses, it would most likely have been cut off, surrounded, and destroyed. The attacks in Bien Hoa were therefore stand-off artillery bombardments, sapper raids, and small-scale infantry assaults against outposts.
The first large attack of the summer came on 3 June. From launching sites north of the air base, the NVA artillery launched at least 40 122-mm. Soviet rockets. Most of them struck inside the base, where they did minor damage to runways and destroyed 500 napalm canisters, but the rest exploded in hamlets surrounding the base, killing and wounding civilians. Surprisingly, no aircraft were damaged. The NVA artillery struck again early on 10 August with 25 rockets. Of these, seven hit the F-5A storage area, slightly damaging a few airplanes. Most of the rest fell on civilian communities causing light casualties. The bombardment continued sporadically throughout the morning and resumed the next day, but no significant casualties or damage resulted.
The 10 August rocketing of Bien Hoa signalled the beginning of the NVA's attack on the outposts along the north bank of the great Dong Nai River in Tan Uyen District north of the air base. Employing primarily the 165th Infantry Regiment, the 7th NVA Division attacked RF-manned outposts intended to prevent the enemy's crossing of the Dong Nai and deny him easy access to areas from which he could launch rockets against Bien Hoa.
The first outpost to fall, Ho Da, west of Tan Uyen District Town, was overrun on the night of 9 August but was recovered by the ARVN 52d Infantry five days later. On the 10th, a battalion of the 165th NVA Infantry captured Dat Cuoc outpost at the big bend in the Dong Nai east of Tan Uyen. The enemy managed to hold on to this outpost until 24 August, when the 346th RF Battalion recaptured it. East of Dat Cuoc on the river north of Thai Hung village, was the Ba Cam outpost, manned by the 316th RF Battalion. In successive attacks, the 316th was driven out of its defenses by a battalion of the 165th NVA Infantry, heavily supported by artillery. By 13 August, the 316th had withdrawn to Thai Hung, virtually destroyed by NVA and ARVN artillery. By the end of the month, ARVN counterattacks had recovered all lost positions north of the Dong Nai, the enemy having suffered heavy casualties during the brief campaign.
The only other incident of note in the Bien Hoa area during 1974 was the NVA sapper attack on 21 October against the Hoa An bridge over the Dong Nai linking Bien Hoa with Saigon. This bridge, the most important of three across the Dong Nai northeast of Saigon, was 800 meters of reinforced concrete. By floating two rafts loaded with explosive downstream so that the rope that joined them wrapped around a bridge pillar, the water-sappers were able to accomplish their mission even though all of them were killed in the river by ARVN sentries before the explosion, which knocked down two 60-meter spans and rattled the windows in the American Consulate offices at the river's edge. Three days later, ARVN engineers had a one-way Bailey span in place and traffic resumed.
General Thuan, commanding III Corps at the time, could not give the crucial battles north of Saigon his undivided attention during the summer of 1974. He was forced to look over his shoulder as the strategic raids campaign spread to the eastern limits of Military Region 3 and threatened to close National Route 1 (QL-1), Saigon's major connection with the central coastal provinces.
About 50 kilometers along Route 1 east of Saigon was Xuan Loc, capital of Long Khanh Province. Set in the midst of vast, lush rubber plantations, Xuan Loc was the eastern terminus of the railroad that once carried passengers and freight up the coast all the way to Hanoi. Xuan Loc was also close to the beginning of Route 20 (QL-20), which joined Route 1 west of the city, and provided Saigon its connection with the mountain resorts and bountiful gardens of Dalat. Adding to the strategic importance of Xuan Loc, Local Route 2 began there and wound south through the plantations into Phuoc Tuy Province, providing an alternate route to the port city of Vung Tau.
The 18th ARVN Division usually kept a regiment at Xuan Loc, frequently operating against the NVA's 33d and 274th Regiments that maintained base areas in the jungles north and south of Route 1. Because of heavy requirements for combat power in Binh Duong and Bien Hoa Provinces, General Thuan pulled the 18th Division out of Long Khanh in the summer of 1974, leaving the security of that province and its lines of communication to Regional and Popular Forces and creating opportunities for the local VC, supported by the main force NVA regiments, to take the offensive in Long Khanh and Phuoc Tuy Provinces.
Bao Binh and Rung La
The cluster of hamlets called Bao Binh, in the rubber plantations east of Xuan Loc, was the first major objective of Communist forces in the strategic raids campaign in Long Khanh Province. On 24 May, an NVA force of two battalions of the 274th NVA Regiment, a battalion of the 33d NVA Regiment, and an NVA engineer battalion invaded the hamlets, overrunning the local force defenses with ease. Tentative efforts by Regional Force battalions failed to dislodge the enemy, and the NVA still held Bao Binh when General Thuan visited province headquarters on 8 June. General Thuan was not pleased with the district chief's assertion that the clearing of Bao Binh would have to wait until the 18th Division returned to Xuan Loc.
On 11 June, a strong NVA force attacked the Rung La refugee resettlement village and cut Route 1 about 30 kilometers east of Bao Binh. Rung La was one of several villages established in eastern Military Region 3 to provide new homes and farmland for refugees who fled the NVA invasion of Binh Long Province in 1972. People from Loc Ninh and An Loc, after suffering weeks of inactivity in crowded tent camps following their escape from the Communist offensive, were clearing virgin land for farming and harvesting wood from the forests that surrounded new, government-sponsored villages. Some 132,000 refugees were making a fresh beginning in this region, and the struggle would have been difficult enough without frequent harassment from VC and NVA forces. Mortar attacks, minings, kidnapping and murder, all intended to disrupt resettlement efforts, failed, however, to drive the refugees away.
Communist terrorism had been relatively minor until April, when a definite rise in incidents was noted. The frequency of mortar attacks increased, and the Communists became bolder in early June as they exploited the absence of the 18th ARVN Division. On 1 June, they entered the Thai Thien resettlement village and burned 25 houses, warning the people to leave. Returning on 6 June, they burned 50 houses and again warned the villagers to leave. On 11 June they burned 80 houses in Rung La village and closed Route 1 nearby.
Rung La was one of the largest settlements of An Loc refugees, the first of whom began occupying the village in December 1973. By June the population had grown to 18,000. When an NVA road block isolated Rung La from Xuan Loc, up to 10,000 villagers fled eastward into Binh Tuy and Binh Thuan Provinces.
The 347th RF Battalion and the 358th RF company of Long Khanh Province were dispatched to break the enemy's hold on Route 1, but both were repelled by heavy mortar fire. An RF battalion from Binh Tuy experienced a similar reception at Rung La. The political and psychological damage, to say nothing of the serious effects on local commerce of cutting the principal north-south artery, was enough to draw the corps commander's attention away from the Iron Triangle and his other serious problems in Military Region 3. General Thuan flew over the roadblock on 13 June and viewed the NVA force and its defenses. He then ordered a task force, assembled at Xuan Loc, to start moving east along Route 1 to clear the road. The force included two battalions of the 5th ARVN Division's 8th Infantry, the 32d Ranger Battalion of the 7th Ranger Group, and a tank company. Making good use of heavy artillery support and air observation, the task force by 15 June cleared two of three enemy positions. When the last position fell on 17June, and the road was again open, the villagers of Rung La began returning to rebuild their settlement.
Leaving the Ranger battalion and one of the 8th Infantry Regiment's battalions to secure the construction of a new RF base at Rung La, General Thuan ordered the province chief to use the other 8th Infantry Battalion and Long Khanh RF battalions to retake the Bao Binh hamlets still under enemy control. This force, however, proved to be too light for the task. Since heavy demands elsewhere precluded reinforcement, Bao Binh remained in enemy hands.
On 8 July, the NVA again moved against Rung La and succeeded in holding a segment of Route 1 until the 13th. Although these harassments were to continue throughout the year, the enemy was unsuccessful in blocking traffic again.
Bao Binh was a difficult objective. In late July and August, the province chief employed the 7th Ranger Group against the well-established enemy defenses, and the Rangers cleared all but one hamlet before being pulled out to operate around Rung La. But by the end of the year, all of Bao Binh was under South Vietnamese control as Communist units withdrew, probably to receive orders for the final offensive.
Because of the beating the 5th NVA Division had taken in the Duc Hue and Long Khot actions during the spring, the strategic raids campaign was slower getting started in Tay Ninh Province. The main attacks were against the ARVN outposts along Interprovincial Route 13 (LTL-13) west of Tay Ninh City and the Song Vam Co Dong, but supporting and diversionary attacks were conducted against the Ben Cau outpost near the Angel's Wing, the southern edge of Tay Ninh City, and Suoi Da, a hamlet and outpost northeast of Tay Ninh City in the shadow of Nui Ba Den. The NVA also moved 107-mm. rockets in close enough to bombard the city; some of these struck the civilian hospital on the night of 18 August and on the morning of the 19th, wounding 16 patients and killing one.
The NVA's purpose was parallel to the one it had tried to achieve at Duc Hue; to seize the territory between the Cambodian frontier and the Vam Co Dong. The focus of this attack, however, was northwest of Duc Hue.
A string of three outposts guarded the western approach to Tay Ninh City between the Svay Rieng Province border and the Vam Co Dong. Ben Soi post was closest to Tay Ninh City; it was on Local Route 13 on the west bank of the Vam Co Dong. The two forward posts were Luu Buu Lam on Route 13, about halfway to the border, and Luoc Tan, located on seasonally flooded land within sight of Svay Rieng Province, Cambodia. The blow fell simultaneously on the three posts on the morning of 14 August as the 6th Regiment, 5th NVA Division, launched heavy mortar and artillery bombardments into the fortresses. About 1,000 civilians began streaming into Tay Ninh City to escape the onslaught, but some 3,000 were trapped behind the block that the NVA 6th Regiment placed on the road between Luoc Tan and Luu Buu Lam.
The ARVN 312th RF Battalion's 2d Company at Luoc Tan reported absorbing intense shellings in which all of the buildings and three-fourths of the bunkers there had been destroyed. But it held on and beat back successive assaults by tank-supported battalions of the 6th NVA Regiment. As of 15 August, the company commander reported that his men had repaired most of the defensive positions and that very effective artillery and air strikes had knocked out one tank and killed over 300 of the enemy around Luoc Tan. Of the 97 men he had when the attack began, 45 were still able to fight.
East of Luoc Tan, Luu Buu Lam and Ben Soi were quiet after the second day as the NVA concentrated on Luoc Tan and the 25th ARVN Division's 46th Infantry Regiment sent a battalion in to reinforce Luu Buu Lam. To the south, at Ben Cau, two NVA soldiers captured from the 174th NVA Infantry said that their regiment was severely undermanned and its mission was only to test the ARVN reactions to the attack at Ben Cau. The NVA found the reaction to be violent as well as firm.
The staunch defense put up by the company of the 312th RF Battalion at Luoc Tan boosted RF and civilian morale throughout Tay Ninh. Resupply of the little garrison was made by helicopter as the relief column of the 46th ARVN Regiment approached along Route 13. On 20 August, the company commander at Luoc Tan reported driving off a three-pronged infantry assault; the 46th Infantry's battalion was stalled about three kilometers away, where it had been for four days. Fearing an ambush, General Thuan had ordered the battalion to halt its attempt to link up with Luoc Tan. The night of 20 August was the last for the 2d Company, 312th RF Battalion, as a battalion of the 6th NVA Regiment breached the shattered defensive works and captured the garrison. It remained in NVA hands, but the cost was high. The 6th NVA Regiment had to be withdrawn to Cambodia for another refitting and to receive replacements.
This has been an account of the main events that took place around Saigon during the NVA's strategic raids campaign in the summer and fall of 1974. No attempt has been made to cover all combat actions; the purpose has been rather to treat those which changed the map in a significant way, illustrated the relative strengths and weakness of the opposing forces, demonstrated the strategies and tactics adopted by the two sides, and set the stage for the final NVA offensive.
In the deep forests of northern Tay Ninh, Binh Long and Phuoc Long Provinces, COSVN was building a mighty combat capability, stockpiling weapons, ammunition, fuel, and supplies, marshalling and training replacements, building hospitals, improving roads and bridges, while its major fighting forces, the 5th, 7th, and 9th NVA Divisions pressed forward against the ARVN's outer line of defense.
Note on Sources
Principal among the sources of this chapter were the author's notes recording visits to the field, particularly in Binh Duong Province and to III Corps headquarters at Bien Hoa, and meetings with the J2/JGS.
The Weekly Summary published by DAO Saigon Intelligence Branch and by the J2/JGS provided the chronology of events as well as detailed order-of-battle information. Heavy reliance was also placed on the reports of the Consul General, Bien Hoa, and offices of the U.S. Embassy, Saigon. As usual much reliable information was also derived from rallier and prisoner of war interrogation reports and from captured documents.
Just as the COSVN forces in South Vietnam's Military Region 3 were conducting the strategic raids campaign to reduce the defenses around Saigon, so the forces of the B-3 Front and the NVA's Military Region 5 were embarked on their campaign to eliminate the isolated ARVN outposts in the Central Highlands and move into the coastal lowlands of South Vietnam's Military Regions 1 and 2. Heavy fighting lay ahead in the vast region from the high plateau of Darlac to the narrow coastal plain of Quang Nam.
In the spring of 1974, South Vietnam still had two district seats deep in the highlands of Quang Tin Province but controlled only shallow perimeters around the towns, Tien Phuoc and Hau Duc, and maintained a tenuous hold on the lines of communication into them. The enemy still held Hiep Duc with elements of the 2d NVA Division (reorganized and redesignated from the old 71 1th NVA Division) and protected the headquarters area of NVA Military Region 5 between Tien Phuoc and Hau Duc.
The population was sparse in the mountain districts of Quang Tin, and its requirements for products from outside the region were relatively small. But after the NVA moved in with large troop units and commerce with the coast became restricted, shortages and hardships grew. The local Communists, striving to recruit a larger following among the villagers, were finding it difficult to provide incentives since the people knew that conditions were better around the South Vietnamese communities of Tien Phuoc and Hau Duc where infrequent but adequate convoys brought rice and other commodities from the province capital, Tam Ky. Part of the Communist strategy thus was to improve NVA lines of communication from southwestern Quang Tin Province to the coast near Tam Ky and to block South Vietnamese access to Tien Phuoc. If the NVA could succeed in these objectives, the mountain population would be impelled to shift to e areas under Communist control.
In 1973 the NVA engineers had improved the channel and constructed docks on the Song Tranh vest of Hau Duc, thus providing a secure water route to the NVA base at Hiep Duc. The NVA engineers also widened the road southeast to Tra Bong District in Quang Ngai. The next steps were gain access to the coast south of Tam Ky and block local Route 533 west from Tam Ky, thus , Tien Phuoc. The first target was the sprawling village of Ky Tra, a minor road junction in the hills west of Chu Lai. Outside the village was an outpost called Nui Ya. On 4 May, after a battalion of NVA infantry overran Nui Ya, the attack quickly shifted to Ky Tra as mortar, rocket, and artillery fire fell on the defending 931st RF Company, two PF platoons, and about 60 People's Self-Defense Force militia. While Ky Tra was under attack, all four ARVN fire support bases within range came under heavy mortar and rocket fire. Contact was lost with the defenders on 5 May as the NVA's 1st Infantry Regiment, 2d Division, occupied Ky Tra. This maneuver placed a major NVA force in position to support attacks against the line of communication to Tien Phuoc and to block overland movement to Hau Duc.
The attack on Ky Tra signalled the eruption of attacks by fire and ground attacks on ARVN bases and outposts throughout Quang Ngai and Quang Tin Provinces. A relief column headed by the 1st Battalion, 4th ARVN Infantry, 2d Division, was stopped by heavy enemy mortar and rocket fire nine kilometers from Ky Tra. A battalion of the 6th Regiment, 2d ARVN Division, also failed to reach Ky Tra. Meanwhile, the 31st Regiment, 2d NVA Division, launched an attack on outposts protecting Tien Phuoc, and one ARVN position, held by the 131st RF Battalion, was lost. The attacks continued on 16 and 17 May, but two RF battalions at Tien Phuoc repelled the 31st NVA Regiment attacks with heavy losses.
The fighting around Ky Tra continued. On 19 May, the 1st NVA Regiment again attacked the 1st Battalion, 4th ARVN Infantry. The understrength ARVN battalion broke and lost nearly 200 weapons and 13 field radios, impossible to replace, in the rout. While the infantry fought in the hills, the NVA pounded the 2d ARVN Division Headquarters at Chu Lai and the city of Tam Ky and its airfield with 122-mm. rockets.
Brig. Gen. Tran Van Nhut, commanding the 2d ARVN Division, sent the 12th Ranger Group, under his operational control, to reinforce Tien Phuoc. Although the NVA 31st Regiment continued to attack, it was unable to break through to Tien Phuoc. In early June, the 12th Ranger Group was relieved by the 5th Regiment, 2d Division, and the ARVN infantrymen succeeded in holding Tien Phuoc and keeping the road open to Tam Ky. Losses on both sides were heavy, and by mid-June, three battalions of the 2d ARVN Division - the 1st battalion of the 4th Infantry and the 2d and 3d Battalions of the 6th Infantry - were considered by General Nhut to be ineffective due to casualties and equipment losses. The 5th Regiment had also suffered moderate losses since 1 June on the Quang Tin battlefield, mostly along the Tam Ky-Tien Phuoc road, and was only marginally effective. Likewise, the 12th Ranger Group, which had distinguished itself in the defense of Tien Phuoc, was badly understrength because of high casualties. General Nhut had two other Ranger groups, the 11th and 14th, committed to forward positions in the hills and kept his 4th Armored Cavalry Group as division reserve.
All during the Tien Phuoc-Ky Tra battle, General Nhut had to contend with serious threats to the security of coastal Quang Ngai. There the 52d NVA Brigade maintained pressure against lines of communication and population centers, defended largely by RF and PF units whose usual performance under main-force enemy attacks was desultory at best. Occasionally, however, responding to unusually strong leadership, territorials of Quang Ngai turned in a stunning performance. For example, on 5 May south of Nghia Hanh, the 9th Battalion of the 52d NVA Regiment reinforced by the 15th NVA Engineer Battalion, 52d NVA Brigade, attacked the 117th RF Battalion, but the attack was repelled, leaving 21 dead and a number of weapons at the RF defensive position. NVA soldiers in this battle were disguised in RVNAF uniforms, a tactic frequently seen. The increase in enemy attacks during May was not confined to the coast, however. In southwest Quang Ngai, on the boundary of Kontum Province, the 70th ARVN Ranger Battalion engaged in heavy fighting with an enemy force east of Gia Vuc in mid-May. Although these inconclusive struggles typified the early summer of 1974 in Quang Tin and Quang Ngai, events of a more decisive nature were occurring in the western highlands.
By the early summer of 1974 three totally isolated outposts remained in the mountains north and northeast of Kontum City. Astride Route 14 (QL-14) in the far northwestern tip of Kontum Province was Dak Pek, occupied by the 88th Ranger Battalion with 360 men and 10 PF platoons with about 300. All contact with the camp was by air, and no artillery outside the camp itself was available to provide support for the subsector headquarters or the camp. About 3,200 people, nearly all Montagnards, lived under the protection of Dak Pek outpost, which interfered with enemy logistics along the north-south line of communication.
In fighting near the camp on 27 April, a document was captured indicating that an attack to capture Dak Pek was imminent; in early May, Ranger patrols detected the presence of an enemy regiment near the camp and discovered a cache of 60 105-mm. artillery rounds. Unknown to the Rangers then, the 29th Regiment of the 324B NVA Division had been trucked south from the A Shau Valley of Thua Thien Province. The deployment of the 29th Regiment exemplified the remarkable flexibility and newly developed mobility of the NVA, the latter attributable to its road network and to antiaircraft defenses that prevented effective interdiction. In order to assign the Dak Pek mission to the 29th Regiment, the NVA had to move it secretly 75 miles and place it under the command of B3 Front.
The commander of the 88th Ranger Battalion had sealed orders to be opened in the event Dak Pek were overrun. He was to lead the survivors through the mountains to Mang Buk, some 60 kilometers southeast. It is doubtful that Major Di ever got around to opening the orders; certainly he had no opportunity to execute them.
The Rangers had a series of encounters with NVA patrols beginning on 10 May. Two days later, following artillery, rocket, and mortar bombardments, the NVA attacked the outpost and subsector headquarters. The defenders were able to hold the enemy infantry at bay until the morning of the 16th, when, following an intense concentration of fire support, the 29th NVA Regiment, supported by tanks, closed in on the camp and subsector. Major Di maintained contact with the VNAF, flying over 70 bombing and strafing sorties during the morning and destroying at least one tank in a futile effort to save the camp. Using 37-mm. antiaircraft guns, the enemy reduced the effectiveness of South Vietnamese air support. At noon Major Di's radio fell silent under the rain of enemy fire, over 7,000 rounds of artillery, mortar, and rocket hitting the camp in the 12 hours before capitulation.
Months later, at the end of November, 14 survivors of Dak Pek escaped from NVA work camps in the jungle where they had been held since their capture on 16 May and reported to an ARVN Ranger outpost northeast of Kontum City. They said that Major Di and his executive officer had both been captured along with the survivors, that both had escaped during VNAF air strikes, but that Major Di had been recaptured the following day.
Tieu Atar was a frontier post manned by two companies from a battalion of Montagnard RF, stationed north of Ban Me Thuot, the capital of Darlac Province. Close to the Cambodian border, it interfered in a minor way with the NVA line of communication south of Duc Co. Beginning on 18 May 1974 Communist propaganda teams entered the Montagnard settlement around Camp Tieu Atar, telling the people of an impending attack and urging them to leave. About 1,200 took the warning and began a long trek south.
The attack began on 27 May when the NVA slammed 60 rounds of 82-mm. mortar into the camp. On 30 May, a concentration of 1,000 rounds began to fall on the camp. Radio contact with the 211th RF Battalion was lost when the battalion commander's bunker was destroyed by a direct hit. One to two infantry battalions attacked before noon and overran the camp. Effective VNAF support was not possible because of bad weather and lack of communications. For the NVA, the way was now clear from its major logistical center at Duc Co all the way to Ban Don.
While the enemy was toppling the few remaining ARVN outposts in the remote reaches of the Central Highlands, an NVA offensive of major proportions was taking shape farther north. Its focus was the Quang Nam lowlands.
Two major rivers entered Quang Nam Province from the south and formed a fertile delta, which, except for a narrow coastal strip on the south, was enclosed by steep mountains rising to 4,000 feet. The Province capital, Da Nang, rested at the northern edge of the delta on the beach of the strikingly beautiful crescent of Da Nang Bay. Da Nang was the most important South Vietnamese city north of Saigon and the site of a major port, a major air base, and the headquarters of I Corps and Military Region 1. National Highway 1 (QL-1) passed through Quang Nam close to the sand dunes along the coast and continued through the Hai Van Pass to Hue in Thua Thien Province. The national railway operated daily trains between Da Nang and Hue on a roadbed, much subjected to Communist harassment and sabotage, that generally paralleled the highway. The delta of Quang Nam had been a contested area before the cease-fire, but by the spring of 1973, the ARVN 3d Infantry Division and the Quang Nam territorials had established control in the flatlands up to the hills of Duc Duc District in the southwest and Thuong Duc District in the west.
Local security in Quang Nam's nine districts - which in the military chain-of-command were subsectors, subordinate to the sector chief who was also the province chief - varied from poor in the mountainous regions to good in the area of Da Nang. Hoa Vang District, the most populous, surrounded Da Nang. Its least secure villages were in the southwest corner of the district, centered on Hoa Hai Village, close to the major line of communication, Route 530, between Da Nang and the forward positions of the 3d ARVN Division in Dai Loc and Duc Duc Districts. That part of Dai Loc District which was south of the Song Vu Gia was for many years a VC stronghold - the Americans who operated there named it the Arizona Territory - but the ARVN had cleared it about the time of the cease-fire. North of the Song Vu Gia, the mountains of Dai Loc, where the ARVN could maintain no continuous presence, offered the Communists access to the lowlands.
The Communists exploited this situation frequently and interdicted from time to time the one road linking Thuong Duc District with the rest of the province. This road, local Route 4 (LTL-4), followed the north bank of the Song Vu Gia, passed through a narrow defile between the hills and the river just west of an ARVN artillery base on Hill 52, and then entered the district town of Thuong Duc. The valley of the Song Vu Gia was only 3,000 meters wide here; steep hills overlooked the district seat of Thuong Duc on the north, west, and south. There were no villages outside the district town itself secure enough for South Vietnamese officials to spend the night, and only three villages in the district had government administration by day. NVA lines of communication from the northwest and southwest reached Thuong Duc via National Route 14, which terminated there, and Route 614, which began in the large NVA logistical complex south of the A Shau Valley and joined Route 4 west of Thuong Duc. This district, therefore, was a key entrance to the Quang Nam lowlands.
Southwest of Dai Loc District was the vast mountain district of Duc Duc. Only in the extreme northeast region of Duc Duc did South Vietnamese officials maintain full-time residence. The area west of the Song Thu Bon, which included part of the Arizona Territory, was insecure and sparsely populated, as were the southern and western reaches of Duc Duc. ARVN influence extended south to the Nong Son coal mines in the narrow canyon of the Song Thu Bon, about 10 kilometers from the district seat. Here at a place called Da Trach, not far north of the major operating base of the 2d NVA Division, the ARVN maintained a garrison with outposts manned by RF units and PF platoons. Duc Duc was the other principal entrance to the Quang Nam lowlands from the NVA-held highlands of Quang Nam and Quang Tin.
The ARVN 3d Infantry Division was responsible for the defense of Quang Nam and that part of Quang Tin Iying within the Que Son Valley. In June of 1974, General Hinh, the division commander, had his 57th Infantry Regiment, reinforced by the attached 3d Battalion, 56th Infantry, defending in the Que Son Valley. His 2d Infantry Regiment was operating in the Go Noi and Duc Duc areas, while the 56th Infantry, minus its 3d Battalion, was in division reserve. The 56th's 1st Battalion was in training, and its third was at Fire Support Base Baldy at the northern entrance of the Que Son Valley. The 14th Ranger Group, which had been under the operational control of the 3d Division in Quang Nam, had been sent south to operate with the 2d ARVN Division to deal with the crisis that developed in Quang Tin. The 14th took along its 79th Ranger Battalion, which had been stationed in Thuong Duc. The 78th Ranger Battalion, which remained in Quang Nam to hold Da Trach, sent one of its companies to Thuong Duc to relieve the 79th.
Observing that matters were pretty well under control in Quang Nam and that the enemy had committed most of his 2d Division in the Quang Tin-Tien Phuoc battlefield, General Thuong, commanding I Corps, sent the 2d Infantry Regiment, 3d Division, into Tien Phuoc to eliminate elements of the 2d NVA Division and local main force units still threatening the district. Named Quang Trung 3/74, the operation included, in addition to the entire 2d Infantry, a troop of the 11th Armored Cavalry, a battalion of 105-mm. howitzers, and a battery each of 155-mm. howitzers and 175-mm. guns. The operation lasted from 2 until 15 July and was a remarkable success. The NVA was forced to withdraw from the Tien Phuoc with heavy losses; 315 of its soldiers were killed, and 150 weapons were captured. Its mission completed, the 2d Infantry began moving back to Quang Nam on 16 July but left its 3d Battalion to assist the territorials of Quang Tin Province with local security. The 1st and 2d Battalions settled into the division base camp at Hoa Khanh in the hills above Da Nang.
Meanwhile, the 79th Ranger Battalion and the 14th Ranger Group Headquarters moved back to Quang Nam Province. The 79th returned to Thuong Duc, relieving the company of the 78th Ranger Battalion, which then moved back to Da Trach. The 12th Ranger Group still had three battalions around Mo Duc in Quang Ngai Province, but rotated one battalion at a time back to Quang Nam for refitting and retraining. Two battalions had completed the cycle by 16 July.
Da Trach and Duc Duc
Da Trach, a battalion-sized camp, was a strong point situated on a prominent hill about 900 feet above the Song Thu Bong south of the subsector headquarters at Duc Duc. It had been quiet at Da Trach and around the outposts manned by one RF company and seven PF platoons. Three of these outposts were in the hills and along the river south of Da Trach, while the others were in the valley of the Khe Le stream - called Antenna Valley by the Americans who operated there before - which flowed into the Song Thu Bon northeast of Da Trach post. Also located in the valley was the 4th Company, 146th RF Battalion, which had its 80-man garrison in the Ap Ba hamlet group, along the road that twisted eastward over the Deo Le Pass to Que Son. Possession of the Khe Le Valley would give the NVA not only another flanking approach to the ARVN defenses in the Que Son Valley but would provide access to the several good trails into Duy Xuyen district, bypassing the defenses in Duc Duc.
The 78th Ranger Battalion at Da Trach, with about 360 men, was scheduled for retraining at the Ranger Training Center, and on 17 July 1974, the 3d Battalion, 56th Infantry, arrived to execute the relief. The infantry battalion pulled in on trucks just before dark. The relief was to take place at noon the next day, but the 78th had withdrawn most of its outposts and was bivouacked for the night in the village. Although unfamiliar with the layout of the camp defenses, the 3d Battalion, with three of its four companies, assumed the responsibility. Also assembled within the defenses were the drivers who had driven the 3d Battalion to Da Trach and who would take the 78th Battalion out the next morning.
The strength of the 3d Battalion, 56th Infantry, was only about 360 men, but its 2d Company was not in the camp; rather, it had set up outposts on two hills along the east bank of the Thu Bon. One rifle platoon was on Cua Tan directly across the river from Da Trach, and the rest of the company was at Khuong Que, to the north.
NVA Military Region 5 was responsible for all of Quang Nam Province to the Kontum boundary. Its campaign plan for the summer and fall of 1974 involved elements of three regular divisions, a separate infantry brigade, and several independent regiments. Objectives ranged from central Quang Nam to southern Quang Ngai. To cope with the tactical and logistical requirements of this offensive, the NVA leadership activated a new headquarters, the 3d Corps. Operational in June, the corps began concentrating resources for the Quang Nam campaign.
The 36th NVA Regiment was formed in the spring of 1974 from replacement groups sent from North Vietnam into the mountains of western Duc Duc District. It was a light regiment, having only two infantry battalions, an antiaircraft machine gun company, light artillery, and administrative support units. On 10 July, a week before the planned relief of the 78th Ranger Battalion at Da Trach, the 36th NVA Regiment moved undetected into assembly areas close to ARVN outposts around Da Trach. Also on the move toward Da Trach were elements of all three regiments of the 2d NVA Division, the 1st, 31st, and 38th, plus the 10th Sapper Battalion, division artillery, and batteries of Military Region 5 artillery.
Shortly after midnight on 18 July, the midsummer night's silence was shattered by NVA artillery, rockets, and mortar rounds exploding on the defenses and outposts of Da Trach. A relatively weak attack by the 2d Battalion, 36th NVA Regiment, on the camp's main defenses was beaten back with heavy losses to the enemy and light casualties to the defenders, but contact with the 2d Company, 3d Battalion, 56th ARVN Infantry, outposts at Khuong Que and Cua Tan was lost before daybreak. By that time, the 4th Company, 146th RF Battalion at Ap Ba had been attacked and overrun, and the survivors were trying to escape through the mountains toward Duc Duc headquarters.
Shelling of the main camp meanwhile had stopped, and the attackers regrouped for another assault. The 2d Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, and a battalion of the 31st Infantry Regiment, both of the 2d NVA Division, joined the two battalions of the 36th Regiment for the next attempt. As the reconnaissance platoon and the 4th Company, 3d Battalion, 56th ARVN Infantry, tried to retake a lost outpost south of the camp, they were stopped by intense artillery and automatic weapons fire, which killed the company commander and the battalion commander of the 78th Rangers. The enemy resumed infantry assaults on the camp, and the 3d Battalion commander, who had assumed command of the 78th Rangers as well, reported the situation critical. The camp's radio was knocked out before noon, and all contact was lost with whatever PF outposts remained in action.
Enemy tanks were sighted about 5,000 meters southwest of the camp, and the VNAF began to provide fire support to the defenders. Heavy artillery, rocket, and mortar fire continued, augmented by antiaircraft guns, up to 37-mm., used in direct fire.
Contact was also lost with the 4th Company, 78th Rangers, and the two-gun platoon of 105-mm. howitzers in the camp had been knocked out of action. At midafternoon, the five-battalion enemy assault which by this time included the 10th Sapper Battalion against the northern sector, had carried through the southwest defense line. With all bunkers and fighting positions demolished by a bombardment of more than 5,000 rounds, the survivors of the 3d and 78th Battalions withdrew, and the NVA rounded up civilians in the hamlets and villages; about 7,500 of them would be moved to Communist controlled regions of Duc Duc District.
General Hinh, from his 3d Division Headquarters above Da Nang, reacted quickly to the crisis in Duc Duc District. The subsector headquarters there had also received a heavy bombardment. General Hinh moved a forward division command post to Dai Loc and ordered the 2d Infantry Regiment to deploy immediately to Duc Duc and relieve the defenders at Da Trach. Operation Quang Trung 4/74 had begun.
Only the 3d Battalion, 2d Infantry, was immediately available; the 1st Battalion remained at Fire Support Base Baldy in the Que Son Valley, and the 2d was still in Quang Tin Province. Orders were sent to both battalions to move immediately to Dai Loc, in Quang Nam Province, and the 3d Battalion moved from Da Nang to Hill 55 in northwestern Dien Ban District to protect the deployment of artillery to support Duc Duc.
These deployments ordered, General Hinh saw as his first priority securing the bridge over the Song Thu Bon, north of Duc Duc subsector headquarters and over which all division elements would have to pass en route to the battlefield. He ordered the 1st Battalion, 2d Infantry, just arrived from FSB Baldy, with the 2d Troop, 111th Armored Cavalry, to secure the bridge and had the 3d Battalion, 2d Infantry, on 18 July move to Duc Duc District Town. His staff went to work immediately drafting the tactical plan for Quang Trung 4/74 with the objective of retaking Da Trach. The bridge secured, the 1st Battalion joined the 3d, and both moved south of Duc Duc, prepared to continue on toward Da Trach. By nightfall on the 18th, the 2d Battalion, 2d Infantry, had also moved to Duc Duc District Town, as had a battery of 155-mm. howitzers. Meanwhile a battery of 175-mm. guns moved into firing positions in the Que Son Valley, within range of Duc Duc. These ARVN artillery positions soon received heavy and accurate counterbattery fire. The commander of the 2d ARVN Infantry, Lt. Col. Vu Ngoc Huong, having assumed tactical command of all ARVN forces in the Duc Duc-Da Trach battlefield, had communications with only two platoons of the original Da Trach defense force by the evening of 18 July.
The NVA resumed its coordinated offensive in Quang Nam in the pre-dawn hours of 19 July. A salvo of 35 122-mm. rockets fell on Da Nang Air Base; damage to VNAF operations was slight, although 16 people died and over 70 were wounded - many of whom were civilians and military dependents. In the morning Duc Duc Subsector received 45 rocket and mortar rounds. NVA 130-mm. guns hit an ARVN 105-mm. battery and the 2d Infantry's command post. Meanwhile, north of Dai Loc on Route 540, the 370th RF Company repulsed a strong enemy attempt to interdict the ARVN line of communication, killing 30 of the attackers and capturing many weapons.
With the enemy's fire erupting in their rear, the 1st and 3d Battalions, 2d ARVN Infantry, advanced south from Duc Duc toward Da Trach and by noon reported securing their initial objectives without opposition. The 1st Battalion was on Ky Vi Mountain, southeast of subsector headquarters, and the 3d Battalion was on Hill 284, past Khuong Que and at the entrance of Khe Le Valley. The 2d Battalion was in reserve. The plan called for the 3d Battalion to continue the attack to Cua Tan Mountain, across the river from Da Trach, and for the 1st Battalion to attack south, first seizing Hill 454 and then descending into the Khe Le Valley at the village of Ap Ba. The feasibility of the plan came into question, however, when the last contact with the Da Trach defenders on 19 July revealed that the command group and two companies of the 78th Rangers were under heavy attack on the hill at Cua Tan.
After seizing Da Trach, the North Vietnamese placed infantry battalions and antiaircraft guns in the hills above the valley, awaiting the arrival of the 2d ARVN Infantry. The VNAF struck hard at these forces on the 18th and 19th and caused heavy casualties, but the NVA could not be dislodged. By the afternoon of 19 July, the 1st Battalion, 2d Infantry, was in contact with elements of the NVA 36th Regiment on Ky Vi Mountain and on Hill 238, to the west. The VNAF flew 18 attack sorties in support, killing 75 enemy infantrymen and destroying a mortar. But the ARVN advance had to be halted. Suspecting a trap in the Khe Le Valley, General Hinh ordered the 2d Infantry to stop and send reconnaissance patrols forward.
Correctly anticipating that the enemy's Quang Nam campaign had only begun and that more forces would be required to deal with it, General Truong on 19 July ordered the 12th Ranger Group to move from Quang Ngai to Quang Nam. The 37th Ranger Battalion, already in Da Nang for rest and retraining, moved to Hieu Duc District on 20 July. That day, the 6th Infantry, 2d ARVN Division, began relieving the other two battalions of the 12th Ranger Group in Duc Pho and Mo Duc in Quang Ngai Province, and the 12th began to move north.
By 22 July, the NVA command at Da Trach apparently discovered that the ARVN 2d Infantry Regiment was not advancing into the trap in the Khe Le Valley. Plans were accordingly changed; the rest of the 1st NVA Regiment was ordered to Da Trach to attack the ARVN 2d Regiment in the hills above Duc Duc, while the 38th Regiment was to move through the hills above the valley toward Go Noi and Dien Ban. On 24 July the 1st NVA Regiment began moving into the attack, and the 38th Regiment started deploying east. General Truong was gathering more forces also. He ordered the 29th and 39th Ranger Battalions, 12th Ranger Group, newly arrived from Quang Ngai Province, to displace west of Go Noi Island, and he directed that the 1st Division in Thua Thien and the 2d Division in Quang Ngai each prepare one regiment for deployment to Quang Nam on 24-hour notice.
On 24 July, the 2d ARVN Infantry established its command post 700 meters north of the first hill south of Duc Duc, Nui Song Su. The 2d Troop, 11th Armored Cavalry, was providing security for the command post. The 2d Battalion was moving past Hill 238 and advancing on Hill 284, which had been vacated by the 3d Battalion under strong enemy pressure. The 3d Battalion had withdrawn to the hill at Nui Duong Coi, above a lake between it and Duc Duc Subsector, where the 1st Battalion was in reserve. The 1st Battalion, 56th Infantry, attached to the 2d Infantry, was protecting the regiment's right flank west of the Song Thu Bon.
The attack of the 1st NVA Regiment met the advancing 2d Battalion, 2d ARVN Infantry, on the slopes of Hill 284. The two leading companies of the 2d Battalion broke under a withering attack. By early afternoon on 24 July, the 1st NVA's attack reached the 3d Battalion on Nui Duong Coi. The battalion held and with good air and artillery support inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy. But the assault continued, the 3d Battalion commander fell wounded, and the battalion began to break. By dusk, both forward battalions of the 2d Infantry were badly scattered and withdrawing toward Duc Duc. The NVA attack reached into the rear area of the 2d Infantry and forced the command post to drop back 1,000 meters. Seeing a disaster for the 2d Infantry in the making, General Hinh had his division reconnaissance company lifted in by helicopter to help defend the command post. Reaching the command post late in the afternoon, the reconnaissance company was soon joined by the 37th Ranger Battalion and two troops of the 111th Armored Cavalry which General Hinh had sent overland to reinforce the beleaguered 2d Infantry.
On the morning of 25 July, while an attempt was being made to regroup the scattered 3d Battalion, General Hinh ordered the 12th Ranger Group to bring its three battalions forward and relieve the 2d Infantry. As this relief was beginning, General Truong had the 1st Division send its 54th Infantry Regiment to Quang Nam for attachment to the 3d Division. Further, he cancelled all unit training in I Corps except for the 137th RF Battalion, soon to complete its training cycle.
The fighting in the hills south of Duc Duc took a heavy toll of the NVA 1st Regiment, and the 2d NVA Division had to withdraw it from action, just as the 3d ARVN Division had to relieve the 2d Infantry. The 38th NVA Regiment was ordered to stop its eastward movement and come to the relief of the 1st Regiment, while elements of the 31st NVA Regiment still around Hau Duc in Quang Tin Province were called forward to the division base at Hiep Duc to prepare to assist the 1st and 38th Regiments. The NVA plans for the 38th Regiment to move east into Go Noi were upset by the rapid ARVN deployment of the 12th Ranger Group. The battered 1st NVA Regiment was no longer equipped to protect the rear of the 38th or its line of communication against the expected counterattacks of the three Ranger battalions of the 12th Group. Further, the North Vietnamese soon learned of the movement of the 54th ARVN Regiment to Quang Nam, but they could not discover its mission or location. Considering these uncertainties, the NVA command suspended the attack and held its gains, replacing depleted battalions with fresh ones.
General Hinh had reached similar conclusions on 25 July. He declared the counterattack to retake Da Trach at an end; Quang Trung 4/74 was over and Quang Trung 8/74, an interim operation to defend the shallow positions south of Duc Duc Subsector, began. By this time, virtually all of the survivors of Da Trach had made their way back to friendly lines. Sixty-four were from the 3d Battalion, 56th Infantry; 79 from the 78th Ranger Battalion; 59 from the 4th Company, 146 RF Battalion; and 20 from the PF platoons. A few were village officials.
The 54th Infantry, 1st ARVN Division, arrived in Quang Nam on 26 July, put its headquarters at Dien Ban District Town, and immediately went into action. While the 1st Battalion took over a security mission in the Da Nang rocket belt near Hill 55, the 2d and 3d Battalions began clearing the area around Ky Chau Village on Go Noi Island. Both the 2d and 3d met heavy resistance and proceeded westward slowly, engaging an enemy force on 28 July and dispersing it with heavy losses.
Duc Duc and Dai Loc were struck on 25 July and again the next day by enemy rocket and artillery fire, but casualties were light. On 26 July, the Rangers completed their relief of the 2d Infantry and assumed responsibility for the sector. The 21st Ranger Battalion to the east was holding Nui Van Chi, the 37th Ranger Battalion was on Hill 238, just south of Nui Song Su, and the 39th Ranger Battalion was at Duc Duc Subsector in reserve. The shattered 2d Infantry moved west of Dai Loc District Town along Route 4 to protect the division right flank, while its 3d Battalion was being reformed at the division base near Da Nang. Meanwhile, the VNAF was trying its best to blunt the enemy attacks. The 1st Air Division flew 67 attack sorties on the 25th and 57 on the 26th, destroying a tank and several antiaircraft and mortar positions, striking large troop concentrations, and killing about 90 enemy soldiers.
The NVA continued to batter ARVN rear areas. Water-sappers reached the Nam O Bridge on Highway 1 north of Da Nang before dawn on 27 July and dropped one span, but ARVN engineers had the bridge open with a Bailey truss by early afternoon. On 29 July NVA gunners sent 70 122-mm. rockets into the inhabited area around Da Nang Air Base and its ammunition dump. Casualties and damage were light, however.
With the withdrawal of 2d Infantry, Quang Trung 8/74 was declared over on 29 July. Quang Trung 9/74 was to begin on 30 July. The troop list had the 12th Ranger Group in contact south of Duc Duc, the 2d Infantry on the flank west of Dai Loc, the 54th in the Go Noi east of Dai Loc, and the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 56th Infantry in reserve in Dai Loc District Town. The 3d Battalion, 56th Infantry, the battalion destroyed at Da Trach, was being reformed at Da Nang, while the 78th Ranger Battalion was undergoing the same process at the Duc My Ranger Training Center in Khanh Hoa Province.
When the 79th Ranger Battalion, 14th Ranger Group, returned from Quang Ngai to Quang Nam in mid-July of 1974 and assumed the defense of the post at Thuong Duc, the westernmost ARVN position in the province, the battle in the hills south of neighboring Duc Duc District Town was under way as NVA Military Region 5 committed all of its 2d Division there and in the Que Son Valley south of Duc Duc. Ranger and PF patrols and outposts around Thuong Duc reported little enemy activity, not unexpectedly since known enemy forces in Quang Nam were heavily engaged. Neither the Thuong Duc garrison nor, for that matter, the G-2 at I Corps Headquarters even suspected that the 29th NVA Regiment was rolling north to Thuong Duc following its mid-May conquest of Dak Pek.
The NVA shelling of Thuong Duc began on 29 July, while a volley of rockets fell on Da Nang Air Base. Infantry assaults on all outposts followed. Communication was quickly broken between Thuong Duc Subsector and three PF outposts. Contact was also lost with two Ranger outposts in the hills west of the town. ARVN artillery on Hill 52, near Dai Loc, gave effective support to the Thuong Duc defense, and enemy casualties were high.
Early on the morning of 30 July, the subsector commander was wounded by the continuing heavy bombardment, but all ground attacks were repulsed. Later that morning VNAF observers saw a convoy of tanks and artillery approaching along Route 4 west of Thuong Duc, and subsequent air strikes halted the column, destroying three tanks. As NVA attacks continued throughout the day, the Rangers of Thuong Duc took their first prisoner of war, and identified the presence of the 29th Regiment on the battlefield. Not apparent at the time, the 29th had been detached from the 324B NVA Division and was operating under NVA Military Region 5.
In an assault on 31 July, NVA infantrymen reached the perimeter wire of Thuong Duc. The Ranger battalion commander asked for artillery fire directly on his command post. With the NVA occupying the high ground above Route 4 east of Thuong Duc, the ARVN 3d Division and I Corps commanders believed that the forces available to them were inadequate to relieve Thuong Duc. To protect his flank, General Hinh had placed the battered 2d Infantry on the road west of Dai Loc, but it was not strong enough to move west along Route 4. More fire support for Thuong Duc was provided, however, when General Hinh moved a platoon of 175-mm. guns to Hieu Duc. Conditions in the Thuong Duc perimeter were serious but not yet critical. Most of the South Vietnamese bunkers and trenches had collapsed under heavy artillery fire, the enemy controlled the airstrip just outside the camp, and casualties were 13 killed and 45 wounded.
Although the intensity of the NVA bombardment dropped off between 31 July and 1 August, Ranger casualties continued to mount. NVA gunners shifted their concentrations to 2d Infantry positions and ARVN artillery batteries near Dai Loc, causing moderate casualties and damaging four howitzers. The Ranger commander at Thuong Duc asked for medical evacuation for his wounded, but the commander of the VNAF 1st Air Division advised that air evacuation would not be attempted until the NVA antiaircraft guns around Thuong Duc had been neutralized. Meanwhile, General Truong ordered one M-48 tank company to move immediately from northern Military Region 1 to Quang Nam for attachment to the 3d Division - he told General Hinh to keep the tank company in reserve and to employ it only in an emergency. General Hinh then formed a task force to attack west from Dai Loc and relieve the Rangers at Thuong Duc. The tank company from Tan My, in Thua Thien Province, arrived in Da Nang in good order on 1 August, and General Hinh's task force, composed of the 2d Infantry and the 11th Armored Cavalry Squadron, prepared for the march to Thuong Duc.
On 2 August, with only light attacks by fire striking the camp, the Ranger battalion resumed patrolling beyond its perimeter. On 4 August Ranger patrols discovered 53 NVA bodies killed by VNAF air strikes in the hills southwest of Thuong Duc, but attempts at air evacuation of ARVN casualties failed when VNAF sorties against six antiaircraft positions south of the camp were unable to silence the guns. The next day, the first indication of another committed NVA regiment was revealed when the 2d Battalion, 2d Infantry, captured a soldier from the 29th NVA Regiment east of Thuong Duc. According to the prisoner, the entire 29th Regiment was positioned in the hills overlooking Route 4 between Hill 52 and Thuong Duc, while a regiment of the NVA 304th Division had been given the mission to seize Thuong Duc. Events proved this interrogation to be accurate. The 2d Battalion had fought all afternoon in the rice paddies and hills north of Route 4. Slowly moving toward Thuong Duc, it was still four kilometers east of the ARVN fire base on Hill 52, which itself was under enemy artillery and infantry attack. By 5 August, the 2d Battalion was still struggling to move forward along the foothills north of Route 4, and the 1st Battalion, 57th ARVN Infantry, reinforcing the 2d Regiment, was stopped by heavy enemy machine gun fire from the hills west of Hill 52.
Back at Thuong Duc, the situation was rapidly becoming critical as ammunition and food supplies were being exhausted. The VNAF attempted a resupply drop on the camp on 5 August, but all eight bundles of food and ammunition fell outside the perimeter. The VNAF tried to destroy bundles that were within reach of the NVA, and one A-37 attack plane was shot down in the attempt.
The next day, while the relief task force was battling its way west against heavy resistance, General Truong, concerned about the critical threat to Da Nang from a large NVA force west of Dai Loc, ordered fresh reinforcements to Quang Nam. Appealing personally to General Vien at the Joint General Staff in Saigon, General Truong succeeded in getting the 1st Airborne Brigade released from the general reserve for deployment to Quang Nam and attachment to General Hinh's 3d Division. The brigade was ordered to reach Da Nang by 11 August with three airborne infantry battalions and one artillery battalion. Additionally, the 3d Airborne Brigade, then deployed in the defense of Hue, was told to prepare for movement to Da Nang. But none of these measures would save Thuong Duc; the NVA overran the small garrison on 7 August.
Thuong Duc had absorbed hundreds of artillery and mortar shells since the attack began, but the bombardment of 7 August was singular in its intensity. Over 1,200 rounds, including many from 130-mm. guns, landed inside the perimeter beginning on the night of 6 August. The first wave of infantrymen was repulsed that night, but the assault at dawn the next day penetrated the defense. At midmorning, the Ranger commander reported that he had started a withdrawal. Soon radio contact was lost. The gallant ordeal of another ARVN Ranger battalion was over. With Dak Pek and Tieu Atar lost in May, speculation at II Corps Headquarters in Pleiku held that Mang Buk would be next.
Perched on a hill above the Dak Nghe River, about 4,000 feet above sea level, Mang Buk was over 50 kilometers north of Kontum City and about 30 kilometers north of Chuong Nghia (Plateau Gi). A Communist supply route, locally known as A-16, connected Kontum with Quang Ngai and Binh Dinh Provinces and passed south of Mang Buk. The small garrison at Mang Buk, two RF companies and two PF platoons, had no capability to interfere with movement along this route. The subsector commander was under orders to keep one company in the camp and to patrol out to 2,000 meters. His firepower consisted of two 106-mm. recoilless rifles, two 81-mm. mortars, and some machine guns.
Realizing the threat to Mang Buk as well as its vulnerability, the Kontum province chief, Lt. Col. Mai Xuan Hau, ordered the evacuation of civilians from Mang Buk in June 1974. By the time the Communists began their siege on 25 July, all but 800 civilians had left.
Measured against other NVA sieges, the one at Mang Buk was light indeed; only 3,000 rounds hit the camp between 25 July and 4 August, while the subsector claimed 55 enemy killed. Other than 107-mm. rockets, the heaviest projectiles the enemy used were 82-mm. mortars. On 18 August, after a respite, the camp again came under heavy fire. The next day two battalions of the 66th Regiment of the 10th NVA Division, supported by artillery, overran the camp. Without artillery and denied air support by the low cloud cover, the defenders withdrew and headed for Chuong Nghia, the last remaining outpost in Kontum Province. The enemy was not far behind.
When II Corps Headquarters announced on 4 August 1974 that the first phase of the Mang Buk siege was over, the siege of Plei Me began. A well fortified position about midway between Pleiku City and the fallen outpost of Tieu Atar. Plei Me was defended by the 82d Ranger Battalion, which in April had been ejected from Fire Support Base 711 by an NVA assault. By early August FSB 711, an artillery base north of Plei Me, was back in ARVN hands and able to support the Plei Me defense.
From its base near Duc Co, the 320th NVA Division planned and executed the attack on Plei Me. Reconnaissance and deployments for the attack began in early June as the 48th Infantry Regiment, elements of the 64th Infantry Regiment, and an artillery battalion and an antiaircraft battalion of the 320th moved close to Plei Me. The ARVN II Corps reacted by reinforcing FSB 711 with the 42d Infantry of the 22d ARVN Division and striking enemy assembly areas with air and artillery attacks. The 320th delayed its attack but kept elements of its 48th Regiment near Plei Me. When ARVN II Corps moved the 42d Infantry back to Binh Dinh Province, the NVA B-3 Front saw an opportunity for a long-awaited assault on Plei Me.
The ARVN 82d Ranger Battalion at Plei Me, in addition to its four rifle companies, was reinforced by the 2d Company, 81st Ranger Battalion. The main defense was inside Plei Me Camp itself, with outposts in Chu Ho Hill and Hill 509. When the attack began, the 2d Company was patrolling outside the camp, and only 22 men were able to get back to the camp before the enemy closed off all access. The battalion headquarters was also outside the main defenses when the attack started, but the staff managed to dash in through the main gate before being cut off.
The 320th NVA Division employed at least four infantry battalions from its 9th and 48th Regiments, plus the 26th Independent Regiment of the B-3 Front, and later a battalion of its 64th Regiment, against the 410 men of the ARVN Rangers and the fire bases and relief columns supporting them. Artillery support included at least two 130-mm. guns and three 120-mm. mortars in addition to 85-mm. field guns, 82-mm. mortars, and recoilless rifles. At least 12 heavy antiaircraft machine guns (12.7-mm., equivalent to the U.S. .50-caliber) were in position to fire into the camp and at VNAF aircraft.
Vacating the bunkers bombarded by heavy Soviet mortars firing delay-fused projectiles, ARVN Rangers fought from their spider-web pattern of trenches. Two concentric fences of concertina barbed wire ringed the camp. The outer fence, six rows of concertina laced with mines, enclosed a 25-meter minefield strewn with claymores, trip grenades, and command-detonated 105-mm. howitzer projectiles.
Unlike Dak Pek and Tieu Atar, Plei Me was supported by artillery from outside the area under attack. ARVN batteries of 105-mm. and 155-mm. howitzers at Fire Support Base 711 provided excellent support. Artillery at Phu Nhon helped on the southern and eastern approaches, and 175-mm. guns covered the entire perimeter. The commander of the 82d Ranger Battalion and his deputy called and adjusted all fire missions, restricting radio traffic to themselves because the enemy monitored ARVN tactical nets.
Six days after the attack began, the outpost of Chu Ho fell on 10 August, followed five days later by Hill 509, but the main camp held on. Later, the battalion commander said that the outposts fell because they had run out of food. The main camp would have been defeated too if it had not rained, for there was no resupply of water during the 29-day siege. In any case, on 2 September the NVA 320th Division withdrew from the bloody field of Plei Me. It had launched 20 ground assaults, fired over 10,000 artillery and mortar rounds, and lost at least 350 soldiers in its attempt to overrun the 82d Ranger Battalion.
Duc Duc and Que Son
On 29 July 1974, when the NVA first attacked Thuong Duc, the ARVN 21st Ranger Battalion on the left flank of the Ranger positions protecting Duc Duc District came under heavy attack. Although they inflicted heavy casualties on the 36th NVA Regiment, the Rangers were forced back about 1,000 meters to the slopes of Nui Duong Coi. The NVA pursued, and fighting continued in the rough terrain in front of Nui Duong Coi for several days. Then on 3 August, the 36th Regiment launched a strong attack. Several Ranger positions collapsed, and the commander of the 12th Ranger Group ordered the 39th Ranger Battalion to assist the 21st. After an all-day battle, the enemy withdrew and the Rangers regained all lost ground. The VNAF contributed greatly to the ARVN success; although Ranger casualties were high - more than 35 killed, 100 wounded, and 25 missing - the NVA left over 200 dead on the field. While the infantry fought in the hills, the NVA artillery slammed 280 rounds of 122-mm. rockets and 100-mm. gunfire into the command post of the 12th Ranger Group. Casualties were light, however. Fatigued and badly depleted, the 12th Ranger Group was relieved by the 54th Infantry, 1st ARVN Division. With its battalions down to 200 men each, the group withdrew to the rear to receive replacements and a much-needed rest. Through August and early September, the ARVN 54th Infantry made major advances even though the NVA reinforced the 36th Regiment with the 1st Infantry.
Other reinforcements were on their way from North Vietnam. The 41st Infantry Regiment with three infantry battalions and a sapper battalion arrived in Thanh My, southwest of Thuong Duc, in mid-August and soon deployed between Thuong Duc and Duc Duc.
While central Quang Nam Province was quaking under the NVA offensive, ARVN forces defending the Que Son Valley also came under heavy attack. The first outpost to fall was a hill southwest of Que Son District Town defended by an RF company and one company of the 57th ARVN Infantry. When contact was lost with the defenders on 31 July, General Truong ordered major changes in r Corps dispositions that inevitably weakened the ARVN hold on contested regions of Quang Ngai Province.
On 1 August, the responsibility for the Que Son Valley was transferred from the 3d ARVN Division, heavily engaged in Thuong Duc and Duc Duc, to the 2d Division. The 57th Infantry, minus a battalion attached to the 2d Infantry in Duc Duc, was attached to the 2d Division in the Que Son Valley, and the 4th Infantry was deployed to the valley from Binh Son District in Quang Ngai Province to be the I Corps reserve south of the Hai Van Pass. To compensate for the 4th Infantry's departure, the 5th Infantry was moved to Binh Son, and the 6th Infantry took over the 5th Infantry's mission in Duc Pho. Only territorials and a few Rangers were left in the threatened Mo Duc District of Quang Ngai.
The 4th Infantry was immediately engaged by two NVA battalions between Fire Support Base Baldy and Que Son. Although no more important positions were lost, fighting continued sporadically for the rest of the year in the Que Son Valley. Da Nang air base was subjected to several rocket attacks during August, but casualties and damage were negligible.
In September, faced with a deteriorating situation north of the Hai Van Pass, General Truong returned troops to the 1st ARVN Division in Thua Thien. Since the 54th Infantry Regiment had pushed the forward defenses of Duc Duc south almost to the Khe Le Valley and the 56th Infantry had partially recovered from punishing summer battles, he ordered the 54th to return to its parent division. General Hinh relieved the 54th with his own division's 56th Infantry. Thus, in early September, the infantrymen of the 56th Regiment returned to the battle-scarred hills of Duc Duc. The 3d Battalion took up positions on the right, on Khuong Que Hill where its 2d Company had fought and lost the first engagement of the enemy's Duc Duc campaign. The 1st Battalion was on the left, on Ky Vi Hill, and the 2d Battalion was in reserve with the regimental headquarters near Duc Duc Subsector.
The 1st NVA Regiment, 2d Division, launched simultaneous, heavily supported assaults on both forward battalions of the 56th Regiment on 4 October. While mortar and artillery fire pounded the 3d Battalion command post, NVA sappers entered the headquarters perimeter and severed communications with the two forward ARVN companies. These companies, under infantry attack from the front, withdrew and were caught in a devastating crossfire from the rear and flanks. The 1st Battalion fared little better; its outposts were also overrun, but casualties were lighter. The NVA coordinated artillery fire with great skill in this assault; a steady rain of shells kept the 56th Regiment's headquarters and the 2d Battalion from reacting while the two forward battalions were being overrun. As soon as he was able, the regimental commander ordered the attached 21st Ranger Battalion back into the line to relieve the shattered 3d Battalion.
The 1st NVA Regiment had accomplished its mission, but casualties were heavy, and it lacked the strength either to pursue or to consolidate its gains. The ARVN defensive line south of Duc Duc remained virtually unchanged, but the 56th Regiment was nearly out of action. Only the 2d Battalion could put more than 300 men in the field, and the 3d Battalion had only 200. General Hinh had to relieve the regiment again with the 12th Ranger Group.
During the summer and fall of 1974, the 3d ARVN Division and attached Rangers had reached exhaustion. By any standards, casualties had been extremely high. More than 4,700 men had been killed, wounded, or were missing in the actions in and around Duc Duc in the three months since the Communist offensive began at Da Trach on 18 July. A disproportionate number were officers and noncommissioned officers for whom no experienced replacements were available.
The first contingent of the 1st Airborne Brigade was flown into Da Nang on 8 August 1974, the day after the 79th Ranger Battalion was driven out of Thuong Duc. Meanwhile the brigade's heavy equipment was moving up the coast from Saigon on Vietnamese Navy boats. On 11 August General Truong ordered the 3d Airborne Brigade to deploy with three airborne battalions to Da Nang. By 14 August, the brigade headquarters and the 2d, 3d, and 6th Battalions were in Quang Nam, their defensive sectors in Thua Thien having been taken over by the 15th Ranger Group under the operational control of the ARVN 1st Infantry Division. Brig. Gen. Le Quong Luong, commanding the Airborne Division, established his command post at Marble Mountain south of Da Nang. His 2d Brigade remained in Thua Thien attached to the Marine Division.
A steep ridge extended north from the Song Vu Gia and Route 4. The low hills at the southern foot of the ridge had been seized by the 29th NVA Regiment, which had blocked the ARVN task force's relief of the Rangers at Thuong Duc. The highest point on the ridge was about six kilometers north of Route 4 on Hill 1235, but Hill 1062, about 2,000 meters south of Hill 1235, offered the best observation of the road and Dai Loc. Having placed an observation post on Hill 1062, the NVA was delivering accurate artillery fire on ARVN positions in Dai Loc. Consequently, the first mission assigned to the Airborne Division was the capture of Hill 1062 and the ridge south to the road. To deal with the threat developing west of Da Nang, the 3d Airborne Brigade was assigned the secondary mission of blocking the western approaches in Hieu Duc District.
The 8th and 9th Airborne Battalions began the attack and made their first firm contact with elements of the 29th NVA Regiment on 18 August east of Hill 52, the same area in which the 3d ARVN Division Task Force had run into strong resistance. For an entire month, these battalions doggedly pressed forward along the ridge toward Hill 1062. In the meantime, having sustained heavy casualties, the 29th NVA Regiment brought in reinforcements. The NVA 3d Corps ordered the 31st NVA Regiment, 2d Division, to Thuong Duc to relieve the 66th Regiment, 304th NVA Division, so that the 66th could be deployed in support of the 29th, which was steadily giving ground to attacking Airborne troops. Additionally, the 24th Regiment, 304th NVA Division, arrived in the battle area in early September. Finally, on 19 September, the 1st Airborne Brigade reported that it had troopers on Hill 1062.
While the ARVN was taking nearly two weeks to consolidate the controlling terrain along this section of the ridge, the 66th NVA Regiment relieved the severely depleted 29th, and elements of the 24th NVA Regiment joined the fight against the 1st Airborne Brigade. By 2 October, the brigade was in possession of the high ground, and the 2d and 9th Battalions were digging in on the ridge to the south. About 300 enemy soldiers were killed in this phase of the battle on Hill 1062, and seven prisoners of war were taken. All were from the 304th - the Dien Bien Phu Division - one of the first regular units in the Viet Minh formed by General Giap in 1950.
During the weeks that followed, the 1st Airborne Brigade fought off repeated attempts by the 304th NVA Division to retake the ridge. Making skillful use of air and artillery support, the brigade managed to hold on despite the heavily supported assaults of superior numbers. In one incident, when the 24th NVA Infantry was allowed to penetrate the defenses on hills 383 and 126 and advance directly into a killing zone of preplanned artillery fires, nearly 250 of the attacking force was killed.
By mid-October, the 1st Airborne Brigade had also taken heavy casualties, and the four battalions in the hills above Thuong Duc were down to about 500 men each. Estimated enemy losses were over 1,200 killed during the first half of October, and 14 soldiers of the Dien Bien Phu Division were prisoners of war. The NVA, nevertheless, was determined to regain the dominating heights. On 29 October, the reinforced 24th NVA Regiment began another assault on Hill 1062, this time firing large concentrations of tear gas. This assault carried to the highest position on the ridge, forcing an airborne battalion to withdraw. On 1 November, Hill 1062 was again in enemy hands.
Meanwhile in Thua Thien Province, enemy pressure against the lightly held Hue defenses was becoming severe, and General Truong was receiving strongly phrased requests from his elements north of the Hai Van Pass to return at least some of the Airborne Division. General Truong resisted and ordered Brig. Gen. Le Quong Luong of the Airborne to retake Hill 1062. The attack began on 8 November, and three days later ARVN troopers were back on the ridge. They established new defensive positions on the slopes, leaving the furrowed, shattered crest to the dozens of NVA dead who remained there. Although heavy fighting continued in the hills and on the ridge for several more weeks as the Airborne Division expanded its control of critical terrain, the most violent phase of one of the bloodiest battles since the cease-fire was over. The Airborne Division had lost nearly 500 of its soldiers killed since its commitment in Quang Nam Province on 15 August. Nearly 2,000 had been wounded. Enemy casualties were estimated to be about 2,000 killed and 5,000 wounded. Seven of the nine airborne battalions had fought in the three month campaign, and by mid-November six of these were on Hill 1062. The enemy had observation of the airborne positions from the heights of Hill 1235, but General Luong could not muster enough force to take this peak and still defend what he had. Similarly, the enemy lacked the forces to counterattack in strength.
By the end of 1974, all but two airborne battalions were withdrawn from Hill 1062. The remaining 1st and 7th Battalions kept patrols there and depended on artillery fires to deny the terrain to enemy occupation, but placed their main battle positions near Dong Lam Mountain, about 4 kilometers to the east, and in the ridges above Hill 52.
The rainy season had reached Quang Nam Province in October and provided some respite from the intense and continual combat of summer. Both sides needed this time to recuperate and prepare for the next dry season and, although neither knew it then, the final NVA offensive.
While the first phase of the siege of Mang Buc was under way, the rest of Kontum Province was relatively quiet. On 2 August 1974, Brig. Gen. Le Trung Tuong, commanding the 23d ARVN Division and responsible for the security of the western Central Highlands (Kontum, Pleiku, Darlac and Quang Duc Provinces), moved his main headquarters from Kontum to a more central location in Pleiku. In Kontum he left a forward command post and a sizable force of infantry under the command of his deputy, Colonel Hu The Quang. The troops under Colonel Quang's command included the 45th ARVN Infantry Regiment, defending the northeast approaches to Kontum City and operating in the mountainous jungle between Route 5B (LTL-5B) and Outpost Number 4. About 15 kilometers northeast of Kontum, Outpost Number 4 was lost to an NVA attack during the summer and never recovered by the ARVN. It had provided a base for interdicting an NVA road, called Route 715, which the Communists were constructing from Vo Dinh, northeast of Kontum, toward Binh Dinh. North of Outpost Number 4, Outpost Number 5 served a similar purpose, but it was also lost to the NVA that summer.
Colonel Quang had the 40th ARVN Infantry Regiment, attached from the 22d ARVN Division, securing the northwestern approaches to the city. Two battalions of the 44th ARVN Infantry Regiment were in reserve behind the 40th northwest of Kontum, while the third battalion was retraining in Ban Me Thuot. Three RF battalions manned outposts along the northern and western approaches, while a fourth RF battalion and two Ranger battalions secured the southern reaches of the province and the Chu Pao Pass.
Although Colonel Quang felt that he could defend Kontum City, ARVN formations in the highlands had lost the mobility that had previously enabled II Corps to deploy forces rapidly by air - from small patrols to entire divisions - to meet enemy threats and somewhat nullify the advantages of initiative and surprise. Constraints on fuel and maintenance had all but eliminated air mobility. Long range reconnaissance patrols, formerly moved by helicopter, were now walking to objective areas, their range and ability to remain drastically shortened. Logistical airlift for the entire province was limited to one CH-47 helicopter; consequently, nearly all supply and evacuation was trucked as far as possible, then carried over steep trails to forward positions. Thus, even in good weather, the ARVN could not reinforce or rescue isolated outposts such as Mang Buc.
As Mang Buc was overrun, the NVA B-3 Front conducted attacks along the Kontum defenses that held the meager II Corps reserves in place, denying reinforcements to Mang Buc. Enemy pressure declined after Mang Buc's fall, and the ARVN in Kontum concentrated on the enemy's Route 715, which by mid-September had been extended to within 15 kilometers of the boundary of Binh Dinh and Pleiku Provinces, bypassing the Kontum defenses on the east. The ARVN II Corps sent long range reconnaissance patrols against the road to lay mines and sabotage trucks and road building equipment, and air strikes were called in. Four 175-mm. guns in Kontum, with fires adjusted by the Province's remaining L-19 observation plane, also interdicted Route 715. Persistent ARVN attacks caused high casualties among the NVA work parties and temporarily stopped further extension of the road.
While II Corps was pounding away at Route 715, the NVA B-3 Front was preparing to attack Chuong Nghia. Aware of an impending attack, II Corps headquarters moved the 254th RF Battalion, operating west of Kontum City, to reinforce the defense of Chuong Nghia. By the end of September 1974 the garrison had 600 men - 280 from the 254th, one RF Company, and nine PF platoons. The defense included a ring of outposts as far as six kilometers from the camp, intermediate outposts about three kilometers away, and an inner ring about 1,000 meters out. About 2,000 civilians lived within the camp's perimeter.
The NVA attacked the outposts on 30 September. Two 105-mm. howitzers in Chuong Nghia could not adequately support the widely scattered platoons and companies and one by one, the outposts were overrun. Although the commander of II Corps, General Toan, ordered two 175-mm. guns to move up Route 5B from Kontum to support the defense, the poor condition of the road made the going very slow. As the attacks continued on 1 October, II Corps sent an RF company by air to Chuong Nghia.
By 2 October, five outposts had fallen and the camp was under heavy bombardment. The ARVN 251st RF Battalion was at the Kontum airfield waiting to be flown to Chuong Nghia, but heavy enemy fire on the airstrip prevented the landing. The two 175-mm. guns were not yet in range.
The final assault began on 3 October with heavy artillery concentrations falling on the subsector headquarters and on the command post of the 254th RF Battalion. Volleys of 1,000 rounds were followed by the assault of a battalion of NVA infantry, from the 28th Regiment, against the subsector and 254th RF Battalion. Defensive positions were quickly overrun. Chuong Nghia was lost, and few survived. Although VNAF fighter-bombers were employed against the 28th NVA Regiment and its supporting artillery, the last major outpost in Kontum Province had fallen. Without supporting artillery, the South Vietnamese had no way to hold a small, isolated garrison against a determined, well supported NVA attack.
The demands for reinforcements in Quang Nam Province and in the Que Son Valley had spread the ARVN very thin in Quang Ngai Province, which had been boiling with enemy activity since early summer. The 2d ARVN Division, under Brig. Gen. Tran Van Nhut, had conducted fairly successful pacification and security operations in Quang Ngai, but the vast expanse of territory it had to cover was vulnerable to hit-and-run Communist attacks. Furthermore, a number of ARVN outposts were deep in the hills beyond supporting or quick reinforcing distance.
The principal adversary opposing the ARVN in Quang Ngai was still the 52d NVA Brigade, which had four infantry battalions, a sapper battalion, and supporting artillery. The brigade had its battalions deployed west of National Highway 1 (QL-1), and south of Nghia Hanh District Town in position to threaten the populated areas of Mo Duc and Duc Pho, as well as the mountain district seats at Son Ha, Tra Bong, and Minh Long and the frontier outpost of Gia Vuc in the far western edge of Ba To District. Five other battalions of local sappers and infantry were disposed close to Route 1 from the northern district of Binh Son south to Duc Pho, and one battalion had infiltrated into the Batangan Peninsula east of Binh Son.
Augmenting the 2d ARVN Division in Quang Ngai Province were 12 RF battalions and 3 battalions of the 11th Ranger Group. The 68th Ranger Battalion was at Son Ha District Town, over the mountains west of Quang Ngai City; the 69th Ranger Battalion was in Tra Bong, up the Tra Bong River from Binh Son; and the 70th Ranger Battalion was still defending the outpost at Gia Vuc.
Timing operations with the opening of the offensive in Quang Nam Province, the NVA initiated heavy attacks by fire and ground assaults throughout Quang Ngai on the night of 19 July 1974. The following morning, NVA gunners fired at the base at Chu Lai with eight 122-mm. rockets but caused no damage. Attacks continued for five days before the intensity began to fall off.
Meanwhile, the critical situation in Quang Nam impelled General Truong to order Maj. Gen. Le Van Nhut to send his 4th Infantry Regiment to take over defense of the Que Son Valley, relieving the 3d ARVN Division of a responsibility that had distracted General Hinh from the principal threat in central Quang Nam. Heavy NVA attacks flared again on 3 and 4 August in the central district of Nghia Hanh. In the hills south of the district town in the Cong Hoa Valley, the 118th RF Battalion was overrun following a heavy artillery concentration. Two battalions, one RF and the other from the 5th Infantry, were sent to reinforce the 118th, but they arrived too late to rescue the position. General Truong and General Nhut saw the hard-won gains of the summer slipping away. There were no spectacular enemy initiatives: just a gradual erosion of security as one small position after another fell to short, violent enemy assaults. But with so few troops available, South Vietnamese commanders could do little to halt the decline, much less restore the earlier situation. The first of the district headquarters to fall during the NVA offensive was Minh Long when elements of the 52d NVA Brigade overran the two defending RF Companies on 17 August. Outposts held by the 15 local PF platoons collapsed quickly under the weight of NVA artillery. A platoon of 105-mm. artillery was soon out of action, its howitzers damaged by enemy fire. A three-battalion ARVN relief force failed to make any headway, and NVA trucks were seen hauling ammunition into Minh Long on 23 August. Three days after the fall of Minh Long, General Nhut asked General Truong for permission to withdraw the 70th Ranger Battalion from Gia Vuc, now completely isolated and exposed to Communist attack. General Nhut also wanted to pull the 68th and 69th Rangers out of Son Ha and Tra Bong because these battalions had poor prospects for survival against heavy NVA firepower. General Truong understood, but he would not agree to abandoning any districts to the Communists without a fight.
Artillery fire on Gia Vuc began on 19 September, followed shortly by ground assaults. Five outposts fell, but the Rangers moved out quickly and retook three of them. But without artillery support or air strikes - the weather was bad - and losing 50 men killed and as many wounded, the 70th Ranger Battalion was unable to hold. The camp fell on 21 September. Only 21 survivors eventually made it back to ARVN lines.
Some help for beleaguered Quang Ngai Province appeared on 1 October when the 4th Infantry, 2d ARVN Infantry Division, returned to Chu Lai from its operations in the Que Son Valley to try to recover the terrain lost to the NVA south of Nghia Hanh District Town. Well entrenched, the Communists had even moved a battery of 37-mm. antiaircraft guns to within four kilometers of the district town, but the guns were soon destroyed by ARVN artillery. The enemy force blocking the 4th Infantry's advance included three battalions of the 52d NVA Brigade. The 4th Infantry took heavy casualties but made no significant gains.
In December, the reconstituted battalions of the 14th Ranger Group from Quang Nam Province reinforced the 6th ARVN Infantry in heavy fighting on the Batangan Peninsula. Casualties were high, but the improvements to local security were slight.
As the year ended in Quang Ngai, the advantage and initiative lay in enemy hands. South Vietnamese territorial forces were understrength and dispirited; the once-effective 2d ARVN Division could field battalions of only 300 men each, and Ranger battalions were sorely fatigued from continual combat.
The NVA's strategic raids campaign in the vast region south of the Hai Van had accomplished three things that placed NVA forces in an excellent position to begin a major offensive. First, although NVA casualties were very high, the campaign had severely depleted the ARVN of experienced leaders and soldiers. Replacements were not well trained or in sufficient numbers to bring battered battalions up to strength. On the other hand, the NVA replacement flow was copious and free from interference. Second, NVA command, staff, logistics, and communications had been thoroughly expanded and proven during this campaign; the new 3d Corps had the valuable experience of a major offensive behind it. Third, the NVA had pushed its holdings to the edge of the narrow coastal plain and was within artillery range of nearly every major South Vietnamese installation and population center. Similar progress, meanwhile, was being made north of the Hai Van Pass.
Note on Sources
The field reporting from the Consul General's Office, Da Nang, was especially copious and usually reliable; these reports formed a large part of the basis of this chapter. Additionally, the author made a number of visits to Military Region 1 and 2 and has referred to his notes. DAO, Saigon, and J2/JGS Weekly Summaries provided most of the information on order-of-battle and combat activity. Most significant in this chapter, however, were the comments and corrections made by Generals Truong and Hinh whose personal recollections provided accurate data and understanding.
Throughout the early months of 1974, the NVA maintained continual pressure against RVNAF defenses north of the Hai Van Pass and concentrated on the ARVN Airborne Division and 1st Infantry Division positions west and south of Hue. Aware that with three full-strength Marine brigades holding the line in Quang Tri Province an overly aggressive campaign would invoke retaliations against its burgeoning logistical complex around Dong Ha, the NVA did little to disturb the balance in the northernmost province. The most serious erosion of ARVN defenses took place during the skirmishes for the high ground south of Phu Bai, the only major airfield serving Hue. There the ARVN 1st Infantry Division was responsible for protecting the airfield, Highway 1 as it passed through the narrow defile in Phu Loc District, and the vital Ta Trach corridor to Hue.
Nui Mo Tau, Nui Bong, and Hill 350
The Hai Van Ridge formed the Thua Thien quan Nam Province boundary from the sea to Bach Ma Mountain, which was occupied by the enemy in October 1973. The ridge continued west past Bach Ma until it descended into the valley of the Song Ta Trach at Ruong Ruong, where the NVA had established a forward operating base. Local Route 545 twisted through the mountains north from Ruong Ruong, joining Highway 1 just south of Phu Bai. As it crossed over the western slopes of the Hai Van Ridge, Route 545 passed between two lower hills, Nui Mo Tau on the west, and Nui Bong on the east. Nui Mo Tau and Nui Bong were only about 300 meters and 140 meters high, respectively, but the ARVN positions on them, and on neighboring hills, formed the main outer ring protecting Phu Bai and Hue on the south. Outposts were placed on hills 2,000 to 5,000 meters farther south, including hills as identified by their elevations of 144, 224, 273 and 350 meters.
At first, the corps commander, General Truong, viewed the see-saw contest for the hills south of Nui Mo Tau as hardly more than training exercises and of no lasting tactical or strategic importance. That assessment was supportable so long as the enemy was unable to extend his positions to within range of Phu Bai. Once this extension occurred, protecting Hue's vital air and land links with the south became matter of great urgency.
During inconclusive engagements in the spring of 1974, the ARVN 1st Division managed to hold on to Nui Mo Tau and Nui Bong, losing Hill 144 between the two but regaining it on 7 April. Hills 273 and 350 were lost; then Hill 350 was recaptured by the 3d Battalion, 3d ARVN Infantry, in a night attack on 4 June. By this time, I Corps units were bothered by reductions in artillery ammunition. Tight restrictions had been imposed by General Truong on the number of rounds that could be fired in counter-battery, preparatory, and defensive fires. These conditions impelled the infantry commanders to seek means other than heavy artillery fires to soften objectives before the assault. In recapturing Hill 350, the 3d ARVN Infantry worked around behind the hill and blocked the enemy's access to defenses on the hill. Within a few days, NVA soldiers on the hill were out of food and low on ammunition. When the ARVN commander, monitoring the enemy's tactical radio net, learned this, he ordered the assault. No artillery was used; mortars and grenades provided the only fire support for the ARVN infantrymen. But they took the hill on the first assault even though the NVA defenders fired a heavy concentration of tear gas against them. ARVN casualties were light while the NVA 5th Regiment lost heavily in men and weapons.
Order of Battle
As the 1st ARVN Division pressed southward against the NVA 324B Division's battalions trying to hold hard-won outposts in the hills, another new NVA corps headquarters was organized north of the Hai Van Pass and placed in command of the 304th, 324B, and 325th Divisions. Designated the 2d Corps, it was a companion to the new 1st Corps in Thanh Hoa Province of North Vietnam, the 3d Corps south of the Hai Van, and the 301st Corps near Saigon. In the Thua Thien campaign, the 324B Division eventually assumed control of five regiments: its own 803d and 812th and three independent NVA infantry regiments, the 5th, 6th, and 271st.
In early June 1974, after releasing the 1st Airborne Brigade to the reserve controlled by the Joint General Staff, General Truong made major adjustments in command and deployments north of the Hai Van Pass. The Marine Division was extended to cover about 10 kilometers of Thua Thien Province and was reinforced with the 15th Ranger Group of three battalions and the 1st Armored Brigade and had operational control of Quang Tri's seven RF battalions. The division commander, Brig. Gen. Bui The Lan, positioned his forces with the 258th Marine Brigade, with one M-48 tank company attached, defending from the sea southwest to about five kilometers east of Quang Tri City. The 369th Marine Brigade held the center sector, Quang Tri City and Highway 1. Southwest of the 369th was the attached 15th Ranger Group along the Thach Han River, and the 147th Marine Brigade was on the left and south of the 15th Rangers. When he had to extend his forces southward to cover the airborne sector, General Lan used a task force of the 1st Armored Brigade, two Marine battalions, and an RF battalion, keeping three tank companies on the approaches to Hue.
The Airborne Division retained the responsibility for the Song Bo approach, placing its two remaining brigades, the 2d and 3d, to the west. The 2d Brigade had two RF battalions and one company of M-41 tanks attached. The 4th NVA Regiment was the principal enemy unit in the 2d Brigade's sector, while the 271st NVA Regiment opposed the 3d Airborne Brigade to the south near Fire Support Base Bastogne.
The four regiments and two attached RF battalions of the 1st ARVN Infantry Division were deployed in a long arc from the Airborne Division's left through the hills to Phu Loc District, with the 54th Infantry Regiment protecting Highway 1 from the Truoi Bridge, just north of Nui Bong, to the Hai Van Pass.
The national railroad paralleled Highway 1 through Thua Thien Province, and daily freight and passenger trains ran between Da Nang and Hue. Since the restoration of traffic in April 1973, passenger trains were heavily used because of low fares and regular service. In January 1974, the railroad carried 128,000 passengers and 1,500 tons of freight along a 100-kilometer run. In mid-May, the Communists increased their efforts to disrupt this service, for although the railroad had negligible economic and military value, it was popular with the people and its operation demonstrated the South Vietnamese government's ability to provide security.
Saboteurs concentrated their attacks along the stretch of rail that ran along the coast from the Lang Co Bridge, the first major bridge north of the Hai Van Pass, and northern Phu Loc District, just south of Phu Bai. More than 40 bridges and numerous defiles were in this section. By mid-June attacks became so frequent that work crews refused to repair track and roadbed without greater protection; one of their work trains was hit by rocket fire near Phu Loc District Town. The enemy placed large stone blocks on the rails, and the workmen, suspecting that they were mined, refused to remove them. Large sections of rail went unrepaired, and the line had to be closed on 22 June.
With territorials providing security for the crews, service on the line was restored on 9 July, only to be closed again the same day when a mine tore up 100 meters of rail. Nevertheless, the line was back in service the following day. In early August, the attack shifted to south of the Hai Van Pass. A large mine planted between the first and second tunnels north of Da Nang destroyed three cars and caused a few civilian casualties.
Interest in riding the railroad naturally began to wane. In August only 4,500 passengers and 180 tons of freight were carried until traffic was again suspended on the 20th. During the eight months of operation in 1974, a locomotive and 15 cars had been destroyed, 3,000 meters of rail had been torn up, and civilian casualties numbered 11 killed and 50 wounded. When he chose to do so the enemy showed that he could close down the railroad.
Naval Engagement Off Quang Tri
While skirmishing for the hills south of Hue occupied the 1st ARVN and 324B NVA Divisions, an event occurred along the Quang Tri coast, demanding the attention of the high commands on both sides. On 20 June 1974, a South Vietnamese Navy patrol sighted a convoy of two steel-hulled landing craft and 30 wooden boats off the South Vietnam coast, south of the mouth of the Cua Viet River. Although there was no clear line of demarcation defining the depth of the NVA's control south of the Cua Viet, these boats were about three kilometers off shore and, by RVNAF reckoning, in South Vietnamese waters. Accordingly, a VNAF helicopter gunship was sent to attack. After a few rounds, the helicopter's guns jammed, and it broke off the attack. Meanwhile, the small convoy changed course and headed north toward the Cua Viet, its original destination; poor navigation had caused it to miss the channel and continue south.
But one of the steel-hulled boats, its master apparently still confused about his location, lumbered on towards Hue, and the forward headquarters of I Corps at Hue ordered its capture. By this time, ARVN units along the coast and Vietnamese Navy elements had been alerted. Eventually, the ARVN 17th Armored Cavalry Squadron, using TOW missiles and tank gunfire, sank the boat off the coast of Thon My Thuy Village, northeast of Hai Lang District Town. The boat's log, recovered along with the bodies of the eight-man crew and part of the cargo (200 cases of Chinese canned pork and 1,000 NVA uniforms), revealed that the vessel belonged to the 102d Boat Company and that there were 10 other boats and 2 barges in the 102d, 7 of which routinely operated between North Vietnam and Dong Ha in the Cua Viet.
The North Vietnamese protested the sinking, claiming that the boat, on a peaceful mission in their waters, was wantonly and illegally destroyed in an act of piracy. The South Vietnamese replied in equally strong terms, charging hostile intrusion by an armed vessel into their territorial waters. Both sides were obviously embarrassed; the North because of the demonstrably poor seamanship of its boat crew; the South because of the uncoordinated action that resulted in the sinking of an enemy boat that could have been easily captured. But the GVN was clearly the winner; it did have the ship's log with its interesting information concerning NVA logistics, and it had a few cases of good canned pork.
An Assist From the Hungarians
While the RVNAF was gaining a modicum of intelligence through the sinking of the enemy boat the NVA was apparently reaping a bountiful harvest of data concerning RVNAF dispositions, defenses, and operations through its connections with the Hungarian delegation on the International Commission of Control and Supervision (ICCS). Strong indications that this was so appeared north of the Hai Van Pass early in 1974, and the case was the subject of a detailed report submitted in June by the National Police of Military Region 1 to police headquarters in Saigon.
The essence of the report was that several members of the Hungarian delegation to the ICCS had been observed since February taking pictures and making notes at RVNAF bases, outposts, bridges, and other sensitive sites and that this activity bore all the earmarks of espionage. The inescapable conclusion was that the information so collected was delivered to the NVA. Because of the diplomatic status accorded ICCS delegations, South Vietnamese authorities could not confiscate anything from the Hungarians but did try to limit their apparent espionage activities. The following elements of the report were considered significant examples of the kind of reconnaissance the Hungarians were engaged in:
February - Lieutenant Colonel Markus, Chief of the Hungarian ICCS group in Quang Tri, together with Lieutenant Gyori and Sergeant Szabo toured Phu Vang and Phu Thu Districts of Thua Thien Province, using maps and a camera to record the RVNAF defensive positions in the area.
March - LTC Markus, with camera and maps, was stopped at an RVNAF checkpoint on a road leading to the forward positions of the 3d Infantry Regiment, 1st ARVN Division. A few days later, LTC Markus and another member of his team drove from Hue to Quang Tri, recording on maps the GVN positions and installations along Highway 1. On the last day of the month, LTC Markus and CPT Gyula Toser were seen photographing all bridges on Highway 1 between Hue and Da Nang.
April - Three Hungarian field-grade officers arrived in Quang Tri from Saigon and, guided by LTC Markus, drove around the ruined city taking pictures of the Marine positions.
May - Hungarian Signal Sergeant Toth and two other members of the Da Nang team drove from Da Nang to the Hai Van Pass, taking pictures of the Nam O Bridge, the Esso gasoline storage area, and RVNAF military installations en route. Later in the month, Major Kovacs, chief of the Hungarian unit at Phu Bai was observed photographing, with a telephoto lens, aircraft landing and departing Phu Bai Airbase. He was also seen using binoculars and recording the locations of the RVNAF defenses around Phu Bai. Also in May, LTC Varkegyi and Lt. Borkely from Saigon toured the Hai Van Pass with Major Kovacs - taking pictures of all RVNAF installations.
June - Another delegation visited from Saigon. Brigadier General Csapo, Colonel Vida and three others were given the tour to the Hai Van Pass by Lieutenant Colonel Horvath (Chief of the Hue unit) and Major Kovacs. Using a map to note the locations, the party took pictures of installations all along the way.
There was probably no direct connection, but during the last week of June enemy sappers got to the fuel storage area at Camp Evans northwest of Hue and the ammunition storage at Phu Bai. About 8,000 gallons of gasoline burned at Camp Evans; 4,600 tons of ammunition blew up at Phu Bai.
Infiltration into the Thua Thien Lowlands
Ever since the flurry of battles following the January 1973 cease-fire subsided, the lowlands of Thua Thien had been considered almost totally free of Communist-controlled hamlets. Unlike the other southerly coastal provinces of Military Region 1, there were no so-called leopard spots of VC enclaves in either Thua Thien or Quang Tri Provinces. In the fall of 1974, however, disturbing evidence began to appear indicating that three small VC fortified areas had been established since June in Phong Dien District north of Hue. This district of Thua Thien was lightly populated, mostly a wasteland of sand dunes and tidal marsh, little of which was suitable for agriculture or even habitation.
One enclave was in the northwestern corner of the district on the edge of Phong Hoa Village. Occupying an area approximately two kilometers square, it was controlled by a body of about 50 VC political cadre and sheltered about 20 political and armed cadre from neighboring Hai Lang District of Quang Tri. During late October, a company from the 33d NVA Sapper Battalion entered the enclave and helped local forces construct bunkers and install antiaircraft machine guns. The company also mined the perimeter with 105-mm. howitzer projectiles and posted signs warning citizens of the minefields. One of these mines blew the tracks off an ARVN armored personnel carrier during an ARVN probe of the area, but a later operation eventually penetrated and cleared the area.
Another enclave, larger but less well defended was in eastern Phong Dien District. Located in Phong Hien Village, it provided a base for a small armed unit that raided other hamlets in the region and attempted to proselyte in nearby refugee resettlements. But these disturbances in rear areas were of minor importance when measured against the expanding conflict in the hills south of Phu Bai.
The Hills of Phu Loc and Nam Hoa
Hills 144, 273, 224, 350, and Nui Bong, and Nui Mo Tau, overlooking the lines of communication through Phu Loc District and providing observation and artillery sites in range of Phu Bai, were generally along the boundary between Phu Loc and Nam Hoa Districts of Thua Thien Province. Having recaptured Hill 350 on 4 June, the ARVN 1st Division continued the attack toward Hill 273. A fresh battalion, the 1st Battalion, 54th Infantry, took the hill on 27 June, incurring light casualties, and by the next day, the 1st ARVN Division controlled all of the important high ground south of Phu Bai.
On 29 June General Truong directed his deputy north of the Hai Van Pass, General Thi, to constitute a regimental reserve for the expected NVA counterattacks against the newly won objectives. General Thi accordingly replaced the 54th Infantry with the 3d Infantry on July, the 54th becoming the corps reserve north of the Hai Van. General Truong had good reason to be concerned. The NVA was preparing for increased and prolonged operations in Thua Thien Province, as revealed by aerial photography of NVA rear areas on 30 June. A 150,000-gallon fuel tank farm, connected to the pipeline through the A Shau Valley, was photographed under construction in far western Quang Nam, only 25 kilometers south of the NVA base in Ruong Ruong. The Ruong Ruong region, also called the Nam Dong Secret Zone, was seen growing in logistic capacity. Local Routes 593 and 545 were shown to be repaired and in use, and a tank park and two new truck parks were discernable.
The 324B NVA Division took a while to get organized for renewed attacks in southern Thua Thien. Its battalions had taken severe beatings, and a period of re-equipping and re-planning was necessary. In the meantime, action shifted to the old Airborne Brigade sector in northern Thua Thien where the 6th and 8th Marine Battalions, attached to the 147th Brigade, came under heavy attack. Attacks continued through July, and some Marine outposts, targets for 130-mm. gunfire, had to be given up. No important changes in dispositions took place, however.
Mid-July passed in southern Thua Thien without much activity. But on 25 July, as the 2d Infantry Regiment, 3d ARVN Division, was trying to regroup following a devastating engagement above Duc Duc, General Truong ordered the 54th Infantry, 1st ARVN Division, from Thua Thien to Quang Nam for attachment to the 3d. The 1st Infantry Division, with only three regiments, was left with a 60-kilometer front including Highway 1 and no reserve north of the Hai Van Pass. Since this situation was hazardous, General Troung on 3 August ordered General Thi to reconstitute a reserve using the 15th Ranger Group, at that time attached to the Marine Division on the Thach Han River.
Consequently, on 5 August the 121st RF Battalion replaced the 60th Ranger Battalion on the Quang Tri front. Shortly afterward the 61 st and 94th Ranger Battalions pulled out, relieved respectively by the 126th RF Battalion and the 5th Marine Battalion. But events in Quang Nam forced General Truong to change his plans for the 1 5th Group; because Truong Duc had just fallen, he needed the 3d Airborne Brigade in Quang Nam. So, as soon as the Marines and territorials replaced the battalions of the 15th Group, the relief of the 3d Airborne Brigade began in the Song Bo corridor. But, General Thi was still without a reserve north of the Hai Van Pass, and fresh opportunities for the new NVA 2d Corps appeared in Phu Loc District.
While General Truong was shifting forces to save Quang Nam, the NVA 2d Corps was moving new battalions near Hill 350. First to deploy, in late July, was the 271st Independent Regiment, previously under the control of the 325th Division. In mid-August, the 812th Regiment, 324B Division, began its march from A Luoi in the northern A Shau Valley. Covering the entire 50 kilometers on foot, the regiment arrived undetected on 26 August. On 28 August attacks on ARVN positions in the Nui Mo Tau-Hill 350 area began. Over 600 artillery rounds hit Nui Mo Tau where the 2d Battalion, 3d Infantry, was dug in. The ARVN battalion held the hill against the assault of the NVA infantrymen, but an adjacent position, manned by the 129th RF Battalion, collapsed, and the battalion was scattered. To the east, on Nui Bong and Hills 273 and 350, the other two battalions of the 3d Infantry were bombarded by 1,300 rounds and driven from their positions by the 6th and 812th NVA Regiments. Meanwhile, the 8th Battalion, 812th NVA Regiment, overran Hill 224. Thus, in a few hours, except for Nui Mo Tau, all ARVN accomplishments of the long summer campaign in southern Thua Thien were erased. The 51st Infantry of the 1st ARVN Division was rushed into the line, but the momentum of the NVA attack had already dissipated. The casualties suffered by the 324B NVA Division were high, but it now controlled much of the terrain overlooking the Phu Loc lowlands and Phu Bai.
Heavy fighting throughout the foothills continued into the first week of September with strong NVA attacks against the 3d Battalion, 51st Regiment, and the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 3d Regiment. The 6th and 803d NVA Regiments lost nearly 300 men and over 100 weapons in these attacks, but the 3d ARVN Infantry was no longer combat effective due to casualties and equipment losses.
Immediate reinforcements were needed south of Phu Bai. Accordingly, General Truong ordered the 54th Infantry Regiment back to Thua Thien Province, together with the 37th Ranger Battalion, which had been fighting on the Duc Duc front. General Thi took personal command of the ARVN forces in southern Thua Thien and moved the 7th Airborne Battalion from north of Hue and the 111th RF Battalion, securing the port at Tan My, to Phu Bai. These deployments and the skillful use of artillery concentrations along enemy routes of advance put a temporary damper on NVA initiatives in the foothills.
In an apparent diversion to draw ARVN forces northward away from Phu Loc, the NVA on 21 September strongly attacked the 5th and 8th Marine and the 61st Ranger Battalions holding the Phong Dien sector north of Hue. Although some 6,600 rounds, including hundreds from 130-mm. field guns, and heavy rockets, struck the defenses, the South Vietnamese held firmly against the ground attacks that followed. Over 240 enemy infantrymen from the 325th Division were killed, mostly by ARVN artillery, in front of the 8th Marines, and General Thi made no deployments in response to the attack. The next week, however, renewed assaults by the 803d NVA Regiment carried it to Nui Mo Tau, and by the end of September, the 324B NVA Division had consolidated its control over the high ground south of Phu Bai from Nui Mo Tau east to Nui Bong and Hill 350. The NVA 2d Corps immediately began to exploit this advantage by moving 85-mm. field gun batteries of its 78th Artillery Regiment into position to fire on Phu Bai Air Base, forcing the VNAF to suspend operations at the only major airfield north of Hai Van Pass.
The attack to retake the commanding ground around Phu Bai began on 22 October with a diversionary assault on Hill 224 and Hill 303. The 1st ARVN Infantry Regiment was to follow with the main attack against the 803d NVA Regiment on Nui Mo Tau. Bad weather brought by Typhoon Della reduced air support to nothing, and little progress was made by ARVN infantrymen. Nevertheless, the attack on Nui Mo Tau, with a secondary effort against elements of the 812th NVA Regiment on Nui Bong, began on 26 October. The 54th ARVN Infantry, with the 2d Battalion, 3d Infantry, attached, made slight progress on Nui Mo Tau, and the 3d Battalion, 1st Infantry, met strong resistance near Nui Bong. But the ARVN artillery was taking its toll of the NVA defenders, who were also suffering the effects of cold rains sweeping across the steep, shell-torn slopes. Heavy, accurate artillery fire forced the 6th Battalion, 6th NVA Infantry, to abandon its trenches on Hill 312, east of Hill 350, and the 803d Regiment's trenches, bunkers, and communications were being torn up by the ARVN fire placed on Nui Mo Tau. Toward the end of October, the 803d and 812th NVA Regiments were so depleted that the 2d NVA Corps withdrew them from the battle and assigned the defense of Nui Mo Tau and Nui Bong to the 6th Regiment and 271st Regiment respectively.
As heavy rains continued, movement and fire support became increasingly difficult, and the ARVN offensive in southern Thua Thien Province slowed considerably. Enemy artillery continued to inhibit the use of Phu Bai Air Base, and 1st ARVN Division infantrymen around Nui Bong suffered daily casualties to NVA mortars and field guns. On 24 November, Maj. Gen. Nguyen Van Diem, commanding the 1st Division, secured permission to pull his troops away from Nui Bong and concentrate his forces against Nui Mo Tau.
For a new assault on Nui Mo Tau, General Truong authorized the reinforcement of the 54th Infantry Regiment by the 15th Ranger Group drawn out of the Bo River Valley west of Hue; the 54th would make the main attack. The 54th Infantry commander selected his 3d Battalion to lead, followed by the 2d Battalion and the 60th and 94th Ranger Battalions. When the 3d Battalion had difficulty reaching the attack position, it was replaced on 27 November by the 1st Battalion. Weather was terrible that day, but two Ranger battalions made some progress and established contact with the enemy on the eastern and southeastern slopes of the mountain. On 28 November, with good weather and long-awaited support from the VNAF, the 1st Battalion, 54th Infantry, began moving toward the crest of Nui Mo Tau. On the mountain the enemy was approaching a desperate state; one battalion of the 5th NVA Regiment was moving to reinforce but washouts on Route 545 between Ruong Ruong and Thon Ben Tau south of Nui Mo Tau had all but eliminated resupply.
Despite difficulties, however, the enemy continued to resist strongly on both mountains. On 1 December, Colonel Vo Toan, the highly respected commander of the 1st ARVN Infantry, returned to his regiment from a six-month absence at South Vietnam's Command and General Staff College. His timely arrival was probably responsible for injecting new spirit and more professional leadership into the attack, which had bogged down so close to its objective. But help also arrived for the defenders; the 812th NVA Regiment, refitted and somewhat recovered from its earlier combat, returned to Nui Mo Tau, replacing the badly battered 6th NVA Regiment. Over on Nui Bong, however, the remnants of the 271st NVA Independent Regiment were without help. On 3 December, the 1st Reconnaissance Company and the 1st and 3d Battalions, 1st ARVN Infantry Regiment, were assaulting a dug-in battalion only 50 meters from the crest. But the expected victory slipped from their grasp. Intense fires drove the South Vietnamese back, and although the 1st Infantry retained a foothold on the slopes, it was unable to carry the crest.
The attack by the 54th ARVN Infantry and the 15th Ranger Group had more success. On 10 December, the 1st Battalion of the 54th took one of the twin crests of Nui Mo Tau and captured the other the following day. As bloody skirmishing continued around the mountain for weeks, the NVA executed another relief, replacing the 812th Regiment with the 803d. Although the enemy remained entrenched on Nui Bong, his access to lines of communication and the base in Ruong Ruong were frequently interdicted by the ARVN units operating in his rear. Furthermore, the 78th NVA Artillery Regiment was forced to remove its batteries because resupply past the ARVN position around Nui Mo Tau became too difficult. The VNAF, meanwhile, resumed military traffic into Phu Bai on 13 December.
By making timely and appropriate economy-of-force deployments, often accepting significant risks, General Truong was able to hold the NVA main force at bay around Hue. But the ring was closing on the Imperial City. Reinforced NVA battalions - equipped with new weapons, ranks filling with fresh replacements from the north - were in close contact with ARVN outposts the length of the front. Behind these battalions, new formations of tanks were being assembled and large logistical installations were being constructed, heavily protected by antiaircraft and supplied by newly improved roads. While the situation in the north appeared ominous, one of the most tragic events of the war was unfolding in Phuoc Long Province to the south.
Note on Sources
As in the previous chapter, heavy reliance was placed on the reports of the Consul General, Da Nang, and weekly summaries from DAO and J2/ JGS. DAO's regional liaison office in Da Nang filed numerous valuable reports during this period. and these were also useful for this chapter. Comments by the I Corps commander, General Truong, were essential to establish the accuracy and completeness of the data.
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