Vietnam: Cease Fire To
Chapter 13 The Last Christmas: Phuoc Long
In his serialized account of the "Great Spring Victory" (translated in the Foreign Broadcast Information Service - FBIS - Daily Report: Asia and Pacific, vol. IV, no. 110, Supplement 38, 7 Jun. 1976, pp. 2, 5-6), Senior General Van Tien Dung of the North Vietnamese Army described deliberations of the Central Military Party Committee and the General Staff as they reviewed the events of the summer campaign. He wrote of how, between April and October, from Thua Thien to Saigon, NVA forces had stepped up the offensive actions and had won great victories. The facts were, of course, that the NVA was stalemated at the extremes of this long battlefield - in Thua Thien and around Saigon - but had overrun isolated bases in the Central Highlands and succeeded at great cost in penetrating to the edge of the Quang Nam lowlands. This latter success loomed large in significance to General Dung and NVA planners:
We paid special attention to the outcome of a battle which destroyed the district capital of Thuong Duc in the 5th Region. This was a test of strength with the best of the enemy's forces. We destroyed the enemy forces defending the Thuong Duc district capital subsector. The enemy sent in a whole division of paratroopers to launch repeated and protracted counterattacks in a bid to recapture this position, but we heavily decimated the enemy forces, firmly defending Thuong Duc and forcing the enemy to give up.
However distorted the account, the victory at Thuong Duc and the numerous, more easily won objectives in the highlands demonstrated to the satisfaction of the North Vietnamese high command that the time had arrived for an even bolder strategy. General Dung went on to relate how the General Staff reported to the Central Military Party Committee that the combat capability of our mobile main force troops was now altogether superior to that of the enemy's mobile regular troops, that the war had reached its final stage and that the balance of forces had changed in our favor.
General Dung believed, and the Military Committee and the General Staff agreed, that the NVA's superiority should be exploited in a new strategy. The NVA would no longer attack only to destroy the RVNAF but would combine this objective with attacks to "liberate" populated areas. It would move out of the jungles and mountains into the lowlands. NVA planners observed that, "the reduction of U.S. aid made it impossible for the puppet troops to carry out their combat plan and build up their forces" and that the South Vietnamese were "forced to fight a poor man's war," their firepower having decreased "by nearly 60 percent because of bomb and ammunition shortages" and their mobility was reduced "by half due to lack of aircraft, vehicles and fuel."
According to General Dung, the conference of the Politburo and the Central Military Committee met in October, considered the General Staff's assessments and recommendation, and unanimously agreed on the following:
1. The puppet troops were militarily, politically and economically weakening every day and our forces were quite stronger than the enemy in the south.
2. The United States was facing mounting difficulties both at home and in the world, and its potential for aiding the puppets was rapidly declining.
3. We had created a chain of mutual support, had strengthened our reserve forces and materiel and were steadily improving our strategic and political systems.
4. The movement to demand peace, improvement of the people's livelihood, democracy, national independence and Thieu's overthrow in various cities was gaining momentum.
Having assessed their own capabilities and those of RVNAF, and having concluded that the time was right for the final offensive, the conferees had to consider how the United States would react. They concluded:
After signing the Paris agreement on Vietnam and withdrawing U.S. troops from Vietnam, the United States had faced even greater difficulties and embarrassment. The internal contradictions within the U.S. administration and among U.S. political parties had intensified. The Watergate scandal had seriously affected the entire United States and precipitated the resignation of an extremely reactionary president - Nixon. The United States faced economic recession, mounting inflation, serious unemployment and an oil crisis. Also, U.S. allies were not on good terms with the United States, and countries who had to depend on the United States also sought to escape U.S. control. U.S. aid to the Saigon puppet administration was decreasing.
Comrade Le Duan drew an important conclusion that became a resolution: Having already withdrawn from the south, the United States could hardly jump back in, and no matter how it might intervene, it would be unable to save the Saigon administration from collapse. Phuoc Long became the battleground for the first test of this assessment.
Phuoc Long - the Setting
The summer and fall of 1974 in South Vietnam's 3d Military Region had been difficult times. Unlike the losses in Military Regions 1 and 2, however, very little terrain of consequence had been given up to the NVA summer offensive. The divisional battles in Binh Duong, Tay Ninh, and Bien Hoa Provinces had produced thousands of casualties, but all positions - except those on the Tay Ninh-Cambodian frontier - were eventually retaken by ARVN troops. The mop-up of the Iron Triangle was not completed until 24 November, the eve of the next phase of the NVA offensive, the most significant step before the ultimate offensive of 1975.
Since Phuoc Long Province was far outside the defenses of Saigon, its importance to South Vietnam was essentially political in that the government could still claim possession of all province capitals. On the other hand, the presence of RVNAF bases deep inside otherwise NVA-controlled territory was anathema to the enemy. Several important COSVN tactical and logistical units and activities were in the Bo Duc-Bu Dop complex of villages and plantations. The COSVN M-26 Armor Command, usually with three of its tank battalions, was based at the Bu Dop airfield only 25 kilometers from the ARVN base at Song Be. The COSVN Engineer Command had a headquarters at Bo Duc and kept three or more battalions working on roads between Loc Ninh and Bu Gia Map to the northeast. Antiaircraft battalions, transportation battalions, training centers, and other rear service organizations contributed to a relatively dense NVA military population, nearly within medium artillery range of Phuoc Binh, the capital of Phuoc Long Province. Additionally, four major NVA infiltration-supply routes traversed Phuoc Long Province from north to south, past RVNAF bases and crossed sections of National Route 14 patrolled by South Vietnamese troops.
The summer in Phuoc Long had been relatively uneventful. In August an enemy soldier turned himself in to the Phuoc Long Sector Headquarters and described a recent reconnaissance of RVNAF installations by two NVA patrols. While one patrol had reconnoitered Song Be, the other had concentrated on Duc Phong District. Since no attacks followed, the province chief concluded that the reconnaissance was probably related to infiltration and logistical movements. In any event, the major NVA combat formations in the area were not sufficient to create a serious threat to Phuoc Long, although they could interfere with RVNAF movements on the major routes to Song Be, Highway 14 from Quang Duc and the provincial road between Song Be and Bunard. The 7th NVA Division, however, had for some time permanently blocked Highway 14 between Bunard and Don Luan, causing traffic to the province capital to detour through Quang Duc. Because the 7th NVA Division also cut Route 1A south of Don Luan, that town relied exclusively on helicopter resupply.
NVA interdictions of Highway 14 east of Phuoc Binh-Song Be were often enough to require the RVNAF to mount road-clearing operations each time a major rice and military convoy was scheduled to roll into Phuoc Long. The province required about 500 tons of rice per month, of which only half was produced locally and frequent convoys were necessary. The forces in Phuoc Long kept enough ammunition on hand to last for a week of intensive combat, and these stocks also had to be replenished frequently. Road convoys were supplemented by VNAF C-130's using the airstrip at Song
Anticipating a resupply convoy in early November 1974, the Phuoc Long Sector, commanded by Colonel Nguyen Tan Thanh, started to clear the road. To protect its bases while RF battalions were on the highway, the III Corps, lacking infantry reserves, sent three reconnaissance companies to Phuoc Binh and Song Be, one from each of the three III Corps divisions. Forces at Duc Phong - the 362d RF Battalion, four PF platoons, and a 105-mm. howitzer platoon - and two companies from the 304th RF Battalion from Song Be were committed along Highway 14. In their one brief encounter with the enemy, near the Quang Duc boundary, these forces killed four enemy soldiers from the 201st NVA Regiment of the newly formed 3d NVA division. (This Division, formed in Phuoc Long, was separate from and unrelated to the 3d NVA Division operating in Binh Dinh.) Although the ARVN operation was a success, the presence of an NVA regiment so close to Duc Phong was an ominous sign.
In addition to the 340th and 362d RF Battalions already mentioned, Colonel Thanh also controlled the 341st RF Battalion at Don Luan and the 363d RF Battalion at Bunard. Thirty-four PF Platoons were scattered about the hamlets and military installations around Song Be, while 14 PF platoons defended eight hamlets in the Duc Phong Subsector. South of Song Be at New Bo Duc, where the refugees of Communist-occupied northern Phuoc Long settled, were nine PF platoons; in the eight hamlets and military posts around Don Luan, were a like number. Artillery support was provided by four 155-mm. and 16 105-mm. howitzers, employed in two-gun platoons throughout the sector. The RF battalions were fielding about 340 men each - about 85 percent of full strength - but the PF platoons were seriously understrength.
Phuoc Long Province during late November and early December was relatively tranquil, and the attention of the ARVN III Corps commander was divided between his eastern and western flanks. The situation in the northern reaches of his region were of little immediate concern. Outposts around An Loc in Binh Long Province received sporadic enemy attacks by fire but were not in peril, although resupply was a constant problem due to NVA antiaircraft fire. On 5 December an SA-7 missile shot down a CH-47 helicopter nine kilometers south of An Loc, killing all 15 passengers and crew members.
The major enemy threats appeared in Tay Ninh Province in the west and in Long Khanh and Binh Tuy Province in the east. A skirmish northeast of Xuan Loc at the end of November netted a document revealing enemy plans to attack Gia Ray and eliminate ARVN outposts along Route 333 north into Binh Tuy Province. Supporting attacks in Binh Tuy were to be conducted by the 812th NVA Regiment
While the threat on the eastern flank was inchoate, heavy combat in Tay Ninh was under way, NVA rockets falling on the province capital and on adjacent military installations. Although an RF company guarding the radio relay station on the summit of Nui Ba Den began receiving attacks of increasing intensity and frequency, the main NVA effort was against hamlets and RF outposts along local Route 13 northeast of Tay Ninh City. The NVA attacked early on 7 December. By noon, forces from the 205th Independent NVA Regiment were in the hamlets, although the RF post at Soui Da held on. The 8th and 9th Battalions, 205th NVA Regiment, were on local Route 13 southwest of Soui Da, and the NVA D-14 and D-16 Tay Ninh Battalions were blocking ARVN relief efforts. Meanwhile, the 7th Battalion, 205th NVA Regiment, in trying to overrun Soui Da, lost over 100 of its soldiers. The ARVN RF battalion defending Soui Da captured two NVA soldiers to confirm the identification of the 205th NVA Regiment in the attack, and one of the RF patrols ambushed and captured a 100-mm. Soviet field gun. The ARVN 46th Infantry, pushing a column up Route 13 from Tay Ninh City, did not fare so well. Ambushed on 12 December about three kilometers short of Soui Da, it suffered heavy casualties.
While heavy combat was taking place around Nui Ba Den, the 80-man RF company at the top fought off repeated assaults. Helicopter resupply and evacuation had become impossible, and although the company commander reported sufficient food and ammunition, water was running very short and several severely wounded men required evacuation.
Binh Tuy-Long Khanh
The RVNAF JGS and the III Corps commander had excellent warning of the impeding NVA attacks in Long Khanh and Binh Tuy Provinces. They knew that the 33d NVA Regiment planned to attack Hoai Duc District in Binh Tuy Province and that the recently formed 812th NVA Regiment, composed of battalions from neighboring Lam Dong, would attack in Tanh Linh District. Furthermore, they rightfully estimated that the 274th NVA Regiment would be involved. A new NVA division headquarters had been created to control the operation. Lacking information on its designation, the RVNAF called this new adversary the MR 7 Division, after the NVA military region in which it operated. Later, it was identified as the 6th NVA Division, and it controlled the three infantry regiments mentioned, plus the usual supporting arms and services found in the regular NVA divisions.
There were no regular ARVN units in Binh Tuy Province when the NVA offensive began. Territorial companies were deployed in the principal villages, and smaller territorial detachments secured bridges and checkpoints along local Routes 333 and 335, Hoai Duc's and Tanh Linh's only usable land routes out of the province. The province's small population was concentrated in the villages along these two roads, which generally followed the meandering course of the Song La Nga. Beginning in the 5,000-foot mountains overlooking the flat, deep forests of Binh Tuy on the northeast quadrant, the Song La Nga flowed through the rice bowl of the province. The two district towns, Tanh Linh on the east and Hoai Duc on the west, each had an airfield. The only other sizable village in the Province was Vo Xu, about midway between the two.
The 812th NVA Regiment attacked at Tanh Linh on 8 December. Supported by the 130th Artillery Battalion, one sapper and three infantry battalions attacked the subsector, the artillery position on the hill above the town, and the villages between Tanh Linh and Vo Xu. By the next day, the NVA Regiment had captured two 155-mm. howitzers at Tanh Linh, occupied the surrounding villages, and held the road between Vo Xu and Tanh Linh.
The ARVN III Corps ordered the 18th Infantry Division, with the 7th Ranger Group attached, from Xuan Loc to reinforce the territorials in Binh Tuy Province. When the 32d Ranger Battalion fell into a well-laid ambush along Route 333 and sustained heavy casualties, it became clear that the 33d NVA Regiment was not going to permit the reinforcement of Binh Tuy to proceed without a fight. Later the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 48th ARVN Infantry, 18th Division, joined the attack along Route 333 and were soon in heavy combat north of Gia Ray. In the days that followed, the 85th Ranger Battalion made it a four-battalion task force pushing up Route 333, but the lead elements - the Rangers - never made it past Gia Huynh, still 16 kilometers south of Hoai Duc. The NVA 33d Regiment was dug in along the road, well supported by mortars and artillery.
On 17 December Duy Can Village, between Vo Xu and Tanh Linh, was overrun by the 812th NVA Regiment, and the few survivors of the 700th RF Company struggled into Tanh Linh. Although outposts still in ARVN hands, as well as Hoai Duc and Tanh Linh, were receiving heavy indirect fire, General Dong, commanding III Corps ordered the 18th Division not try to press forward past Gia Huynh on Route 333. With his Military Region under attack from Tay Ninh to Phuoc Long, he was unwilling to risk having four of his battalions cut off and decimated. Meanwhile, the NVA blew a bridge south of Hoai Duc, occupied Vo Xu, and increased the intensity of its attack on Tanh Linh. Following a 3,000-round bombardment on 23 and 24 December, the NVA launched five successive assaults, finally overrunning the last defenses ;n Tanh Linh on Christmas. Hoai Duc, meanwhile, was under attack by the 274th Infantry, 6th NVA Division.
After the 274th NVA Regiment had penetrated the local defenses of Hoai Duc and had gained a foothold in the northeastern and southwestern edges of the town, the ARVN 18th Division moved the 1st and 2d Battalions, 43d Infantry by helicopter west and north of the town respectively, and began pushing the enemy out. While two battalions of the 48th ARVN Infantry held their positions on Route 333 north of Gia Ray, the tired and depleted 7th Ranger Group was withdrawn to Binh Duong Province to rest and refit. Since all available battalions of the 18th Division had been committed, the JGS moved the 4th Ranger Group from Kontum to Long Binh where it was rested and re-equipped and made available to General Dong as a reserve.
NVA assaults on Nui Ba Den in Tay Ninh Province continued throughout December 1974, but the tough little ARVN RF Company held on. Meanwhile, by mid-month, an ARVN relief column eventually reached Soui Da and found that the besieging enemy force had withdrawn. VNAF efforts to resupply the troops on the mountain were largely unsuccessful. Helicopters were driven off by heavy fires, and fighter-bombers were forced to excessive altitudes by SA-7 and antiaircraft artillery. One FSA fighter-bomber was shot down by an SA-7 on 14 December. Finally, without food and water anc with nearly all ammunition expended, the 3d Company, 314th RF Battalion, on 6 January picked up its wounded and withdrew down the mountain to friendly lines.
The Last Days of Phuoc Long
The 301st NVA Corps conducted the campaign for Phuoc Long Province, using the newly formed 3d NVA Division, the 7th NVA Division, which had been operating in eastern Binh Duong Province, a tank battalion from COSVN, an artillery and an antiaircraft regiment, and several local-force sapper and infantry units. This was a formidable force to concentrate against four widely dispersed ARVN RF battalions and PF platoons. One by one the isolated garrisons came under attack and were overrun.
The first blow fell on Don Luan on 13 December 1974. Simultaneous assaults on Duc Phong and New Bo Duc Subsectors on 14 December succeeded in overrunning these posts while the defense at Don Luan held. The next to go was the post at Bunard, along with two platoons of 105-mm. howitzers. Enemy casualties were heavy at New Bo Duc, but these were local NVA units, not main force. Still, the NVA artillery damaged both of New Bo Duc's 105-mm. howitzers before Phuoc Long Sector's counterattack retook New Bo Duc on 16 December. Although Phuoc Binh Subsector, near the province headquarters, was also under artillery attack, its positions for the moment appeared strong. Three ARVN reconnaissance companies, which had been deployed there to support the road-clearing operation in November, augmented the defenses of the 340th RF Battalion, and the VNAF flew six 105-mm. howitzers, ammunition, and other supplies into Song Be airfield, carrying out noncombatants and wounded. But the NVA did not permit this to continue. Artillery fire on 21-22 December heavily damaged a C-130 upon landing and destroyed another. The 3d NVA Division, meanwhile, launched another strong attack and took New Bo Duc for the last time.
While the battle raged around Song Be and New Bo Duc, the ARVN 341st RF Battalion continued to beat back successive assaults on its positions at Don Luan. The battalion lost the airstrip on 17 December but counterattacked and took it back again. In the north, however, the only positions still in ARVN hands were the Song Be airstrip, Phuoc Binh, and the crest of Nui Ba Ra overlooking the entire region.
The crisis at Phuoc Long, the strong enemy pressure in Tay Ninh, and the attacks in Binh Tuy presented General Dong with no favorable choices. He had to stop enemy advances toward Tay Ninh and hold Binh Tuy Province. On the other hand, he well knew the political and psychological damage that would follow the loss of Phuoc Long. Having to reinforce the north somehow, he ordered the 5th ARVN Division to send the 2d Battalion, 7th Infantry, by helicopter from Lai Khe to Song Be.
On 23 December, as the 2d Battalion reached Song Be, General Dong told Lt Gen. Dong Van Quang, President Thieu's National Security Advisor, that III Corps needed at least part of the Airborne Division from Military Region 1 to save Phuoc Long. Informed of the request, President Thieu rejected it, stating that the Airborne Division was not available and that it could not be moved in time anyway. General Dong would receive priority on air and logistical support, but he would have to make do with his own troop units.
More grim news reached the JGS and III Corps Headquarters on 26 December. Following a 1,000-round artillery preparation, the NVA 7th Division, assisted by diversionary attacks against ARVN positions in and around Phu Giao, finally overran Don Luan.
Meanwhile, refugees poured into Song Be, and the RVNAF tried to resupply the isolated garrison. Ten attempts were made in early January 1975 to drop supplies, but none of the bundles could be recovered by the defenders. At least 16 enemy tanks had been destroyed in prior attacks, but on 6 January 10 more were seen approaching the city. That day General Dong sent two companies of his best troops into the battle: the 81st Airborne Rangers, whose highly trained volunteers were usually employed in commando operations. Also on 6 January, VNAF RF-S photography disclosed seven 37-mm. antiaircraft positions around the city. It was only the first week of January and the RF-S flying-hour allocation for the month had been nearly used up.
Very few infantry joined in the assaults on Song Be. Instead, squads of sappers followed the tanks as they rolled through the streets firing at ARVN positions, the sappers followed, mopping up bypassed positions and establishing strong points. Most of the NVA tanks damaged or destroyed were hit by M-72 LAW and 90-mm. recoilless rifles. Often the ranges were so short that the LAW missiles failed to arm themselves and harmlessly bounced off the tank hulls. Making tank kills even more difficult, the NVA M-26 Armor Group had welded extra armor plating on the sides of the hulls, and the crews kept buttoned up so that grenades could not be dropped through the hatches.
NVA artillery was devastating, particularly after 3 January when the rate of fire increased from about 200 rounds per day to nearly 3,000. Structures, bunkers, and trenches collapsed, and casualties mounted. ARVN artillery was out of action, its guns destroyed by fire from tanks, recoilless rifles, and 130-mm. guns. Finally, on 6 January, the province chief realized that he could no longer influence the battle. With no artillery and shattered communications, under direct fire from four approaching T54 tanks, and seriously wounded, he and what remained of his staff, withdrew from Song Be. The NVA had captured the first province capital since the cease-fire.
There were some military and civilian survivors from Song Be. Pitiful little bands of Montagnards treked through the jungles to Quang Duc, and VNAF helicopters rescued about 200 men of the Rangers, 7th Infantry, and sector territorials in the days immediately following the collapse. The province chief never made it to safety. His wounds slowed him down and he was not seen again. A few members of the command group eventually reached the ARVN outpost of Bu Binh on Highway 14 in Quang Duc. RVNAF losses were staggering. Over 5,400 officers and men of the 7th Infantry, Airborne Rangers, and territorials were committed; less than 850 survived. Especially costly were the high losses in the Airborne Ranger Battalion - 85 troopers survived - and in the 2d Battalion, 7th Infantry, fewer than 200 returned from Phuoc Long. About 3,000 civilians, Montagnards and Vietnamese, out of 30,000 or more, escaped Communist control. The few province, village, and hamlet officials who were captured were summarily executed.
Although it was the time of the dry, northeast monsoon, unseasonably heavy torrents drenched Saigon. As this writer's Vietnamese driver dolefully remarked, even the gods were weeping for Phuoc Long.
Note on Sources
General Dung is quoted from his article as translated by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service.
The principal sources of operational and intelligence information came from the DAO liaison officer in Bien Hoa who had daily contact with III Corps headquarters, primarily with Colonel Le Dat Cong, the G-2. These reports were most complete, reliable, and perceptive.
The author made frequent visits to Bien Hoa, and his notes were also used in this chapter. DAO and J2/JGS weekly and daily reports were important references, as were many reports issued by the U.S. Embassy.
Chapter 14 On The Second Anniversary of the Cease-Fire
Reaction to the NVA's Winter Campaign
The conquest of Phuoc Long Province was clearly the most blatant breach of the cease-fire agreement thus far. Anticipating its fall, the U.S. Department of State on 3 January 1975 asserted that the offensive "belies Hanoi's claims that it is the United States and South Vietnam who are violating the 1973 Paris truce agreements and standing in the way of peace." The PRG promptly rejected the accusation, and North Vietnam's Communist Party newspaper claimed that the offensive was "a legitimate right of riposte" in defense of the Paris agreements. On 13 January, the State Department released the text of an official protest, dated 11 January, delivered to the non-Vietnamese participants in the International Conference on Vietnam and to members of the International Commission of Control and Supervision:
The Department of State of the United States of America . . . has the honor to refer to the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Viet-Nam signed at Paris January 27, 1973, and to the Act of the International Conference on Viet-Nam signed at Paris March 2, 1973.
When the Agreement was concluded nearly two years ago, our hope was that it would provide a framework under which the Vietnamese people could make their own political choices and resolve their own problems in an atmosphere of peace. Unfortunately this hope, which was clearly shared by the Republic of Viet-Nam and the South Vietnamese people, has been frustrated by the persistent refusal of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam to abide by the agreement's most fundamental provisions. Specifically, in flagrant violation of the Agreement, the North Vietnamese and "Provisional Revolutionary Government" authorities have:
--built up the North Vietnamese main-force army in the South through the illegal infiltration of over 160,000 troops;
--tripled the strength of their armor in the South by sending in over 400 new vehicles, as well as greatly increased their artillery and antiaircraft weaponry;
--improved their military logistics system running through Laos, Cambodia and the Demilitarized Zone as well as within South Viet-Nam, and expanded their armament stockpiles;
--refused to deploy the teams which under the Agreement were to oversee the cease-fire;
--refused to pay their prescribed share of the expenses of the International Commission of Control and Supervision;
--failed to honor their commitment to cooperate in resolving the status of American and other personnel missing in action even breaking off all discussions on the matter by refusing for the past several months to meet with U.S. and Republic of Viet-Nam representatives in the Four-Party Joint Military Team;
--broken off all negotiations with the Republic of Viet-Nam including the political negotiations in Paris and the Two Party Joint Military Commission talks in Saigon answering the Republic of Viet-Nam's repeated calls for unconditional resumption of the negotiations with demands for the over throw of the government as a pre-condition for any renewed talks; and
--gradually increased their military pressure, overrunning several areas, including 11 district towns, which were clearly and unequivocally held by the Republic of Viet-Nam at the time of the cease-fire. The latest and most serious escalation of the fighting began in early December with offensives in the southern half of South Viet-Nam which have brought the level of casualties and destruction back up to what it was before the Agreement. These attacks - which included for the first time since the massive North Vietnamese 1972 offensive the overrunning of a province capital (Song Be in Phuoc Long Province) - appear to reflect a decision by Hanoi to seek once again to impose a military solution in Viet-Nam. Coming just before the second anniversary of the Agreement, this dramatically belies Hanoi's claims that it is the United States and the Republic of Viet-Nam who are violating the Agreement and standing in the way of peace.
The United States deplores the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam's turning from the path of negotiation to that of war, not only because it is a grave violation of a solemn international agreement, but also because of the cruel price it is imposing on the people of South Viet-Nam. The Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam must accept the full consequences of its actions. We are deeply concerned about the threat posed to international peace and security, to the political stability of Southeast Asia, to the progress which has been made in removing Viet-Nam as a major issue of great-power contention, and to the hopes of mankind for the building of structures of peace and the strengthening of mechanisms to avert war. We therefore reiterate our strong support for the Republic of Viet-Nam's call to the Hanoi "Provisional Revolutionary Government" side to reopen the talks in Paris and Saigon which are mandated by the Agreement. We also urge that the . . . [addressee] call upon the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam to halt its military offensive and join the Republic of Viet-Nam in re-establishing stability and seeking a political solution.
While the staffers in the State Department were putting together this carefully worded note, the North Vietnamese were claiming that the U.S. was flying reconnaissance over South Vietnam to assist the "Saigon administration to intensify its bombing and landgrabbing operations against the PRG-controlled areas." Defense Department spokesmen defended the appropriateness of U.S. aerial reconnaissance in Indochina in view of the extreme provocation by the North Vietnamese. The photography was of some intelligence value to the South Vietnamese but it was rarely, if ever, useful for targeting. U.S. reconnaissance over Laos was stopped on 4 June 1974, and a good part of the timely, detailed evidence of the flow of men and equipment into the South from North Vietnam terminated at that time.
Significantly, the President made no mention of Vietnam in his State of the Union message delivered to Congress on 15 January. In a press conference on 21 January, he said that he could foresee no circumstances in which the U.S. might actively re-enter the Vietnam War.
North Vietnamese leaders carefully analyzed the U.S. reaction to Phuoc Long, General Van Tien Dung reporting it this way:
It was obvious that the United States was in this position: Having withdrawn from Vietnam, the United States could hardly return. All the conferees [at the Politburo Conference 18 December to 8 January] analyzed the enemy's weakness which in itself heralded a new opportunity for us. To fully exploit this great opportunity we had to conduct large-scale annihilating battles to destroy and disintegrate the enemy on a large scale. [FBIS Daily Report. Asia and Pacific Vol. IV, No. 110, Sup. 38, p. 7.]
The dramatic and conclusive victory in Phuoc Long, and the passivity with which the United States reacted to it, confirmed the earlier North Vietnamese estimates that the time for the decisive blow had arrived. The concepts for the spring offensive were discussed and sharpened during this midwinter conference in Hanoi.
Military Region 1
Following the long struggle over commanding terrain south of Phu Bai, a lull in combat came to northern Military Region 1. The monsoon rains and flooding compelled both sides to limit movement, and the VNAF flew no combat sorties between 17 December and 10 January. General Truong, commanding I Corps, took advantage of the temporary calm to pull the 2d Airborne Brigade out of the line west of Hue, placing it in reserve in Phu Loc District. Although the 147th Marine Brigade assumed responsibility for the sector vacated by the 2d, the defenses west of Hue were dangerously thin. The Marine Division itself pulled two battalions out of forward positions northwest of Hue to constitute a heavier reserve and, further thinning the force, sent one company from each battalion to Saigon. These companies formed a new marine brigade for the JGS reserve. Later in the month, marine positions in Quang Tri were taken over by RF battalions, and three marine battalions were shifted south to Thua Thien Province.
By thinning out the line in northern Thua Thien, General Truong not only built up local reserves and contributed to the JGS reserve, but he also concentrated more combat power in the hills south of Phu Bai. The long campaign there continued through the month, and by 29 January, ARVN 1st Division troops were on all important terrain features: Hills 273, 350, 303, and Nui Bong. The battered forces of the 324th NVA Division withdrew to their base areas southwest of Phu Loc to reorganize and await orders for the next campaign. Meanwhile, security around Phu Bai was such that Air Vietnam, the civil airline, resumed regular flights.
After Tet the uneasy quiet that had settled over the battlefields north of the Hai Van Pass showed signs of being shattered. The 324th NVA Division concentrated south of Hue, giving up its positions in the Song Bo corridor, but even more threatening, the 325th NVA Division was relieved on the My Chanh line by local units and was apparently moving into Thua Thien Province. As if this were not enough to concern South Vietnamese commanders, the 341 st NVA Division, having been converted from a territorial and training unit to a line infantry division, crossed the DMZ from Quang Binh Province, North Vietnam.
Southern Military Region 1 was more active. After a clearing operation in the Batangan Peninsula of Quang Ngai Province, four RF battalions and a battalion of the 5th Infantry, 2d ARVN Division, lost their effectiveness, and the remainder of the 2d ARVN Division had to be moved into the Province.
Near the border of Nghia Hanh and Mo Duc Districts a 2d ARVN Division clearing operation met with greater success. In six weeks of combat against the 52d NVA Brigade, the division seized the high ground, and inflicted serious casualties.
In late January, the 3d ARVN Division conducted a successful six-day foray into contested ground in Duy Xuyen and Que Son Districts of Quang Nam, again causing high casualties. In the week after Tet, enemy attacks increased markedly in Duc Duc and Dai Loc Districts of Quang Nam, and the ARVN responded with heavy artillery concentrations and air strikes. All indicators in forward areas pointed to a major offensive as the 304th and 2d NVA Divisions, opposing the 3d ARVN Division and the 3d Airborne Brigade, conducted reconnaissance and moved ammunition and artillery forward.
Military Region 2
Ground activity was light in the Central Highlands of Military Region 2 but heavy in coastal Binh Dinh province where the 22d ARVN Division was seriously hurting the 3d NVA Division at the entrance of the An Lao Valley. These attacks were designed to preempt offensive operations by the 3d NVA Division in northern Binh Dinh.
In early January, the 40th and 42d Infantry Regiments, 22d ARVN Division, held all key hills at the entrance to the An Lao Valley and successfully repelled repeated attempts by the 141st Regiment, 3d NVA Division, to dislodge them. The 141st suffered heavy casualties and soon had to pull back. Attacks against ARVN positions diminished in intensity during February and were limited to artillery. But high casualties alone had not caused the lull; rather, a new mission had been assigned to the 3d NVA Division. The first indications of this reached General Niem, commanding the 22d ARVN Division, in early January when a prisoner of war from the 18th Signal Battalion, 3d NVA Division, disclosed the presence of a 3d Division reconnaissance party along Route 19 in the vicinity of An Khe and Binh Khe.
The Vinh Thanh Valley - sometimes called the Song Con Valley for the river which flowed south through it - ended at Binh Khe where the river turned eastward toward the sea and formed the broad fertile delta above Qui Nhon. The valley, which began in the rugged, forested highlands north of Binh Khe, was the natural avenue of approach for the 3d NVA Division to attack ARVN positions along Route 19. RVNAF reconnaissance had discovered in late February and early March that the NVA had improved and extended a road, up to eight meters wide with underwater bridges, from southern Kontum Province through the Kim Son region of Binh Dinh where it joined interprovincial Route 3A. Branches fed the base areas in the northern Vinh Thanh Valley, and heavy truck traffic was flowing into this critical area. Furthermore, a new NVA artillery regiment, the 68th, was discovered moving guns and ammunition south toward Binh Khe through the valley. It was also about this time that fresh evidence appeared that the 3d NVA had shiftedmajor elements into the Vinh Thanh region.
Fully recognizing the threat to Route 19, General Niem conferred with the Binh Dinh province chief on measures to secure the route and protect Pleiku bound convoys. General Niem had had his 47th Infantry Regiment probing north into the Vinh Thanh Valley since early February, and contacts were becoming frequent and sharp. Meanwhile, the enemy increased pressure against Phu My and Phu Cat Districts along Highway 1 with terrorist attacks in the hamlets and by rocketing Phu Cat air base on 18 February for the first time since mid-1974. The focus of NVA activity had clearly shifted from northern Binh Dinh to the passes on Route 19.
General Phu, Commanding II Corps, was particularly concerned about the threat to his principal line of communication. On 2 March, he directed General Niem to pull the 42d Regiment from positions along Highway 1 and to constitute a mobile reserve to be ready to reinforce the 47th Regiment in the An Khe Pass. The security of Highway 1 was turned over to Binh Dinh territorials.
Despite the clear indications that the enemy was shifting his center of gravity southward, General Niem kept fully half of his division in the north, opposite the An Lao Valley. On 3 March, the 22d ARVN Division command post was near Qui Nhon; the 40th Infantry Regiment was in the Phu Cu Pass on Highway 1, just south of Bong Son, and holding the high ground above and east of Hoai An; the 41st Infantry was in Bong Son, covering the entrance to the An Lao Valley, with one battalion north at Landing Zone English on Highway l; the 42d Infantry was in reserve in Phu My District, along Highway 1, while the 47th Infantry was on Route 19 with two battalions in the An Khe Pass and its 2d Battalion pushing north in the Vinh Thanh Valley. At this time the 22d Division G-2's estimate of the 3d NVA Division dispositions - which later proved to be accurate in all its essential elements - held that two battalions of the 2d Regiment and one battalion of the 141st Regiment were in the hills just north of Route 19 at the entrance of the Vinh Thanh Valley; the 12th Regiment was on the high ground south of Route 19 in the An Khe Pass, about midway between An Khe and Binh Khe; one battalion of the 2d Regiment was in the base area north of Vinh Thanh; while the other two battalions of the 141st Regiment were securing the An Lao base area in northern Binh Dinh. These were the dispositions in Binh Dinh on the eve of the final offensive.
While ground action in January in Kontum and Pleiku was limited to probes, patrols, and attacks by fire, the VNAF was busy daily striking the surge of truck convoys rolling south along new NVA logistical corridors. In one attack in early January, north of Kontum City, 17 loaded trucks were destroyed, an experience frequently repeated throughout the month and into February. Meanwhile, Arvn Ranger teams conducted several raids against the NVA pipeline. Despite the teams' tactical success, the cuts in the line were only temporary inconveniences. On the other hand, an NVA sapper raid on 9 January in Pleiku destroyed 1,500,000 gallons of assorted fuel, a heavy loss to the RVNAF's already severely strained logistics.
By 10 January, spoiling attacks by the 23d ARVN Ranger Group had reached positions 10 kilometers north of Kontum City along Route 14. The objective, Vo Dinh, however, was beyond reach, as NVA resistance stiffened. Meanwhile, in Pleiku Province, along Route 19 east of Le Trung, an NVA attack overran outposts of the 223d RF Battalion. The ARVN 45th Regiment of the 23d Division counterattacked and within a few days recaptured the original positions.
Recognizing a diminished threat in Quang Duc Province, the 271st NVA Regiment having left to participate in the Phuoc Long campaign, General Phu ordered the 53d Infantry Regiment to terminate operations there and return to the 23d Division's base at Ban Me Thuot in Darlac Province. But more significant deployments were under way in the NVA's B-3 Front. The 968th Infantry Division which had sent its 9th Infantry Regiment to Pleiku the previous January, moved from southern Laos with its 19th and 39th Regiments into Kontum and Pleiku. Although the combat effectiveness of the 968th was considered low because it had been relatively idle in the Laos panhandle for the past two years, it replaced the experienced 320th NVA Division in the defense of the Duc Co logistical center, thus permitting the B-3 Front to employ the 320th in offensive operations.
In mid-January the 320th NVA Division was noticed moving south toward Darlac, and a buildup near Ban Me Thuot was detected. On 30 January, air strikes damaged three NVA tanks in a base area north of Ban Me Thuot, and the 53d ARVN Infantry launched an operation into the area, meeting light resistance. General Phu sent the 2d Battalion, 45th Infantry, south from Pleiku to reinforce the security along Route 14 near where the Pleiku, Darlac, and Phu Bon Province boundaries met. On 4 February, near the mountain village of Buon Brieng, the battalion picked up an NVA rallier from the 48th Regiment, 320th NVA Division, who confirmed that the 320th was moving to Darlac. He said that the 320th left Duc Co about 12 January and that reconnaissance parties from both the 10th and 320th Divisions had been in Quang Duc and Darlac Provinces, respectively, in recent days.
In Darlac Province in early February, the ARVN had a forward command post of the 23d Division in Ban Me Thuot, two battalions of the 53d Infantry, one battalion of the 45th Infantry, and six of the seven Regional Force battalions belonging to the province. While the seventh RF battalion was deployed in Kontum Province, the six in Darlac were widely separated and in isolated areas. Two were around Ban Don, northwest of Ban Me Thuot; one was patrolling local Route 1 between Ban Me Thuot and Ban Don; one was in an outpost north of Ban Me Thuot on Route 430; another was securing a resettlement village on National Route 21 close to the Khanh Hoa boundary; while the sixth was south in Lac Thien District.
General Phu responded to the growing threat to Darlac Province by committing the entire 45th Infantry to the Darlac-Phu Bon border area, attempting to find and destroy the elements of the 320th NVA Division. While these operations were going on north of Ban Me Thuot, the enemy in the last two weeks of February ambushed three ARVN convoys on Route 21 east of the capital. On the last day of the month, an ARVN unit ambushed an enemy reconnaissance patrol only 12 kilometers north of Ban Me Thuot, and the G-2 of II Corps, as well as the J2 of the JGS, insisted that a major attack on Ban Me Thuot was imminent.
Heavy fighting, meanwhile, had flared in Kontum and Pleiku Province. For the first time since the 1972 offensive, Kontum City on 28 February, and again on 4 March, received an enemy artillery attack. In western Pleiku, the 44th ARVN Regiment and the 25th Ranger Group came under strong attack in Thanh An District. Sensing that the main enemy attack would be in Kontum and Pleiku, and believing that the fighting at Ban Me Thuot was a deception, General Phu recalled the 45th Regiment from Darlac to Pleiku. He also directed the 23d Division to pull its forward command post out of Ban Me Thuot and return it to Pleiku. Further, on 4 March he ordered General Niem to alert his 42d Infantry Regiment for movement to Pleiku.
These orders issued and deployments completed, General Phu settled back to await the enemy onslaught in Kontum and Pleiku. His principal infantry formations in the highlands were, on 3 March, deployed as follows:
The 23d Division - Headquarters at Ham Rong, 12 kilometers south of Pleiku City.
44th Infantry Regiment - 20 to 25 kilometers west of Pleiku City in Thanh An District.
53d Infantry Regiment - Headquarters and 1st and 3d Battalions 20 kilometers north of Ban Me Thuot; 2d Battalion at Dac Song in Quang Duc.
The II Corps Ranger Command - Headquarters at Kontum City.
4th Ranger Group - 44th Battalion near Pleiku City in reserve; 42d Battalion at Plei Bau Can (on Route 19 west of Route 14); 43d Battalion attached to the 23d Division at Ham Rong.
6th Ranger Group - 35th and 36th Battalions east and northeast of Kontum City; 51st Battalion attached to the 25th Ranger Group in Thanh An.
21st Ranger Group - with its 96th Battalion in the Chu Pao Pass between Kontum and Pleiku; 72d Battalion in reserve in Kontum; 89th Battalion attached to the 6th Ranger Group southeast of Kontum.
22d Ranger Group - 95th Battalion in Truong Nghia west of Kontum; 88th Battalion in Ngoc Bay Mountain northwest of Kontum; 62d Battalion in reserve in Kontum.
23d Ranger Group - 11th, 22d, and 23d Battalions north of Kontum along Route 14.
24th Ranger Group - 63d Battalion at Gia Nghia; 81st Battalion south of Kien Duc; 82d Battalion in Kien Duc, Quang Duc.
25th Ranger Group - 67th, 76th, and 90th Battalions in Thanh An, Pleiku.
Military Region 3
In Military Region 3, the 18th ARVN Division's counterattack to drive the NVA out of Hoai Duc District progressed slowly but steadily, amply supported by VNAF air strikes, and the 274th NVA Regiment was forced to give ground as casualties mounted. Meanwhile, leaving a small occupying force in Thanh Linh, the 812th NVA Regiment, battered by air strikes, pulled back into the safety of the deep jungle between Thanh Linh and Hoai Duc. The 33d NVA Regiment, its ranks also depleted during an intense, month-long campaign, still held roadblocks along Route 333 in mid-January but was feeling the pressure of the 18th ARVN Division battalions pushing in both directions along the road. During the last week of January 1975, the RVNAF had the road cleared from Gia Ray to Hoai Duc and by February had reoccupied the village of Vo Xu. The Binh Tuy campaign was over. Losses had been high for both sides, and the remote eastern sector of the province remained in NVA control. The RVNAF still controlled the most populous area ofthe province and had prevented the NVA 6th Division from permanently closing the provinces two major highways, National Routes 20 and 1, which passed Binh Tuy Province on the north and south.
To forestall any NVA attempt to reassert control in the recovered areas, the new III Corps commander, Lt. Gen. Nguyen Van Toan, ordered the 18th ARVN Division to maintain a sizable force in Binh Tuy, but to prepare for employment elsewhere as the corps reserve. As of mid-February, the 43d Infantry of the 18th Division was along Route 333 between Hoai Duc and Gia Huynh; the 52d Infantry headquarters with its 2d Battalion was at the division base at Xuan Loc while its 1st and 3d Battalions operated in Dinh Quan and Gia Ray, respectively; and the 48th Infantry was in corps reserve at Long Binh in Bien Hoa Province. The famine in available forces in Military Region 3 was such that even the few major elements designated as corps reserve were nearly always engaged. But this did not deter General Toan from attempting to keep the enemy off balance through periodic spoiling attacks into contested areas. One such operation was an attempt in February by the 5th ARVN Division to clear Route 13 from Lai Khe and link up with the RF and Rangers at Chon Thanh. After an auspicious beginning, however, the attack stalled, as all previous efforts had on Route 13, well short of its goal. The enemy was clearly determined to keep Route 13 closed and his own rear area intact; further, the 5th ARVN Division obviously lacked either the offensive power or will to succeed in this ambitious undertaking. (General Toan had been in the wings as Commanding General of the Armor Command since his relief from command of II Corps. Despite alleged participation in corrupt practices, he enjoyed a seemingly well-deserved reputation as a skilled and courageous commander. The fall of Phuoc Long Province sealed the fate of Lieutenant General Du Quoc Dong as III Corps Commander. Military Region 3, with Saigon at its heart, required the services of an experienced, decisive campaigner, and General Toan, no matter how tainted, was the best man available.)
III Corps Rangers and Regional Forces conducted less formidable attacks in northern Bien Hoa Province to prevent NVA rocket artillery batteries from locating within range of the airbase and to disrupt 7th NVA Division operations around Tan Uyen District. These forays met with moderate success but did not permanently affect enemy capabilities.
On 17 January, III Corps launched an operation, using the 25th ARVN Division, to retake Nui Ba Den. While artillery, helicopter gunships, and VNAF fighter-bombers pounded the NVA position, ARVN Ranger patrols searched for enemy artillery positions in the jungles north of the mountain. An airmobile assault was attempted, but NVA antiaircraft artillery and small arms fire were effective in preventing the landing. By 26 January it was apparent that retaking Nui Ba Den was beyond the resources available to III Corps. The 46th ARVN Infantry Regiment, which had moved to the base of the mountain, was withdrawn to Tay Ninh City and the operation was terminated. Aided by the excellent observation that Nui Ba Den afforded, NVA artillery continued to shell Tay Ninh City with heavy rockets and 130-mm. guns until the end of the month when the center of the province capital was virtually deserted.
A lull settled over Tay Ninh Province as the soldiers and civilians of South Vietnam prepared for Tet, which began on 11 February. But although combat declined, the enemy was very actively preparing for a major offensive in Tay Ninh and in adjoining Binh Duong and Hau Nghia Provinces. Elements of three NVA divisions, two separate infantry regiments, and a number of separate battalions, all supported by up to 10 battalions of medium and heavy artillery, moved to positions around Tay Ninh City. The 6th Regiment of the 5th NVA Division and at least three local battalions and a separate regiment, were concentrated to the southwest, ready to cut Routes 1 and 22 at Go Dau Ha. The new 3d Division, fresh from its victory at Phuoc Long, was north of the city, while the veteran 9th Division was around the Michelin Plantation, preparing to assault Tri Tam on the Tay Ninh-Binh Duong boundary. Large convoys of trucks were seen moving supplies and ammunition forward.
Faced by a formidable enemy on his western flank as he assumed command in Military Region 3, General Toan in characteristic fashion set about making decisive changes in dispositions and concepts to deal with the threat. To make the 25th ARVN Division, which covered an immense front from the Cambodian frontier nearly to the western outskirts of Saigon, more mobile, he gave responsibility for all static posts to Tay Ninh Regional Forces. Eight RF battalions and seven separate RF companies were placed along lines of communication and major approaches to the city, while the three regiments of the 25th Division conducted mobile operations in the forward areas. The 46th Infantry was east and southeast of the city; the 49th Infantry was north of the city, with battalions around Nui Ba Den; while the 50th Infantry was near Khiem Hanh, to the southeast. A company of M-41 light tanks and two troops of armored personnel carriers were in reserve near Tay Ninh City, and a reinforced company of the 81st Airborne Rangers conducted deep patrols on Nui Ba Den and into the jungle of War Zone C, north of the mountain. The division commander, Brig. Gen. Ly Tong Ba, like General Toan had a background in armor and was exercising vigorous, personal leadership in the forward areas, urging his troops to patrol more aggressively into the contested area north of the city.
Tet was over and the first days of the Year of the Cat passed into March. In the east of his sector, General Toan watched the 6th and 7th NVA Divisions conducting reconnaissance and preparing for combat in Long Khanh and Bien Hoa. In the center, his 5th Division persisted, without much success, in pushing north out of Bau Bang to link up with the Rangers, who had attacked south from Chon Thanh along Route 13. The situation was becoming tense in western Binh Duong, at Tri Tam and throughout Tay Ninh Province, but General Toan's fresh approach renewed the confidence of the 25th Division and the Tay Ninh territorials. To the southwest, at Tan An in Long An Province, astride Highway 4, the newly organized 4th Marine Brigade was deployed. Inexperienced but seasoned with a few veteran campaigners, this brigade stiffened the defenses of the Long An territorials.
Military Region 4
Consistent with its country-wide program of consolidating independent battalions and regiments into larger formations more suited to sustained conventional combat, the NVA in late 1974 organized the 4th Division in Chuong Thien Province and 8th Division in Kien Tuong and Dinh Tuong Provinces of South Vietnam's Military Region 4.
From 6-26 December 1974 Communist forces in the Mekong Delta had conducted the most widespread and intense attacks thus far in the war. They struck with greatest force in the Elephant's Foot area of Kien Tuong Province, but strong attacks also occurred along lines of communication in Dinh Tuong, Chuong Thien, Ba Xuyen, Vinh Binh, Vinh Long, and An Xuyen Provinces. Casualties on both sides were heavy; the RVNAF had over 500 killed in action, and total casualties, including wounded and missing, exceeded 3,000. On the enemy side, the best estimates placed total losses - killed, captured, and permanently disabled - at over 3,500. Despite the generally effective defense put up by the RVNAF, security in the hamlets and countryside of the southern delta deteriorated as a result of widespread attacks against isolated, lightly defended regions.
Up until the end of January 1975, the new 8th NVA Division had been largely uncommitted - only its Z-15 Regiment in northern Dinh Tuong Province had engaged in significant combat - while the veteran 5th NVA Division attempted to secure Svay Rieng border areas. During a flurry of activity in January, the 5th NVA Division suffered high casualties and gained very little, while the ARVN held on tenaciously to Tri Phap bases against probes and harassing attacks launched by the Z-18 and 24th NVA Regiments of the 8th Division.
During January violence spread throughout the delta in a pre-Tet spasm of NVA attacks on lines of communication, cities, villages and outposts. With regard to the latter, Maj. Gen. Nguyen Khoa Nam, upon assuming command of IV Corps and Military Region 4, continued to reduce the number of indefensible, isolated posts and to consolidate combat power in larger positions. Sixty-three posts in the delta were abandoned under this plan in January, while another 87 were either overrun or evacuated under pressure. Of the latter, ARVN counterattacks regained 24. The heaviest losses were in the far south, in Bac Lieu, where 23 posts were lost and only 4 retaken, and in An Xuyen, where 16 posts fell and only 2 were recovered. Half the posts voluntarily abandoned were also located in these two provinces, while the central provinces of Phong Dien and Sa Dec and the northern border sector of Kien Phong suffered very light damage. Even in the key central province of Chuong Thien, where the three regiments (D-2, 18B, and 95A) of the new 4th NVA Division operated, the ARVN lost very little; of the six posts lost to enemy attack, four were recaptured. As the second anniversary of the cease fire came and went, it was clear that the ARVN soldiers of the delta had won the January round, but at high cost. RVNAF casualties in Military Region 4 were very high.
The enemy also lost heavily, but nowhere were his casualties heavier than in the battle between the 5th NVA Division and the 7th ARVN Division in northern Kien Tuong Province along the Cambodian-Svay Rieng border. By the end of January only two ARVN positions remained in Tuyen Binh District; Long Khot outpost was overrun by elements of the 6th and 174th NVA Regiments using captured M-113 armored personnel carriers. But capturing that outpost was the last significant success the NVA would enjoy in Kien Tuong before the final offensive. Toward the end of February, the 5th NVA Division withdrew the battered 6th Regiment from action and sent it into Cambodia to receive replacements and thereafter to southern Tay Ninh Province. Replacements flowed into the 5th NVA Division in great numbers during the month while the 7th ARVN Division kept up the pressure against the 174th Regiment around Moc Hoa.
Although the ARVN was successful against NVA main forces in most of the central and northern delta, security in the southern provinces - especially in An Xuyen and Bac Lieu - continued deteriorating. Territorials were not competent to deal with the threat, and not enough regulars were available. To strengthen Military Region 4 territorials, the JGS authorized the corps commander to deactivate 16 RF battalions, 5 RF companies, and 76 PF platoons to fill the ranks of other depleted territorial units.
The Navy in the delta was in similar difficulty. Budgetary limitations had cut the number of operational units from 44 to 21, and the riverine forces could no longer provide adequate security on several major canals.
In mid-February another security problem, one with tragic overtones, arose in the northern delta. The collapse of the forces of the government of Cambodia had caused thousands to seek refuge in Chau Doc Province. More than 7,000 people, including at least 500 military, streamed across the border.
Over on the western edge of the delta, north of Rach Gia District town, ARVN regulars intercepted two NVA battalions moving down Infiltration Corridor 1-C and inflicted heavy casualties; more than 350 were killed and a large quantity of ordnance was captured.
Signs of the coming NVA offensive did not go unobserved. The Defense Attache Office, Saigon, and the American Embassy each reported in their own channels events which presaged the approaching campaign, and both were occupied with furnishing information to Washington to support the supplemental appropriation for Vietnam military assistance requested by the Ford administration. To see first-hand the situation which the White House said justified at least the $300 million requested, several members of Congress and their staff aides journeyed to Vietnam.
The first congressional visitor of the new year was Senator Sam Nunn, a member of the Armed Services Committee. His advance man was Don L. Lynch, a member of the committee staff, who arrived in Saigon on 7 January and stayed until the senator's two-day visit was over on 14 January. They were given detailed briefing by the Embassy and DAO and by General Khuyen, Chief of Staff of the JGS and Chief of the Central Logistical Command, who explained the military situation and the problems the RVNAF was facing due to the reduction of American assistance. Senator Nunn returned to the United States convinced, as was Representative Leo J. Ryan, who had visited Vietnam in late December 1974, that military aid reductions had seriously weakened the RVNAF.
President Ford requested an additional appropriation of $522 million for Vietnam and Cambodia on 28 January, $300 million of which would be for Vietnam. Accordingly, the Senate and the House of Representatives put together a joint bipartisan group to fly to Vietnam and return to report on the appropriateness of the administration's request. Two of the Congressmen, Senator Dewey F. Bartlett and Representative Paul N. McCloskey arrived in Saigon on 24 February, three days in advance of the main party, which included Representatives William V. Chappell, Donald N. Fraser, Bella Abzug, John P. Murtha, and John J. Flynt. These visiting Congressmen were accompanied by Mr. Philip C. Habib, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs; Mr. Eric von Marbod, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense; and a dozen staff aides and escorts.
Preoccupied though they were with the critical military situation, the South Vietnamese leaders prepared and presented eye-opening briefing and displays. No doors were closed to the delegation members; they were offered trips to any battlefront they wished to see. Bartlett, Murtha, and McCloskey were interested in extensive field trips. Others, particularly Abzug, wanted to see and talk to "political prisoners." The South Vietnamese arranged for such visits, although what constituted a political prisoner in this desperate, war-torn environment was a subject of no little dispute and misunderstanding.
Congressman Murtha went to Military Region 1 and, with General Truong, visited forward positions by helicopter. Congressmen Bartlett and McCloskey devoted their first two full days to extensive battlefield tours. They went first to IV Corps Headquarters at Can Tho where Representative McCloskey asked to see and was shown the compound for prisoners of war. At Dinh Tuong they visited the command post of the 12th Infantry, 7th Division. From there both Congressmen went to Da Nang and on to the headquarters of the 56th Infantry in Duc Duc, where they were briefed by General Hinh, the 3d Division commander. ARVN artillery was responding to a call for fires from a forward observer during this visit, and General Hinh explained the severe conditions imposed by the fuel and ammunition restrictions. The next day the Congressmen were given a close look at the Binh Dinh battle area, north of Bong Son, by the commander of the 22d ARVN Division. General Niem would have taken them to the crests of the hills his men held, but the road was swept by fire, and enemy shells were falling on these positions.
Back in Saigon, the JGS had prepared a display of captured enemy weapons, ammunition, and equipment, including the most modern weapons and fighting vehicles furnished by the Soviet Union and China. Only a few members of the delegation attended. Before leaving Saigon on 2 March, most of the delegation questioned the NVA and VC delegation at Tan Son Nhut about Americans missing in action.
When they departed, some members left with brief cases bulging with fact sheets prepared by DAO, the JGS, and the American Embassy on subjects they inquired about. DAO fact sheets discussed military data supporting estimates for the coming offensive.
The fact sheet on the NVA strategic reserve pointed out that since the January 1973 cease fire, North Vietnam had rebuilt and increased its strategic reserve from two divisions (the 308th and 308B) to seven, and this list did not include the 968th Division deploying from Laos into the Central Highlands. They had returned the 312th and 320B Divisions to the reserve from Quang Tri Province; brought the 31 6th back to North Vietnam from northern Laos; reconstituted the 341st Division in the southernmost province of North Vietnam; and converted the 338th Division from a training division. Furthermore, they had created a corps headquarters in Thanh Hoa Province for controlling three or more divisions plus corps armor, artillery, and air defense regiments. These changes were viewed as strong indicators of major offensive intent. The fact sheet also showed that the deployment times of these divisions were greatly shortened from those before the cease fire due to the new highways and the absence of U.S. interdiction. Within 15 days, for example, a division in North Vietnam could be moved to South Vietnam's Military Region 2 and committed to combat. Another fact sheet discussed how heavy infiltration customarily preceded and continued through major NVA offensives in the south and showed that infiltration was especially large during the first two months of 1975. More than half as many replacements would arrive in South Vietnam during the first three months of 1975 than arrived during all of 1973. Since the cease fire, 200,000 replacements had moved south, a clear sign that an offensive was in the offing.
The greatly increased size and strength of the regular NVA forces in South Vietnam was the subject of a number of fact sheets. One listed the major combat and combat support units that had entered South Vietnam or had been formed there from replacement groups since the cease fire. (It did not mention several divisions formed from independent regiments or new regiments built of previously separate battalions.) Most of them were air defense units. Although the 968th Infantry Division was on the way from Laos only its 9th Regiment (since integrated into the 320th Division) was counted among the two other known infantry regiments then new to the southern battlefield - the 36th and 41st in Quang Nam. Five other new regiments of armor, artillery, and sappers were also listed, along with four new sapper battalions.
Another fact sheet displayed DAO Saigon's estimate of the numerical strength changes that had taken place in NVA forces in South Vietnam since the cease fire. Combat units had gained 58,000 men and now had over 200,000. Combat and administrative support units had added about 30,000, for a new strength of over 100,000. Viet Cong were not included in these estimates. Armor vehicles, mostly tanks, had risen from about 100 to over 700, while the number of medium artillery pieces was over 400, up from about 100. The NVA now had twice as many tanks in South Vietnam (about 700) as did the RVNAF (352).
Papers on construction, lines of communication, supply level, and the pipeline showed that the NVA in the South had built a complex logistical system and had stockpiled enough supplies to support a major offensive for over a year. The NVA had never in the history of the war been in such a favorable logistical condition. Significantly, the RVNAF were, for the first time in the war, in an inferior position.
Besides these fact sheets, the DAO furnished the congressional delegation a paper called "Vietnam Perspective." This explained frequently unperceived influences on the relative power, flexibility, and tactical potential of the opposing armed forces. For example, although the NVA's expeditionary force in South Vietnam was less than half the size of the South's combat force, the enemy made up the difference in troops maintained in secure garrisons in North Vietnam, more than 70,000 of which were available for immediate deployment to South Vietnam. Furthermore, the NVA possessed the frequently decisive advantages of surprise and the ability to mass overwhelming force. The RVNAF, even when they were able to discover the enemy's intent in advance, were often unable to move sufficient reserves to the battle area in time to forestall defeat in detail. The NVA's advantages also accounted for its ability to accomplish its objectives through the expenditure of far less ammunition than the defenders. Through careful reconnaissance, registration, and siting of batteries in concealed locations, the attacker concentrated heavy fires on small targets, while the defender had to search great areas, cover many avenues of approach and suspected enemy positions, and use much larger amounts of ammunition in the defense. The requirements for defense of populated areas, thousands of bridges, and hundreds of miles of highway left the RVNAF with few forces available to use in deep or prolonged offensive operations.
Rounding out the set of documents furnished the delegation, the DAO presented its January 1975 threat assessment. Some pertinent paragraphs are quoted:
16. In early 1974, COSVN Resolution 12, based on resolution 21 of the Lao Dong Party which was adopted during the 21st Plenum of the Lao Dong Party in Hanoi, emerged as the basic Communist guidance relating to the South. Resolution 12 reiterated previous emphasis on strengthening revolutionary forces, stressing that, if the Communists remained strong, the GVN would be forced to implement the Paris Agreement. COSVN 12 thus reflected a somewhat conservative outlook which emphasized building Communist strength, rather than exercising it on the battlefield.
17. In August 1974 [President Nixon resigned on August 9], however, the Communists adopted a strategy envisioning a large scale offensive to defeat GVN pacification and bring about new negotiations. It called for an intense military campaign beginning in December 1974 and lasting until mid-1975. In defeating pacification, the Communist forces were to fulfill certain requirements (kill one third of the GVN's MF, RF and PF; neutralize one-half of the PSDF; and cut key LOC's) in order to accomplish certain missions: (1) liberate the bulk of the countryside; (2) increase the population in the Communist areas; (3) obtain rice; and (4) upgrade contested areas.
18. The 1974-1975 dry season campaign began dramatically in December with major attacks throughout MR-3 and MR-4, with the most visible result being the GVN loss of Phuoc Long Province. Major combat has since declined in those areas, but is expected to resume. In MR-1 and MR-2, the bulk of available intelligence indicates that major combat will soon be forthcoming. The campaign, thus, is expected to assume country-wide proportions and a number of indicators point to the introduction of strategic reserve divisions from NVN.
19. Thus, Communist strategy since the ceasefire has evolved from a rather cautious approach in the early stages, involving testing of the Paris Agreement and building up of rear areas, to one based primarily on battlefield victories to exploit the perceived weaknesses of the GVN. The COSVN resolution for 1975 heralds a return to major offensive activity as the primary means of advancing the Communist revolution to a successful conclusion. . . .
46. If reported plans are executed, the Communists will be crossing the threshold between the outpost war and an attempt to deal critical blows to RVNAF and the GVN. In the near term, the Communists will probably experience continued success, to include overrunning of some district towns; however, increased Communist losses may prove prohibitive in the long run.
47. In conclusion, despite the lack of clarity concerning a number of key indicators as regards both specific intent and timing, we anticipate a significant upsurge in combat in northern SVN, as poor weather gradually abates in late February and March, and a resumption of major attacks in MR-3, once Communists preparations are complete. The war in the Delta is expected to remain at the recent intensified levels and to reflect increasingly ambitious Communist attacks on populated areas.
The Congressional delegation's jet left Tan Son Nhut airport on 2 March. As if having waited for the delegation to depart, the NVA launched the final offensive two mornings later with attacks that severed Highway 19 between the highlands and the coast.
Note on Sources
Newspaper accounts were used for the reactions and statements of officials in the United States.
Generals Truong and Vien read this chapter and contributed valuable comments and corrections.
The final DAO Quarterly Assessment provided information concerning the visitors of early 1975, and DAO fact sheets were used to describe the prevailing situation. The January Monthly Intelligence Summary and Threat Analysis was also useful.
Finally, the author accompanied Representative McCloskey on his field trips and attended most of the briefing conducted for the congressional visitors. The author's notes and recollections were referred to in relating the events surrounding this visit.
Chapter 15 The Central Highlands, March 1975
Senior General Van Tien Dung was the principal architect of North Vietnam's final offensive against South Vietnam. In his account of "The Great Spring Victory" he described the planning of the offensive (FBIS Daily Report: Asia and Pacific, Vol. IV, No. 110, Sup. 38, pp. 6-10):
. . . during the 20 days of the conference the Political Bureau's assessment of the situation and its discussions were increasingly by the obvious week-by-week achievement of major strategic objectives. . . . While the Political Bureau was meeting, great news came from the south: the main force units in eastern Nam Bo [roughly conterminous with South Vietnam's Military Region 3], in cooperation with the provincial forces, had attacked and liberated Phuoc Binh City and all of Phuoc Long Province.
On 8 January 1975, two days after the Phuoc Long victory, Comrade Le Duan concluded the discussions. . . . The situation is now clear to everybody. We are now determined to fulfill the 2 year plan. . . .
Le Duan went on: Striking a strategic blow in 1975, Nam Bo will have to create an interrelated and interdependent position throughout the region, bring military pressure closer to Saigon, annihilate as many enemy main-force units as possible and create conditions for localities to deploy forces when opportunities arise.
In the Mekong delta region military pressure must be brought closer to My Tho. We have agreed that this year the attack on the Central Highlands will begin. He pointed to a map behind him and said: Attacks must be unleashed toward Ban Me Thuot and Tuy Hoa. The Fifth Region will have to form a liberated area from Binh Dinh Province northward, and the Tri-Thien forces will have to control an area from Hue to Da Nang.
While we discussed the 1975 strategic combat plan, another very important question was raised: Where to establish the main battlefield?
After considering the RVNAF strength, mobility and deployments, the relative strategic value of each major region, and the strength and mobility of the NVA, "the conferees unanimously approved the General Staffs draft plan which chose the Central Highlands as the main battlefield in the large-scale, widespread 1975 offensive."
According to General Dung, North Vietnamese leaders did not expect total victory in 1975. The major, country-wide offensive they were planning for early 1975 was to prepare the way for a "general offensive" that would finish the task in 1976. Nevertheless, they anticipated the possibility of "opportunities" to "liberate" South Vietnam "early or late in 1975."
General Dung reported that on 9 January, one day after the conference adjourned, the Central Military Party Committee convened to prepare military plans to support the conference resolution. It was here that Ban Me Thuot was selected as the first objective and main effort of the Central Highlands campaign.
The conference had just started when Comrade Le Duc Tho arrived unannounced. He opened the door, entered and joined us in the conference. Later on we knew that the Political Bureau was somewhat troubled because the idea of an attack on Ban Me Thuot had not been clearly outlined in the combat plan; therefore, it sent Comrade Tho to join us and present his idea that such an attack was essential. He said enthusiastically: "We must definitely raise the problem of liberating Ban Me Thuot and Duc Lap. It would be absurd if with almost five divisions in the Central Highlands we could not attack Ban Me Thuot." Comrade Vo Nguyen Giap, secretary of the Central Military Party Committee, concluded the conference by establishing the areas and targets of the offensive, the objectives of the campaign and the orders for deploying and using forces. He also suggested the fighting methods that should be applied, greatly stressing the principle of force, secrecy and surprise, and advised that it was necessary to deceive the enemy into concentration on defending areas north of the Central Highlands.
The Central Highlands campaign was code-named "Campaign 275." At that time on the Central Highlands front, Comrade Vu Lang, the front commander, left for the Ban Me Thuot area with some cadres to assess the situation. At the request of comrades Le Duan and Le Duc Tho, the Political Bureau sent me to the Central Highlands battlefield as a representative of the Political Bureau, the Central Military Party Committee and the High Command to take field command. . . . I told Comrade Tran Van Tra following the Political Bureau conference: "This time I will fight in the Central Highlands until the rainy season. Then I will go to Nam Bo to join you in studying the battlefield situation and making preparations for military activities in the 1975-76 dry season." . . . At this time in the Central Highlands we had the 320th, 10th and 968th divisions - divisions that had gained much combat experience on the Central Highlands battlefield. Toward the end of December 1974 the High Command decided to dispatch the 316th Division to this front.
Isolating the Battlefield
To capture Ban Me Thuot, NVA leadership in the B-3 Front - now personified in General Van Tien Dung - counted on surprise and overwhelming force. The element of surprise was to be enhanced by strong diversionary attacks in Kontum and Pleiku Provinces; once achieved, the advantage of mass, or the concentration of force, was to be prolonged by preventing the RVNAF from reinforcing Ban Me Thuot. The diversionary and supporting attacks began while the three NVA divisions that would take part in the Darlac-Quang Duc Campaign - the 10th, 316th, and 320 - were still converging on their initial objectives areas.
The opening guns of Campaign 275 sounded along Route 19 (QL-19), the lifeline to the highlands, in the early morning of 4 March. Simultaneous attacks closed the highway from the Mang Yang Pass in Pleiku Province to Binh Dinh Province. Enemy sappers blew Bridge 12 southeast of Binh Khe, in Binh Dinh, and infantry struck ARVN territorials on the high ground overwatching the An Khe Pass and the RF unit at the Route 3A (TL-3A) junction. Soon an artillery position supporting the 2d Battalion, 47th Infantry, north of Binh Khe was overrun. A strong attack by the 12th Regiment, 3d NVA Division, near the An Khe airfield was repulsed, while Phu Cat air base received a rocket attack and sustained light damage.
While Binh Dinh territorials and the 47th ARVN Regiment struggled to hold their positions against the withering NVA artillery, infantry, and sapper assaults, South Vietnam forces in Pleiku Province came under heavy rocket, mortar, and recoilless rifle fire along Route 19 from Le Trung, 15 kilometers east of Pleiku City, to the narrow defiles of the Mang Yang Pass. Fire Support Bases 92 (east of Le Trung), 93 (near Soui Doi), and 94 (north of Hill 3045), all came under bombardment, while a number of their outposts were overrun. Two bridges and a large culvert between FSBs 93 and 94 were destroyed by enemy sappers. General Phu, the II Corps commander, reacted by sending two battalions of the 4th Ranger Group to join elements of the 2d Armored Cavalry Brigade, then clearing parts of Route 19, to proceed as far as FSB 95 in Binh Dinh Province, just east of the Mang Yang Pass. But before the operation could get under way, Base 94 was overrun. Meanwhile, NVA rockets hit Pleiku air base; although the field remained operational, the maintenance area sustained heavy damage.
While the attacks along Route 19 were viewed by General Phu as strong indicators that the NVA main effort would be against Pleiku, the Communists also interdicted Route 21 (QL-21), the other major road to the highlands, which connected coastal Khanh Hoa Province with Ban Me Thuot. Sappers blew two bridges between the Darlac boundary and Khanh Duong in Khanh Hoa Province, and NVA infantry overran an ARVN territorial outpost close to the provincial boundary. The only two available roads to the highlands were closed; the battlefield of the Central Highlands had been isolated in 24 hours of concentrated assaults.
At II Corps headquarters, South Vietnamese officers debated where the enemy's main effort would take place. Colonel Trinh Tieu, the G-2, insisted that Ban Me Thuot would be the principal objective, with intermediate and supporting objectives at Buon Ho and Duc Lap. Based on indications that elements of the 10th and 320th Division had shifted south or had at least conducted reconnaissance in Quang Duc and Darlac Provinces, he told his commander that the attacks in Kontum, Pleiku, and on Route 19 were diversionary, designed primarily to hold the major RVNAF strength in place in Binh Dinh, Kontum, and Pleiku. General Phu nevertheless, believed Pleiku to be the main NVA objective. His reasoning was based on the weight of the current enemy attacks by fire against the 44th ARVN Infantry in Thanh An District of Pleiku and against the Rangers north of Kontum. Having only two regiments protecting the western approaches to Pleiku, he would not weaken this front to reinforce Ban Me Thuot where nothing significant had yet taken place.
Darlac and Quang Duc
Local Route 487 twisted through the forested highlands of southwestern Phu Bon Province between Cheo Reo, the capital, and Buon Blech, where it joined National Route 14 (QL-14) about 60 kilometers north of Ban Me Thuot. At this junction, also the district seat of Thuan Man in Phu Bon Province, the NVA on 8 March, struck the first direct blow of Campaign 275. Elements of the 9th Regiment, 320th NVA Division, attacked the subsector headquarters and the 23d Reconnaissance Company forcing a withdrawal. Meanwhile, the 45th ARVN Regiment on Route 14 near Thuan Man reported contact with enemy infantry. The fighting continued through the day, but Route 14 was permanently blocked by the 9th Regiment, 320th NVA Division.
On 9 March, the 10th NVA Division launched simultaneous attacks throughout Quang Duc Province. The assault against the Rangers at Kien Duc was repulsed, and the Quang Duc territorials at Duc Lap also held their positions. But south of Duc Lap, at the Dak Song crossroads, heavy artillery bombardment and infantry assaults drove the 2d Battalion, 53d ARVN Infantry Regiment, from its defenses. By noon it was overrun.
General Phu was now convinced that Darlac was the main battlefield and his forces there needed immediate reinforcement. He asked the JGS for an additional Ranger group but was turned down; the JGS had few reserves, and threats to Saigon and Tay Ninh were mounting. Failing to acquire additional combat power from outside the region, General Phu pulled the 72d and 96th Ranger Battalions, 21st Ranger Group, from the Chu Pao Pass and Kontum and flew them to Buon Ho; once there they boarded trucks for the 35-kilometer ride to Ban Me Thuot. He also ordered the 45th Reconnaissance Company at Ban Don to return to Ban Me Thuot.
According to General Dung's account, at 0200 Hanoi time on the morning of 10 March, the offensive on Ban Me Thuot was heralded by the fire from sapper units directed against the Hoa Binh [Phung Duc] and city airfields. Long-range artillery began destroying military targets in the city. From a point 40 kilometers from Ban Me Thuot, our tank unit started their engines, knocked down trees which had been cut halfway in advance, headed for Ban Me Thuot. On the Xre Poc [Krong] River, modern ferryboats were rapidly assembled, while tanks, armored vehicles, antiaircraft guns, and antitank guns formed queues to cross on the ferries. The mountains and forests of the Central Highlands were shaken by a fire storm.
In the early morning of 10 March 1975 heavy rockets and artillery fire fell on Ban Me Thuot, and mortar fire struck the airfield at Phung Duc to the east. The bombardment was followed by infantry and sapper assaults against the ammunition dump on local Route 1 west of the city; the 2d Company, 225th RF Battalion on Hill 559 northwest of the city, and the subsector headquarters at Phung Duc airfield. All attacks were repulsed, and enemy losses were heavy. Just before four that morning, the 3d Battalion, 53d ARVN Infantry, came under heavy attack at the airfield, and NVA tanks were sighted northwest of the city.
Meanwhile, attacks in Quang Duc Province continued as the 259th RF Battalion fought off enemy infantry on Route 12 between Dak Song and Duc Lap and the Rangers held their ground in Kien Duc and Gia Nghia. On 15 March the beleaguered defenders of Kien Duc, however, were finally overrun.
In Binh Dinh Province, General Niem, commanding the 22d Division, reinforced his 42d Infantry Regiment in Binh Khe District with the headquarters and two battalions of the 41st Infantry, but Route 19 was still cut at Le Trung and Binh Khe. Attacking Rangers were stalled at Bridge 31 between Fire Support Bases 93 and 94 in Pleiku Province. Although a heavy rocket attack on the airfield at Pleiku on 10 March closed down operations for several hours, Route 14 between Kontum and Pleiku remained open. A steady stream of traffic surged south through the Chu Pao Pass as the population of Kontum fled the daily rocketing of their city and the imminent threat of Communist invasion. The lines at the Air Vietnam terminal at Kontum flowed out into the streets as residents sought to buy tickets to Pleiku and points south. Highway 14 was closed on 10 March in southern Pleiku by enemy attacks on territorial outposts in the mountains close to the Darlac boundary.
By mid-morning on 10 March, major elements of the 320th NVA Division had penetrated Ban Me Thuot. The heaviest fighting was in the southern sector near the province chiefs residence, the sector headquarters, and the 23d Division command post. Five enemy tanks were destroyed or disabled near the command post, but one of the VNAF bombs intended for NVA armor demolished the sector headquarters, cutting off all communications. Two more tanks were destroyed near the city's airfield. The small ARVN garrison there fought back repeated NVA assaults and held on to the control tower, but General Phu's effort to fly two RF battalions from Ban Don to Ban Me Thuot was thwarted by heavy enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire. Both battalions were therefore diverted to Buon Ho, which also came under mortar attack on 10 March. Fighting at the airfield destroyed eight aircraft of the 6th Air Division, a CH47, one O-1, and six UH-1s. Four of the seven UH-1s belonging to the 2d Air Division were destroyed on the ground, but air crews managed to fly out three damaged helicopters under heavy fire. The sector ammunition storage site southwest of the city was overrun; 10,000 rounds of 105-mm ammunition were destroyed, and two 105-mm. howitzers were lost.
At the Phung Duc airfield, the 3d Battalion, 53d Infantry took two prisoners who identified the attackers as the 25th Independent Regiment and the 401st Sapper Battalion. Meanwhile, in Ban Me Thuot, the NVA was also taking prisoners. Two members of the ICCS, one Iranian and one Indonesian, had taken refuge with the only American official in Darlac, Paul Struharic, the Consul General's provincial representative. Eight other foreign civilians, missionaries, and their families were with Struharic when NVA soldiers broke into his house and seized them all. Although they were imprisoned in Duc Co, all were eventually released.
By the night of 10 March the NVA had a firm hold on the center of Ban Me Thuot, while the principal remaining ARVN infantry, cavalry, and territorials held positions east, west and south of the city. The 2d Company, 225th RF Battalion, remained on Hill 559, and the 4th Company, 242d RF Battalion still held the main ammunition dump. In a coffee plantation west of Ban Me Thuot, most of the 1st Battalion, 53d Infantry, and Headquarters and 3d Troop, 8th Armored Cavalry, defended their perimeter. The 4th Company, 243d RF Battalion, was dug in on Hill 491 to the south. Small units of the 53d Regiment and territorials were still fighting in the city, but the heaviest combat was at the Phung Duc airfield. There, the forward command post of the 23d ARVN Division fought along with the headquarters of its 53d Infantry, and the 3d Troop, 8th Armored Cavalry. Survivors of the sector headquarters were with some Ranger units west of the airfield.
Very heavy fighting continued on 11 March. ARVN defenders estimated 400 enemy killed, 50 weapons captured, and 13 tanks destroyed, and the 53d Infantry at the airfield reported that the NVA was using flame-throwers in the assault. Isolated pockets of resistance fought on, even though the province chief, Col. Nguyen Cong Luat, was captured.
In Pleiku, the 4th Ranger Group gained no ground on Route 19 in heavy fighting near Bridge 23 and Fire Support Base 93 as the 95B NVA Regiment counterattacked vigorously on 11-12 March. Fighting was widespread but light in the rest of Pleiku. The environs of the city were mortared, the II Corps headquarters sustained minor damage from a rocket attack, and three A-37 light bombers were destroyed along with fuel storage and a parts warehouse at Pleiku Air Base by 122-mm. rockets.
The disastrous turn of events in Military Region 2 led to the turning point in the long and bitter war, compelling President Thieu to make a decision regarding the conduct of the defense which would create chaos for the RVNAF and opportunities for the enemy. Regarding the northern part of the country as expendable in order to preserve the security of Military Regions 3 and 4, he thought it essential to retake Ban Me Thuot, even though Kontum and Pleiku might have to be sacrificed. He wished to convey this new concept to General Phu in Pleiku, but because of the hazards of such a meeting in that war-torn province, he was persuaded by his staff to meet the II Corps commander in Cam Ranh, south of Nha Trang, on 14 March.
On 12 March, General Phu announced that all organized resistance inside Ban Me Thuot had ceased. The 21st Ranger Group was assembling the survivors of its two committed battalions near the Phung Duc airfield, and the 45th ARVN Infantry Regiment was moving by helicopters to Phuoc An District on Route 21, east of Ban Me Thuot. The next day, as the 320th NVA Division consolidated its gains in Ban Me Thuot, the battle for Phung Duc continued. Recognizing the critical situation in the highlands, the JGS decided to send the 7th Ranger Group, its last available reserve, from Saigon to replace the 44th Infantry Regiment west of Pleiku, releasing the 44th to join the counterattack in Darlac.
The situation in Darlac continued to deteriorate. Quang Nhieu Village in the plantations north of Ban Me Thuot was overrun as was Buon Ho Village on Route 14. The South Vietnamese gave up Ban Don and withdrew remaining RF units. The planned relief of the 44th Infantry west of Pleiku had to be aborted after one battalion and the regimental headquarters were moved because the required airlift could not be marshalled to complete it.
On 14 March, General Phu had assembled in Phuoc An a task force under the command of Brig. Gen. Le Trung Tuong, commanding general of the 23d ARVN Division. In the task force were the 45th Infantry Regiment, one battalion and the headquarters of the 44th Infantry, and one battalion of the 21st Ranger Group. The plan was to attack west astride Route 21 to link up with the tenacious defenders at the Phung Duc airfield: the 3d Battalion, 53d Infantry, which had been there through four days of continuous fighting; the survivors of the 1st Battalion, 53d Infantry, who had withdrawn from west of the city; and the survivors of the 72d and 96th Battalions, 21st Ranger Group.
The counterattack was to be supported logistically from Nha Trang. Another task force of five RF battalions from Khanh Hoa Province was ordered to clear the route between Nha Trang and Khanh Duong.
On 14 March, General Phu flew to Cam Ranh for his fateful meeting with the President. With General Vien, Lt Gen. Dang Van Quang, and Prime Minister Khiem present, President Thieu outlined his concept. General Phu's role would be to retake Ban Me Thuot, using the troops he still had in Kontum and Pleiku Province, and the 22d Division from Binh Dinh Province. With Route 19 cut in Pleiku and Binh Dinh, and no way to use Routes 14 and 21 through Darlac, General Phu had only interprovincial Route 7B (LTL-7B) available to recover his Kontum-Pleiku forces, assemble them in Khanh Hoa Province, and fight back along Route 21 into Ban Me Thuot. Although many hazards were discussed, this approach was accepted by the President, and General Phu flew back to his headquarters to set the withdrawal in motion. (American officials had no knowledge of the decision.)
That night, 14 March, NVA sappers penetrated the Pleiku ammunition storage area and blew up 1,400 rounds of 105-mm. howitzer shells. The deployments to Darlac had greatly weakened security in Pleiku, and General Phu had already ordered the evacuation of all nonessential military personnel and dependents from Kontum and Pleiku. Colonel Giao, the acting commander of the 6th Air Division at Pleiku, directed the evacuation from Pleiku Air Base. Brig. Gen. Tran Van Cam, the deputy commander for operations, II Corps, was left in command of forces in Pleiku Province. Colonel Pham Duy Tat, commander of II Corps Rangers, remained in Kontum Province in charge of territorials and three Ranger groups, the 6th, 22d, and 23d. General Phu moved his command post to II Corps Rear at Nha Trang and, surprisingly, replaced the captured Darlac Province Chief with Col. Trinh Tieu, his own G-2, whose correct estimate of the NVA offensive he had so tragically rejected. He made one other significant announcement to his staff beforehe left Pleiku: Colonel Tat was promoted to brigadier general and would command the evacuation of Kontum and Pleiku down Route 7B to the coast at Tuy Hoa. Upon the insistence of General Phu, Tat's promotion was approved by President Thieu at the Cam Ranh meeting.
As the 23d Division's counterattack from Phuoc An began on 15 March, the 53d Infantry's situation at the airfield was grim. ARVN soldiers had withstood nearly continuous artillery and mortar bombardment and had beaten back successive assaults by the 25th NVA Regiment. But the 316th NVA Division, recently moved with great secrecy from North Vietnam, was poised to attack the battered 53d Infantry and Rangers east of Ban Me Thuot.
To block the 23d Division's counterattack from Phuoc An, General Dung ordered the 10th NVA Division up from Quang Duc. The 10th met the advancing 45th ARVN Infantry and stopped it at the Ea Nhiae River, ten kilometers short of its planned link-up with the 53d. The 2d Battalion, 45th Regiment, was shattered in this fierce engagement, and the ARVN counterattack became a withdrawal. The division commander, Brig. Gen. Tuong, was slightly wounded as his helicopter received fire on 10 March. He had himself evacuated and command reverted to the senior colonel in the task force, Colonel Duc.
Behind the withdrawing survivors of the 23d Division, territorials from Khanh Hoa were meeting stiff resistance at Khanh Duong. Fighting for the high ground overlooking the road to Nha Trang, they captured some enemy soldiers from the 25th Independent Regiment, which had apparently slipped around the 23d Division at Phuoc An after failing to dislodge the 53d Infantry at the Phung Duc airfield.
The renewed NVA offensive in Dalac Province, led by the 10th Division along Route 21, pushed the 23d Division task force eastward, first back to Phuoc An, then through Chu Kuk near the Khanh Hoa boundary. Finally, the 23d Division command post reached Khanh Duong and settled there to recover the remnants of its battalions as they straggled in. Without resupply, the survivors of the 3d Battalion, 53d Infantry, on 18 March gave up the airfield and began a tortuous withdrawal eastward. On 21 March, what remained of the 23d ARVN Division was flown to the relative security of Cam Ranh. By this time, the exodus from Pleiku was well under way. The enemy still held high ground in and around Khanh Duong on Route 21, although the 2d and 3d Battalions of the 40th Regiment, 22d ARVN Division, had been moved from Binh Dinh Province to reinforce the attack. The 3d Airborne Brigade, pulled out of Quang Nam Province on presidential orders to become a reserve in Saigon, was taken off its ships in Nha Trang and rushed to Khanh Duong to halt the pursuing 10th NVA Division. Obviously, the immediate tasks facing II Corps were to regroup its battered forces, complete the evacuation from the highlands, and stop the NVA advance on Route 21 at Khanh Duong. The counteroffensive to recapture Ban Me Thuot would have to wait.
Exodus from the Highlands
The evacuation of South Vietnamese forces from the highland provinces began in great secrecy; General Phu hoped that surprise would make it possible to reach Tuy Hoa before the enemy could discover and react to the movement. Accordingly, only a few staff officers and commanders were told of the plan in advance; the chiefs of the affected provinces, Kontum, Pleiku, and Phu Bon, found out about it when they saw ARVN units moving. The operation was prepared only in outline; detailed orders were never drafted or issued. Not foreseeing the inevitable mass civilian exodus that would accompany the military column as soon as the population discovered what was going on, General Phu made no preparations to control the crowds which became entangled in combat formations, impeding their movement and ability to deploy and fight.
The only road available, Route 7B, was a track southeast of Cheo Reo, overgrown with brush, with fords in disrepair and an important bridge out. Aware of the road's condition, General Phu put the 20th Engineer Group in the vanguard. A few military vehicles began the journey to Phu Bon on 15 March, but the main body was scheduled to move over a four-day period, beginning on the 16th. Two hundred to 250 trucks were to move in each echelon, and each echelon would be protected by a company of M-48 tanks of the 21st Tank Battalion. The Ranger Battalions of the five groups still in Kontum and Pleiku Provinces, together with one tank company, would be the rear guard, to depart Pleiku on 19 March. Logistical units with ammunition and fuel trucks and some of the corps artillery were assigned to the first echelon, followed by more logistical and artillery units on 17 March. The II Corps staff, military police, and the balance of the 44th Infantry would move the next day. Territorial units were supposed to provide security along the route, an unrealistic mission since the province chiefs were not issued orders.
According to the best recollections of those involved in the operation - records are scarce, general, and sometimes erroneous - ARVN military units in the withdrawal included the following: one battalion, 44th Infantry / six Ranger Groups (eighteen battalions): the 4th (just arrived from JGS reserve, Saigon), 7th, and 25th Groups in Pleiku; the 6th, 22d, and 23d in Kontum / 21st Tank Battalion / two battalions, 155-mm. howitzer / one battalion, 175-mm. gun (self-propelled) / 20th Engineer Group (three combat battalions, one float bridge company, and one fixed bridge company) / 231st Direct Support Group.
Additionally, there were about 20,000 tons of Army and Air Force ammunition in the supply points, a 45-day stock of fuels, and 60 days of rations, Some UH-1 helicopters and four CH-47 helicopters were sent up from Military Region 4 to reinforce the 2d Air Division. C-130 transports flew civilian and military dependents out of Pleiku on 16 March, but an enemy rocket attack closed the airfield that evening.
The orders for the military evacuation were issued on 16 March; the 6th Ranger Group, defending the northeast sector above Kontum City, had withdrawn to Pleiku City the day before. The 22d and 23d Ranger Groups from north and northwest of Kontum pulled back to Pleiku the next day. Observing the withdrawal, the Kontum province chief joined the stream of traffic flowing south and was killed in an ambush in the Chu Pao Pass. At this time, the small force of the 44th Infantry and the 7th and 25th Ranger Groups were still defending west of Pleiku, and part of the 25th was under heavy attack at Thanh An. General Tat, now in command of the withdrawing troops, moved his command post to Cheo Reo. Altering the plan slightly, he took with him, in addition to the engineers, one of his Ranger groups. This was a prudent modification, since the territorials were not prepared to secure the capital, the road, or the engineer work site. That afternoon, 16 March, Cheo Reo was struck by enemy rockets in the first attack against the town since the NVA offensive began. The withdrawal had been discovered although this rocket attack was probably carried out coincidentally by local forces.
In discussing the final offensive, General Dung describes receiving the first report on 16 March - apparently the source was a communications intercept - that II Corps Headquarters had moved its forward command post to Nha Trang. Later that day, an NVA observation post reported a long column of trucks running south toward Phu Bon. Dung warned the 95B Regiment on Route 19, the 320th Division north of Ban Me Thuot on Route 14, and the 10th Division on Route 21, that the RVNAF was making a major deployment and all should be especially vigilant. Earlier he had asked about the condition of Route 7B and was told that it could not support military traffic past Cheo Reo. With the large ARVN convoy moving into Cheo Reo, Dung was no longer satisfied with this response. Disturbed to learn that the road was apparently usable and that the 320th Division had not moved to block the column, he berated the division commander for laxity and ordered him to attack the withdrawing column without further delay.
Except for the rocket attack on 16 March, the NVA did not interfere with the column in Phu Bon and along the road to Cheo Reo until 18 March. But because II Corps engineers had not yet completed a pontoon bridge across the Ea Pa River beyond Cheo Reo, several convoys were jammed in that town and along the road to the southeast. Late on 18 March, the 320th Division struck at Cheo Reo with artillery, mortars, and infantry. Military and civilian casualties were heavy and wounded still lay unattended on the streets the next morning. Aerial photography taken on the morning of the 19th showed artillery fire still falling in the city and hundreds of vehicles, many of them damaged or destroyed, abandoned along the road and in the streets of Cheo Reo.
The convoy pressed on, fighting as it struggled south. At mid-morning on 19 March, the leading element was at the Con River, eight kilometers east of Cung Son and about two-thirds of the distance from Cheo Reo to its destination, Tuy Hao. But the ragged column stretched back to Cheo Reo where refugees still streamed through the death-littered streets. At a ford over the Ca Lui River, 25 kilometers northwest of Cong Son, a number of heavy vehicles became mired. A VNAF air strike contributed to the carnage and confusion by mistakenly attacking a Ranger battalion and decimating it. By this time, little military order or discipline remained. General Tat no longer had control of the withdrawing forces, and the tank battalion commander was walking, no longer able to command his tanks although at least 10 M-48's were still operational. As the head of the column reached the broad Song Ba, about 10 kilometers east of Cong Son, it found that Route 7B had been so heavily mined by Koreans who had operated in the area that it was impractical to clear the route. Instead, the engineers were ordered to bridge the Song Ba and divert the column to local Route 436, which followed the south bank of the river to Tuy Hoa. Anticipating this movement, the enemy set up five road-blocks along Route 436 in a two-kilometer stretch east of the Song Ba crossing, stopping the movement of bridge sections from Tuy Hoa to the crossing. The 206th RF battalion, one of the best territorial units, was therefore ordered to attack through the roadblocks from the east, while the 34th Ranger Battalion, with 16 M-113 personnel carriers, would attack from the west after fording the Song Ba.
On 20 March, heavy trucks and tanks tore up the ford on the Song Ba so badly that pierced-steel planking had to be placed on the bottom. This was delivered by the CH-47's, which also began flying in bridge sections to the site about 1,500 meters downstream from the ford.
On 21 March, the column was concentrated around the ford and bridge sites east of Cong Son, but the Ranger rear guard was badly split back at Cheo Reo. The 6th, 7th, and 22d Groups had most of their battalions past the Ca Lui crossing, but the 4th, 23d, and 25th were trapped behind the 320th NVA Division, advancing on Cong Son. On 22 March, elements of the 64th Regiment, 320th NVA Division, attacked blocking positions established by the 6th Ranger Group west of Cong Son, and ARVN engineers completed the bridge over the Song Ba. In a rush to cross, the bridge was overloaded and a section collapsed. But the engineers quickly repaired the span, and many vehicles cleared the north bank of the river that day and night, only to face enemy blocking positions along Route 436 in My Thanh Tay Village.
While the 35th and 51st Ranger Battalions fought as a rear guard in a narrow defile about seven kilometers northwest of Cong Son, the 34th Rangers continued the attack east on Route 436 to clear the roadblocks. By this time, the 6th Ranger Group battalions were the only cohesive fighting units in the column, 3 of 18 battalions that began the long march through the Phu Bon gauntlet.
The 35th and 51st Rangers repulsed a strong attack by the 64th NVA Regiment on the night of 23 March, killing 50 and taking 15 weapons. These two battalions had mustered a force of 15 M-41 light tanks, 8 M-48 medium tanks, 11 105-mm. howitzers, and 21 55-mm. howitzers. Two CH-47s kept the Rangers supplied with rations and ammunition as they fell back through Cong Son. Reinforced by two tank companies, the 320th NVA Division pushed into Cong Son behind the withdrawing 6th Ranger Group late on 24 March.
Meanwhile, the 34th Battalion continued the attack against the blocking positions disposed in My Thanh Tay Village. Even though bad weather prevented air support, the Rangers reduced position after position. By 25 March they had broken the last position and led the shattered column into Tuy Hoa. Now hardly more than a company in strength, the 34th Battalion then turned around to guard the western approaches to Tuy Hoa.
Eventually, about 60,000 refugees from the highlands straggled into Nha Trang, but at least 100,000 remained stranded in western Phu Yen Province without food, water, or medical assistance. One of the most poorly executed withdrawals in the war, and certainly the most tragic, had ended. The 320th NVA Division continued its inexorable march to the sea and by 31 March had Tuy Hoa under fire.
The Offensive North of Binh Dinh
Campaign 275 in the Central Highlands was the main effort in a country-wide offensive coordinated by the North Vietnamese high command with considerable precision. Coincident with the start of the Ban Me Thuot campaign on 8 March, the NVA attacked the three northern provinces of South Vietnam's Military Region 1, Quang Tri, Thua Thien, and Quang Nam. In Quang Tin strong attacks did not begin until two days later. In Quang Ngai, the enemy's offensive was delayed, apparently by an aggressive RVNAF clearing operation, Quyet Thanh A-1-75 in Nghia Hanh District. The 4th Infantry Regiment, 2d ARVN Division, was involved in sharp fighting there on 6 and 7 March, and enemy casualties were substantial.
Initially, the strongest attack in Quang Tri Province struck territorial outposts and strong points in the foothills and the hamlets of the coastal lowlands. The 110th ARVN RF Battalion held its ground in the southwest sector of the province against a strong NVA infantry assault; moderate casualties were sustained by both sides. By 8 March, NVA and local VC were in control of seven hamlets in Hai Lang District and in southern Quang Tri and northern Thua Thien, and refugees streamed southward, until nearly the entire population of Quang Tri Province, as many as 100,000, travelled the road to Hue.
With tanks and armored personnel carriers, an ARVN task force composed of the 8th Airborne Battalion, the 112th and 120th RF Battalions, and the 921st RF Company, succeeded in driving the enemy from nearly all populated areas by afternoon on 9 March. Communist casualties were heavy and ARVN losses few in this opening phase.
The North Vietnamese infiltrated and attacked villages in the coastal lowlands of Thua Thien, as they had in Quang Tri, and vigorously assaulted RVNAF regulars protecting the approaches to Hue. Southeast of Hue regiments of the NVA 324B Division began the Thua Thien campaign attacking along an eight kilometer sector in the early morning of 8 March. Supported by intense artillery concentrations, enemy infantry swarmed over the surrounding hills. The 2d Battalion, 1st ARVN Infantry Regiment, held on Hill 121, but the 1st Battalion, 1st Infantry, was shattered and driven from Hill 224. The 2d Battalion, 54th Infantry, was initially forced to give ground but recovered its positions on Hill 144 on 9 March. The Reconnaissance Company of the 1st ARVN Division was forced from Hill 50 southwest of Nui Bong.
Brig. Gen. Nguyen Van Diem, commanding the 1st ARVN Division, reacted by dispatching the 15th Ranger Group with the 61st and 94th Ranger Battalions to reinforce the line and recover lost positions. The 61st was ambushed en route, sustained moderate losses, but recovered to join the 94th in a counterattack on 10 March. The next day, the first firm evidence (a prisoner of war) appeared that the 325th NVA Division had moved south and was in position to join the attack in Phu Loc District.
At least 20 tanks accompanied the NVA assault in the Song Bo corridor where the Marine Division had its 147th Brigade of five battalions - the 3d, 4th, 5th, and 7th Marines and the 130th RF Battalion. The attacks continued for two days and one marine position was lost but the 4th Marine Battalion recovered it on 11 March. In two days of heavy fighting, with moderate marine casualties, the 147th Brigade killed more than 200 enemy, destroyed two tanks and damaged seven, and captured many weapons.
Just as the attacks in the forward areas were stronger in Thua Thien than in Quang Tri, so were the invasions into the populated lowlands. A battalion of the 6th NVA Regiment infiltrated through Phu Loc, and two of its companies seized 12 fishing boats, which ferried them across Dam Cau Hai Bay to Vinh Loc District. There they attacked Vinh Hien Village on the southern tip of the island and swept north to attack Vinh Giang. Some of the battalion pushed into Phu Thu District east of Hue. The 8th Airborne Battalion, reinforced with two companies of the 1st Battalion, 54th Infantry, and a troop of armored cavalry, moved against the enemy battalion and badly mauled and dispersed it. On 16 March a unit of the 54th ARVN Infantry ambushed a remnant of the battalion south of Hue, killing the battalion commander, his staff, and 20 men. Five prisoners taken by the 54th Infantry said that the population gave them no support, and only 33 men, mostly wounded, remained alive in their battalion.
Other intrusions into the lowlands were made in Quang Dien and Phong Dien Districts northwest of Hue. Infiltrating NVA Troops, mostly from the 4th Independent Regiment, were also quickly eliminated by South Vietnamese counterattacks.
South of the Hai Van Pass, NVA sappers penetrated Da Nang on 8 March and fired rocket grenades into subsubsector offices of Hoa Vang District. A heavy rocket attack on Da Nang Air Base on 11 March destroyed a new F-SE fighter-bomber. Meanwhile, artillery-supported infantry assaults were launched against ARVN 3d Infantry Division, Airborne Division, and territorial positions from Dai Loc to Que Son. Nearly all NVA assaults were repelled with heavy enemy losses, but sappers were able to get through and blow the main bridge on Route 540 north of Dai Loc.
The situation in Quang Tin Province was more serious. Long-expected NVA blows against the hill districts of Tien Phuoc and Hau Duc finally fell on 10 March. Two battalions of the 31st NVA Regiment, 2d Division, attacked Tien Phuoc from the north and west, while elements of the 1st NVA Regiment struck from the south and southeast. In Hau Duc, another battalion of the 31st NVA Regiment, with supporting local forces, overran the 102d RF Battalion. Refugees from both districts began streaming into Tam Ky, the province capital, which itself was hit by NVA 122-mm. rockets on 11 March. The major RVNAF base at Chu Lai also received a rocket bombardment.
Remnants of the 116th and 134th RF Battalions, decimated in Tien Phuoc, also straggled eastward toward Tam Ky. The 135th RF Battalion left its positions on Ban Quan Mountain east of Tien Phuoc and withdrew toward Tam Ky, but left four howitzers to the enemy. The 3d Battalion, 5th ARVN Infantry, with the 115th RF Battalion, counterattacked at My Mountain, the last important high ground on Route 533 between Tam Ky and Tien Phuoc, and regained the position, only to be driven off again by intense artillery fire.
General Nhut, commanding the 2d ARVN Division, organized a relief column to push out from Tam Ky and protect the withdrawal of the territorials and civilians from Tien Phuoc. The enemy, however, held the high ground overlooking the column's approach, including a prominent hill called Nui Ngoc. On 11 March the RVNAF column, composed of the 37th and 39th Ranger Battalions and the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry, 2d ARVN Division, stalled short of Nui Ngoc.
On 12 March, General Nhut sent the 5th Infantry Regiment from Quang Ngai Province and deployed it west of Tam Ky. Its three battalions were in depth along Route 533, the forward elements just east of My Mountain. Two RF battalions, the 115th and 135th, were north of the 5th Infantry, between Route 533 and the Ranger task force below Nui Ngoc. The 21st Ranger Battalion was behind the 135th RF, west of Tam Ky. Thus, General Nhut had nine battalions west of Tam Ky, as a strong enemy was about to continue the attack toward that city. Furthermore, Tam Ky was now within range of the enemy's light artillery.
Meanwhile, in Da Nang, General Truong was facing an even more serious problem. On 12 March, he received the JGS order to pull the Airborne Division out of the line and start it moving to Saigon. The deployment was to begin on 17 March. General Truong immediately called General Vien to protest the decision but learned that President Thieu had personally directed the deployment so that the Airborne Division could participate in the offensive to retake Ban Me Thuot. General Vien told General Truong that, if possible, two battalions of the new 468th Marine Brigade and a Ranger group would be sent North to replace the Airborne Division.
To adjust to the loss of the Airborne Division, General Truong decided to pull the Marine Division out of Quang Tri and northern Thua Thien Provinces and shift it south to cover Phu Loc District and Da Nang. The 14th Ranger Group would move north to relieve the marines on 13 March. Only one marine brigade, the one in Phu Loc, would remain north of the Hai Van Pass. General Nhut would be ordered to pull one regiment out of the Quyet Thang operation in Nghia Hanh to reinforce the defense of Tam Ky. This order effectively cancelled the successful ARVN offensive in central Quang Ngai. Furthermore, General Nhut was told to defend Tam Ky at about the positions his forward battalions then occupied, such defense in effect ending the operation to return to Tien Phuoc. I Corps was to defend Hue and Da Nang, even if it had to give up Quang Tri, Quang Tin, and Quang Ngai Province. General Truong and General Thi agreed, however, that their ability to hold Hue after the Marine Division moved south was questionable indeed.
General Truong flew to Saigon on 13 March to participate in a secret meeting with President Thieu, Prime Minister Khiem, and General Vien during which Truong was told about the evacuation from the highlands and ordered to prepare a plan for the eventual evacuation of Military Region 1. He also was permitted to delay the first airborne brigade's departure to 18 March and the rest of the division until 31 March. The President's reasoning was that Da Nang was most important but that the rest of the region could be sacrificed. He would send the 468th Marine Brigade north to help defend Da Nang as soon as the Airborne Division arrived in Saigon. This division was vital to the defense of Military Regions 3 and 4, without which the Republic could no longer survive.
More disquieting news reached General Truong after his meeting with President Thieu. NVA attacks in southwestern Quang Tri Province had overrun two RF strongpoints on the western flank of the My Chanh Line. Farther south, in the Song Bo corridor, the 4th and 5th Marine Battalions fought off strong attacks in the 147th Marine Brigade's sector. In the 1st ARVN Division's sector, two battalions of the 3d Infantry were forced from the Fire Support Base Bastogne area but regained most of their positions in a counterattack the following day. Heavy fighting continued southwest of Tam Ky. RF positions were crumbling, and NVA tanks were sighted approaching from east of Tien Phuoc. The 3d Battalion, 5th Infantry, and the 37th Ranger Battalion were both locked in close combat and in danger of being overrun.
On 14 March, General Truong met with General Thi, commanding I Corps troops in Quang Tri and Thua Thien Provinces, and General Lan, the Marine Division commander, to explain his concept for the final defense of Da Nang. He would pull all combat forces into Quang Nam and defend Da Nang with the 1st, 3d, and Marine Divisions on line and the 2d Division in reserve. But this deployment would be approached gradually as divisional troops were relieved in Quang Tri and Thua Thien Provinces and terrain in the southern part of the region was abandoned. General Truong ordered the immediate evacuation of all military units, including the 68th Ranger Battalion at Song Ha and the 69th Ranger Battalion at Tra Bong, and all civilians in both areas who wanted to leave.
On 15 March, the 14th Ranger Group was to begin the relief of the 369th Marine Brigade in Quang Tri Province. While one marine brigade would remain in the Song Bo Valley for the defense of Hue, the 369th Marine Brigade would deploy to Dai Loc District in Quang Nam Province, and relieve the 3d Airborne Brigade for movement to Saigon. Generals Truong and Thi anticipated a mass civilian exodus from Quang Tri as soon as the people saw that the marines were leaving, and he directed his staff to prepare plans to assist the refugees.
Meanwhile, General Truong ordered General Nhut of the 2nd Division to keep his 6th Infantry Regiment south of Nghia Hanh town to protect Quang Ngai City. The NVA attacked strongly throughout Quang Ngai on 14 and 15 March, overrunning outposts all around the province capital. Quang Ngai territorials, never strong, had been weakened further by the departure of the 5th ARVN Regiment for Quang Tin Province and the shift of most of the 4th ARVN Regiment to 2d Division reserve in Chu Lai. Only two regular battalions, the 70th Ranger and the 3d Battalion of the 4th Infantry, remained south of Mo Duc; only three RF battalions between Mo Duc and the Binh Dinh boundary. In the northern sectors, on the night of 15-16 March, an NVA attack destroyed five PF platoons north of Binh Son and closed Route 1 to the Quang Tin boundary.
In Quang Tin, the NVA attacked north of Tam Ky close to National Route 1 and overran an RF company north of the city on 15 March. When the NVA also struck west of Tam Ky, the 5th ARVN Infantry Regiment and the 12th Ranger Group fell back and the 37th Ranger Battalion was routed.
While a collapse was imminent in the region's two southern provinces, the shifting of units in Quang Tri Province was proceeding on schedule. The 14th Ranger Group established its command post at Hai Lang and sent its 77th, 78th, and 79th Ranger Battalions forward to replace the 369th Marine Brigade, which began moving south to relieve the Airborne Division in Quang Nam. As the Marines left, they took the courage and morale of the territorials and civilians of Quang Tri with them, even though the last pockets of enemy infiltrators in the lowlands had been eliminated by 16 March.
While this relief was going on, a rallier from the 101st Regiment, 325th NVA Division, was being interrogated in Phu Loc. His testimony confirmed the presence of the entire 325th Division in southern Thua Thien Province, supported by the 85-mm. and 130-mm. guns of the 84th Artillery Regiment. At least two infantry regiments, the 18th and the 101st, were within easy striking distance of Phu Loc as of 15 March.
The 258th Marine Brigade pulled out of Quang Tri to relieve the Airborne brigade in southern Thua Thien on 17 March. The Marine Division command post was set up at Marble Mountain Airfield on the beach east of Da Nang on 18 March while the 2d Airborne Brigade moved to the Da Nang docks for shipment to Saigon.
To support the defense of Da Nang, General Truong ordered the 175-mm. gun batteries north of the Hai Van Pass to begin moving to Da Nang along with a company of M-48 tanks. These deployments, ordered on 18 March, would leave two companies of M-48 tanks of the 20th Tank Squadron in Thua Thien. The next day, NVA tanks attacked across the cease-fire line in Quang Tri.
The evacuation of Son Ha and Tra Bong got under way on 16 March as two CH-47 helicopters began lifting out civilians. The military - the 68th Ranger Battalion, 17 RF platoons, and over 400 PSDF soldiers - were flown to Son Tinh, north of Quang Ngai City. Many of the 12,000 residents of Tra Bong began moving along the road to Binh Son, protected by the 69th Rangers. Also in the column were a battery of territorial artillery, an RF company, 22 PF platoons and 600 PSDF militia. As the 25-kilometer trek began, the NVA attacked outposts north of Binh Son and severed Route 1 between that town and Chu Lai. NVA artillery shelled Binh Son causing light civilian casualties while enemy infantry wiped out several outposts south in Son Tinh District. Meanwhile, General Nhut moved the 2d Battalion, 6th Infantry, from Nghia Hanh to the western edge of Quang Ngai City.
North of the Hai Van Pass, in Phu Loc District of Thua Thien Province, the 15th Ranger Group continued to restore ARVN control in the Nui Bong sector on 17-18 March. General Thi moved two M48 tank companies of the 20th Squadron from north of Hue to south of the city.
On 18 March, Prime Minister Khiem flew to Da Nang. Drastic measures to adjust the country's defenses to conform to the new national strategy were under way in the highlands. The great, tragic exodus from Pleiku and Kontum had started, but calamitous events were rapidly overtaking the strategy. The goal was to hold a truncated Vietnam with its northern frontier anchored at Ban Me Thuot, but to do that required salvaging the nation's military strength now under savage attack from Phu Bon to Quang Tri. Tri Tam had fallen north of Saigon, and the NVA offensive was gathering momentum in Tay Ninh, Long Khanh, and Binh Tuy Provinces. I Corps had already given up one of its strongest divisions, the Airborne, to bolster the defense of Saigon, and Prime Minister Khiem's mission was to assess the impact of its loss, discuss the rapidly changing situation with General Truong, and advise President Thieu on what part of Military Region 1 could be defended with the forces available.
The Prime Minister made it clear to General Truong that no additional troops would be sent to his corps; the promised new marine brigade would remain in the defense of the capital. He told General Truong that the 3d Airborne Brigade had been diverted at Nha Trang and sent to block the NVA advance at Khanh Duong; the rest of the division would proceed to Saigon. He also promised to send a staff to Da Nang, representing all interested ministries, to assist in handling the monumental refugee problems that were developing in the region.
While in Da Nang, Prime Minister Khiem listened to briefings by the five province chiefs and the mayor of Da Nang. The mayor told him that civilian morale was very low, that many families had already gone to Saigon, and that the lack of support by the United States at this critical time was deeply felt by the people. The Quang Nam Province chief, Colonel Pham Van Chung, told him that morale among his troops was still good, but the people were very worried about the departure of the Airborne Division. The reports from Quang Ngai and Quang Tin, by Colonels Dao Mong Xuan and Le Van Ngoc, were grim; the territorials had all but given up, and were deserting in large numbers. Units were below half strength. The Quang Tri province chief, Colonel Do Ky, gave a similar report; almost all civilians had left the province, morale was low and the territorials could not be expected to offer serious resistance to an attack now that the stiffening presence of the marines had been removed. Colonel Nguyen Huu Due of Thua Thien, unduly optimistic, said that although people were beginning to leave Hue in large numbers his territorials were in good spirits and would fight.
The Prime Minister left for Saigon, and the next day General Truong returned the visit. He was directed to stop the evacuation of Hue and to defend enclaves at Hue, Da Nang, Chu Lai, and Quang Ngai City. He could, when forced, surrender Chu Lai and Quang Ngai, but he was to defend Hue and Da Nang at all costs.
When General Truong returned to his headquarters on 20 March, he turned around the displacing 175-mm. batteries moving to Da Nang and stopped the evacuation of ammunition from Hue. The Imperial City would be defended despite the fact that enemy artillery had, on 19 March, already struck inside the Citadel and Highway I was clogged with the southbound traffic of thousands of refugees.
The contracted organization for the defense of Hue, under the command of General Thi, was divided between the deputy commander of the Marine Division, Col. Tri, who was responsible north of Hue, and the 1st Division commander, Brig. Gen. Nguyen Van Diem, south of the city. Colonel Tri's outposts were just inside the Thua Thien-Quang Tri boundary, nearly 30 kilometers northwest of Hue. Here, under the direct command of the 14th Ranger Group, were the 77th Ranger Battalion, seven RF battalions, and a troop of armored personnel carriers of the 17th Armored Cavalry Squadron. The four marine battalions of the 147th Brigade were in the vital Bo Corridor, within light artillery range of the Citadel, while the 78th and 79th Ranger Battalions were on outposts 10 kilometers west of the marines. South of the marines, on the high ground at Fire Support Base Lion - also called Nui Gio - was the 51st Infantry, 1st Division, with two of its battalions.
General Diem's responsibility began southwest of his 51st Infantry, which was attached to Colonel Tri's command. The 3d ARVN Infantry Regiment, with two battalions, held the high ground around Fire Support Base Birmingham, above the Song Huu Trach, south of Hue. East of the 3d Infantry, the 54th Infantry with two of its battalions defended the Mo Tau sector, while the reinforced 1st Infantry Regiment extended the line southeast to the Nui Bong area. The 1st Infantry had, in addition to its own three battalions, one battalion of the 51st Infantry, a company of M-48 tanks, and a troop of armored personnel carriers. The 15th Ranger Group, with its three battalions and one battalion of the 3d Infantry, dug in on the hills above Highway 1 west of Phu Loc District Town. The 258th Marine Brigade, with two battalions, was also near Phu Loc Town, while the 914th RF Group of three battalions guarded the Hai Van Pass.
Shortly after General Truong returned from Saigon on 20 March he learned that the situation in northern Quang Tin, which had been bleak on 16 March when the enemy pounded Thang Binh District Town with artillery and overran outposts southwest of the village, now looked better. Two battalions of the 3d ARVN Division, sent from Quang Nam Province, joined two RF battalions in a counterattack causing high enemy casualties in tough fighting east of Thang Binh.
The prospects in Tam Ky, however, were not so favorable, despite the efforts of the 2d ARVN Division to concentrate forces there for its defense. The city was struck by heavy rocket fire on 21 March. On that day, the 4th Infantry Regiment moved its command post to Tam Ky from Quang Ngai, the 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry, moved in from Binh Son District, and the 916th RF Group headquarters moved down from Thang Binh with the 135th RF Battalion.
The situation in Quang Ngai Province was becoming desperate although elements of the 4th ARVN Infantry succeeded in opening Highway 1 in Binh Son District. But west of Binh Son, the NVA struck the long column of refugees and military fleeing from Tra Bong; the 69th Rangers were ambushed and dispersed. The NVA attack south of Duc Pho cut Highway 1, isolating Sa Huynh and the two battalions defending it, the 70th Ranger and 137th RF Battalions. The next day, General Truong gave General Nhut authority to consolidate his forces anyway he could to preserve combat strength.
After NVA tanks and infantry had crossed the cease-fire line in Quang Tri Province on 19 March, they rolled steadily south against the disintegrating resistance of the territorials until they reached the My Chanh Line at the boundary of Thua Thien Province. Here the advance halted while the attackers waited for the next phase to begin. It started west and south of Hue early on the morning of 21 March when the lead battalions of the 324B and 325th NVA Divisions, together with the independent Tri-Thien Regiment, with heavy artillery support, assaulted RVNAF positions from the Bo Corridor to Phu Loc. Heavy artillery fire fell on Hue.
The My Chanh line was quiet and the attacks against the Marines in the Bo Valley were repulsed with heavy enemy losses. But the Phu Loc sector, taking the brunt of the attack by the 324B and 325th Divisions, began to crumble early. In the area of the 1st ARVN Infantry, the 18th NVA Regiment, 325th Division, supported by the 98th Artillery Regiment, took Hill 350 and drove on to assault Nui Bong. Although the mountain changed hands three times that afternoon, the 2d Battalion, 1st ARVN Infantry, controlled it on 22 March. Other formations of the 325th, notably the 101st Regiment, forced the 60th Ranger Battalion, 15th Group, from Hill 500 west of Phu Loc, and supporting artillery interdicted Highway 1. A stream of refugees began piling up along the road northwest of Phu Loc. By evening, however, one lane was opened for traffic to Da Nang.
To the west, in the hills around Mo Tau, the 271st Independent Regiment and the 29th Regiment of the 304th Division, both operating under the 324th Division, attacked the 54th ARVN Infantry and were repelled. A prisoner from the 271st said that casualties in his regiment were very heavy, that the 9th Battalion was nearly destroyed.
NVA attacks continued all along the Thua Thien front on 22 March. An ARVN counterattack to recapture Hill 224, a key position in the Mo Tau sector, failed. The population of Hue had declined to only 50,000, and the Hai Van Pass was clogged with desperate people trying to escape. Da Nang was inundated by a tragic flood of humanity. City police on 21 March estimated more than 100,000 refugees, and they were still coming. The ministerial delegation promised by Prime Minister Khiem finally arrived on the 22d, but it could offer little help since there was not enough rice to be bought on the Da Nang market.
The official count of refugees in Da Nang, based upon police registrations, was 121,000 by nightfall on 23 March. The unofficial estimate by the U.S. Consul General was 400,000. All the necessities of life were missing or rapidly disappearing: food, sanitation, housing, and medical care. On 24 March, the government began moving refugees south on every available boat and ship. Thousands made it, but many more did not. Fortunately, NVA attacks in Quang Nam Province were largely blunted by the 3d ARVN Division and territorial troops; security, although relative, was better in Da Nang than anywhere else in Military Region 1.
Southwest of Tam Ky in Quang Tin Province, the 2d Battalion, 5th ARVN Regiment, had been in heavy combat since 12 March. Starting the campaign with 350 men, the battalion on 22 March was down to only 130, after heavy casualties and many desertions. General Nhut replaced it with the 2d Battalion, 4th Infantry, committing the 4th Infantry Regiment southwest of Tam Ky together with two battalions of the 5th Regiment and a company of tanks and sending the 1st Battalion, 6th Regiment, from Tam Ky to assist in the defense of Chu Lai. The 12th Ranger Group remained on Tam Ky's northwest perimeter.
The final NVA assault on Tam Ky began on 24 March. Sappers breached the perimeter and by mid-morning were in the center of the city, blowing up the power plant. Artillery fire was intense all along the line and by noon tanks and infantry broke through an RF battalion and the 3d Battalion, 5th Infantry. That afternoon the city was lost, and General Truong ordered General Nhut to pull his forces out of Tam Ky and assemble them for the defense of Chu Lai. By this time, however, General Nhut no longer had enough control of the situation or of his units to comply fully with these orders. He managed to get the headquarters and one battalion of the 4th Infantry, plus some scattered fragments of other 4th Regiment units, moving toward Chu Lai that evening. Two battalions of the 5th Regiment, scattered in the assault also, were assembling for the march south. Units on the northwest perimeter including the dispersed 12th Ranger Group and the staff of the deputy commander, 2d Division, were forced to withdraw north toward Quang Nam, making it to Fire Support Base Baldy just inside the Quang Nam boundary on Route 1.
General Truong also ordered the evacuation of all forces in Quang Ngai Province; they were also to assemble for the defense of Chu Lai. The feasibility of this task was strained by NVA sappers who blew an important bridge on Highway 1 between Quang Ngai and Chu Lai.
Meanwhile, north of the Hai Van Pass, territorials on the My Chanh Line withdrew without orders on 23 March. The front in the Nui Bong-Truoi River sector stabilized, however, and ARVN engineers blew the bridge on Highway 1 east of Loc Son to prevent NVA tanks from advancing toward Hue from Phu Loc. On 24 March, after receiving the report of the collapse of the My Chanh line, General Truong met with his commanders - General Thi, Maj. Gen. Lan, Maj. Gen. Hoang Van Lac, (deputy commander of Military Region 1), and 1st Air Division commander, Brig. Gen. Nguyen Duc Khanh.
The 913th RF Group had started the unauthorized withdrawal from the My Chanh, and the territorials refused to stop at the next delaying position near Phong Dien District Town. The 913th's pullout caused some panic among other forces, and a general rout developed. I Corps officers attempted to rally the troops at the Bo River. The mass desertion was not motivated by fear of the enemy but by the soldiers' overwhelming concern for the safety of their families in Hue.
General Lac reported that Da Nang was close to panic also, with more than 300,000 refugees jamming the streets. Air Vietnam had scheduled all the special flights it could, but its bookings were solid through June.
At 1800 on 24 March, General Truong ordered General Thi to begin the evacuation of all troops defending Hue. All forces north and west of Hue would assemble at Tan My, the port of Hue northeast of the city, cross the narrow channel to Phu Thuan and march southwest down Vinh Loc Island. Crossing the mouth of Dam Cau Hai Bay on a pontoon bridge to be constructed by ARVN engineers and moving along the beach to Highway 1, they would cross over the Hai Van Pass and on to Da Nang. No trucks, tanks, or guns could make this march; all would have to be disabled or destroyed. The 1st ARVN Division would protect the column by blocking in Phu Thu District.
By the time these orders were issued, what was left of the population of Hue was streaming toward Tan My to take any available boat or ship out of Thua Thien Province. I Corps Forward, commanded by General Thi, established its command post in Tan My, together with the command posts of the Marine Division and the 147th Marine Brigade. The 7th Marine Battalion deployed there to secure the port and the command posts. The 1st Division withdrew from the Troui-Nui Bong sector. The 15th Ranger Group, which had held the Troui River for the 1st Division, pulled back to Phu Bai with heavy casualties. The 54th Infantry Regiment withdrew from the Mo Tau sector to Camp Eagle, southeast of Hue near Highway 1. The 3d ARVN Infantry withdrew from its forward positions on the Son Hue Trach and assembled in Nam Hoa, south of Hue. The 51st Infantry pulled back and located just west of the city while the division headquarters and the 1st Infantry, which had suffered moderate casualties in the Nui Bong sector, were around Hue.
Just as the withdrawal was well under way, General Truong was visited by a delegation of officers from the JGS, carrying orders to release the Marine Division immediately for the defense of Saigon. Pointing out that he could not defend Da Nang without the marines, General Truong objected. The JGS suggested giving up Chu Lai and sending the 2d Division to Da Nang. General Truong issued the order to the 2d Division but still insisted that Da Nang could not be held without the Marine Division; by the time he recovered what was left of the 1st and 2d Divisions, neither would be combat effective.
The sealift from Chu Lai would begin after dark on 25 March on LSTs (landing ship tank) en route from Saigon. Boats committed to the withdrawal of forces in Thua Thien Province would also assist at Chu Lai. While the shipping converged on Chu Lai, the battered 6th Infantry, 2d ARVN Division, was fighting its way toward Chu Lai from Quang Ngai. The Quang Ngai province chief and his staff, unable to break through the NVA units on the road to Chu Lai, went by boat to Ly Son Island.
As an embattled column of soldiers and refugees struggled north on Highway 1 north of Quang Ngai City, dead and wounded littered the road, a scene reminiscent of the carnage on the same highway in Quang Tri during the 1972 offensive. Once the sealift from Chu Lai began, panic took over as soldiers fought for places on the first boats. Sufficient order was restored, however, to move about 7,000 soldiers up to Da Nang. The remnants of the 4th Infantry and the almost nonexistent 6th Infantry were regrouped on Ly Son Island while the 12th Ranger Group, down to only 500 men, and the few remaining soldiers of the 5th Infantry, were assembled near Da Nang.
The situation in Da Nang on 26 March was approaching chaos, but the 3d ARVN Division still held in Dai Loc and Duc Duc Districts against mounting pressure. Early that morning, 14 NVA heavy rockets struck a refugee camp on the edge of Da Nang Air base killing and wounding many civilians, mostly women and children. Morale in the 3d ARVN Division was plummeting, and distraught soldiers deserted to save their families in Da Nang. Population control was almost totally absent in the city; more than 2,000,000 people were in the streets trying to gather their families and escape. Police desertions mounted, and those who remained found it nearly impossible to function while bands of armed soldiers, beyond the control of military police, roamed the streets. There were even some instances of shooting between soldiers and police.
The withdrawal from Thua Thien Province began in a rather orderly fashion. The 258th Marine Brigade linked up with the 914th RF Group on Vinh Loc Island to cross the narrow channel over to Loc Tri in Phu Loc District. But the bridge to be installed by ARVN engineers never got there; engineer boats were evidently commandeered by other military units attempting to escape. The withdrawing forces crossed anyway, using local fishing boats. General Truong flew over the column making its way down the long stretch of Vinh Loc Island and noted that the only apparent disciplined, cohesive units were marines. The rest was a mob.
Delayed by heavy seas on 25 March the 147th Marine Brigade left Tan My the next day for Da Nang. Also on 26 March, the marine battalion of the 258th Brigade holding the Phu Gia Pass - a short, twisting defile about 15 kilometers east of Phu Loc District Town - came under attack. With the enemy approaching the Hai Van Pass from the north and Vietnamese Navy boats breaking down faster than they could be repaired, General Truong stopped the sea movement of forces and equipment from Hue. Further, because he had been unable to reinforce Da Nang with adequate strength from the 2d ARVN Infantry Division, he elected to concentrate the recoverable elements of the Marine Division at Da Nang.
On the afternoon of the 27 March, VNAF pilots destroyed four enemy tanks attacking near Fire Support Base Baldy. Although the NVA broke off the attack, and the 3d Division battalions held their positions, it was apparent that the 3d Division would not be able to contain NVA attacks in the outlying districts of Quang Nam. General Truong therefore ordered a withdrawal to a shorter line within artillery range of the center of Da Nang. Attempts to hold that line failed as large numbers of 3d Division soldiers deserted to save their families. With defeat imminent, General Truong shipped all organized forces, mostly marines, out of Da Nang toward Saigon. Then he and most of his staff left; some of them, General Truong included, had to swim through the surf to the rescuing fleet of boats. Da Nang, the last enclave of South Vietnam presence in Military Region 1, belonged to the NVA by nightfall on 30 March.
While the furious battle raged in Darlac Province, and three NVA divisions attacked the out-gunned and out-manned 23d ARVN Division, the 22d ARVN Division, under Brig. Gen. Phan Dinh Niem, continued to fight in Binh Dinh Province. Although the 22d was unable to break the hold of the 3d NVA Division on terrain controlling Highway 19 through the An Khe Pass, ARVN soldiers and artillery and VNAF air strikes inflicted heavy losses on the enemy. In the early days of the engagement, General Niem expected the high casualties would sooner or later cause the 3d Division to withdraw. He did not, however, anticipate the precipitous turn of events in the rest of Military Region 2, which, in effect, made futile the gallant performance of his division in Binh Dinh.
The initial onslaught of the 3d NVA Division at the An Khe Pass and against Binh Khe succeeded in driving ARVN defenders, primarily territorials, from positions overlooking the pass and guarding the bridges. In some cases territorials withdrew without putting up much resistance. By the time General Niem had enough battalions in position to counterattack, the enemy had exploited his early gains and had major elements of all three regiments of the 3d NVA Division - the 2d, 12th, and 141st - plus sappers, artillery, and supporting local units, concentrated at the mouth of the Vinh Thanh Valley, between the An Khe Pass and Binh Khe.
On 10 March, as the 320th NVA Division entered Ban Me Thuot, General Niem had three of his four regiments committed between An Nhon, where Highway 19 leaves Highway 1, and the eastern end of the Anh Khe Pass. The 1st and 2d Battalions, 47th Infantry, at the eastern entrance of the An Khe Pass, fought off repeated attempts by battalions of the 2d and 141st NVA Regiments to drive them from the field. On 11 March the 3d Battalion, 47th Infantry, was airlifted to Binh Khe District Town, completing the deployment of this regiment. The 927th RF Group still held positions inside the pass but could not control the road. Its 209th RF Battalion was overrun on 11 March, and its 21 8th RF Battalion, with its companies spread thinly through the pass, was extremely vulnerable.
The 42d ARVN Infantry, with its command post in Binh Khe, was attacking west along Highway 19 to attempt a link-up with the two beleaguered battalions of the 47th. The 41st ARVN Infantry, having moved from Bong Son on 8 and 9 March, to An Son on Highway 19, was to secure the line of communication west toward Binh Khe and to protect Phu Cat Air base.
The fourth regiment of the 22d ARVN Division, the 40th, remained in northern Binh Dinh Province, holding the entrance of the An Lao Valley and guarding the Phu Ku Pass on Route 506 north of Phu My.
By 11 March, the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 2d NVA Regiment had been badly hurt by ARVN artillery and VNAF air strikes. The 7th Battalion, 141st NVA Regiment, had been driven across the confluence of the Con and Dong Pho Rivers with two of its companies virtually annihilated. The 3d Battalion, 2d Regiment, and the 5th Battalion, 12th Regiment, were also hit hard. But truckloads of ammunition and replacements kept rolling down the Vinh Thanh Valley and the dead and wounded made the return trip to the NVA base areas north of Vinh Thanh.
On 13 March, a representative of the Defense Attache Office visited forward positions of the 22d ARVN Division. His report reflected the general confidence and optimism in General Niem's command. Heavy attacks of five NVA battalions against the 1st and 2d Battalions, 47th Infantry, had been repulsed, though four successive commanders of the 2d Battalion had been killed in action since 4 March. Now commanded by a captain, the battalion was down to half strength and was withdrawn to the division base camp for refitting. Without its 2d Battalion, the 47th Infantry was to attack the enemy in the eastern portal of the An Khe Pass, and link up with the RF still in the pass. The 927th RF Group, under the operational control of the 47th Infantry, had its command post west of the pass at An Khe and companies of its understrength battalions, the 209th, 217th, and 218th, on outposts through the pass. When the command post of the 218th RF Battalion and one of its companies were overrun on 12 March, the 47th Infantry appeared unlikely to break through to the pass in time to find any RF positions intact. The 218th reorganized, and maintained some positions at the west end of the pass, but on 17 March it was again under attack by the 5th Battalion, 12th NVA Regiment.
The fighting was intense between the eastern end of the pass and Binh Khe during the period between 15 and 17 March. The 42d ARVN Infantry was attempting to dislodge three battalions of the 3d NVA Division which were occupying the high ground near the eastern end of the pass. Despite killing nearly 500 enemy in two days, the 42d made no real progress. Its commander was wounded twice but remained on duty. Meanwhile, the 41st ARVN Infantry moved up to south of Binh Khe District Town.
General Niem withdrew the two remaining battalions of the 47th Infantry and sent them to northern Binh Dinh Province to relieve the 2d and 3d Battalions, 40th Infantry, which General Phu had ordered to Khang Duong in Khanh Hoa Province. After the 2d Battalion, 47th Infantry, finished refitting at the division base camp, he planned to send it north to replace the 1st Battalion, 40th Infantry, which would then become division reserve.
With only two regiments available and no reserve, General Niem decided on 17 March he could not open the An Khe Pass and ordered his battalions to hold in place. Although several thousand civilians and several hundred territorial troops at An Khe were cut off from Qui Nhon, there was no longer any compelling military reason to pursue the attack. The exodus from the highlands was already under way along the jungle track called Route 7B.
By 19 March, the NVA controlled the pass westward nearly to the outskirts of An Khe. By 22 March, the 5th Battalion, 12th NVA Regiment, was inside An Khe; all ARVN resistance there ended, and over 5,000 people were struggling south over rural roads and trails, trying to escape to Qui Nhon. On 24 March, the 42d ARVN Infantry pulled back along Route 19, east of Binh Khe, and the 41st Infantry assumed the defense of Binh Khe.
That same day, the long-expected NVA assault on Binh Khe began, and the 41st and 42d ARVN Regiments were cut off. The 3d NVA Division then pushed its 141st and 12th Regiments (except for the 5th Battalion still at An Khe) eastward toward Phu Cat. Meanwhile, the B3 Front's 95B Regiment, having marched east from Pleiku along Route 19, joined the 2d NVA Regiment for the continuation of the attack on the 42d ARVN Infantry east of Binh Khe.
But the 41st and 42d ARVN Regiments did not wait for the reinforced attack. Instead, on 27 March, they broke out and attacked eastward toward Qui Nhon, taking with them over 400 territorials rescued by helicopter the day before from the An Khe area. As the 41st and 42d Regiments dug in for the defense of Qui Nhon, orders arrived from Saigon to evacuate what remained of the 22d Division. Military Region 2 was virtually lost.
As NVA attacked Phu Cat Air base on 31 March, the VNAF flew out about 32 aircraft, leaving about 58, mostly disabled or destroyed, on the ground. On 1-2 April, about 7,000 troops of the 22d Division and Binh Dinh territorials boarded Vietnamese Navy craft at Qui Nhon and sailed for Vung Tau. Enemy tanks and infantry were in the streets of Qui Nhon.
Khanh Hoa - the End in MR 2
The 23d ARVN Division counter-attack from Phuoc An had been decisively defeated when General Dung committed his 10th Division, up from Quang Duc. Survivors of the 23d Rangers, territorials, and civilians who escaped from Darlac streamed eastward across the plateau along Route 21. The military men were assembled at Khanh Duong, the last district on the high plain before the highway twisted down through the Deo Cao (M'Drak) Pass to the coastal hills and lowlands of Khanh Hoa Province.
The Deo Cao Pass was the obvious place for a defensive stand to protect Nha Trang, the site of the headquarters of Military Region 2, II Corps, the headquarters of the Navy's Second Coastal Zone, and 2d Air Division. Nha Trang also held the ARVN Noncommissioned Officer Academy, and Lam Son, a major national training center, was nearby. North of Nha Trang, Route 21 joined National Route 1 at Ninh Hoa. West of Ninh Hoa, midway between the ocean and the hills of Khanh Duong District, was the large training center of Duc My, site of the Ranger Training Center and the ARVN Artillery School. Thus, with its military concentration and population, the Nha Trang-Ninh Hoa area was the last vital enclave in Military Region 2. Without it, a return to the highlands was virtually impossible. If it could be held, NVA divisions could be prevented from rolling down Highway 1 to Saigon.
Most of the survivors from Darlac were moved on past Khanh Duong by road and helicopter, the Rangers to Duc My for regrouping, the 23d Division soldiers to Cam Ranh and Lam Son. A forward headquarters of the 23d Division was established at Khanh Duong to command the forces assigned to defend the pass: the 3d Airborne Brigade, pulled from its ships at Nha Trang after being dispatched for Saigon from Quang Nam, and the headquarters and two battalions of the 40th Infantry, 22d Division, from Binh Dinh Province.
The 10th NVA Division took up the pursuit after Phuoc An and closed rapidly on Khanh Duong. The 40th ARVN Infantry pushed west of the town to meet the advancing 10th NVA Division. The 3d Airborne Brigade dug in on the high ground in the pass, behind the 40th Infantry. On 22 March, the leading battalions of the 10th NVA Division, with tanks supporting, blasted into Khanh Duong and the two battalions of the 40th ARVN Infantry were forced to withdraw through the 3d Airborne Brigade.
A network of logging roads traversed the dense, steep forests of western Khanh Hoa Province. If blocked by the 3d Airborne in the pass on Route 21, the NVA could send a large force south, bypassing the Airborne, and approach Nha Trang from the west through Dien Khanh District. To guard against this threat, the 40th was withdrawn to Duc My, then sent south to eastern Dien Khanh to prepare positions generally astride local Route 420, which led due east into Dien Khanh and on into Nha Trang. The 40th was reinforced with one RF battalion and supported by one 155-mm. and two 105-mm. howitzers.
Long range reconnaissance patrols were sent into the forest south of Khanh Duong to try to detect any significant enemy force moving south toward Dien Khanh. Nothing of any size was detected, although some ominous signs of recent heavy traffic were reported.
In the Deo Cao Pass, with forward positions at Chu Kroa Mountain, a prominent peak over 3100 feet, the 3d Airborne Brigade dug in to await the 10th NVA Division, whose 28th Infantry Regiment and tanks were already in Khanh Duong. A local RF battalion was in the pass south of the Airborne Brigade. The 34th Ranger Battalion, 7th Ranger Group, which had fought its way through the gauntlet of fire on Route 7B, was protecting the northern approach to Ninh Hoa at the Deo Ca Pass.
With the Airborne still holding on Route 21, General Phu announced on 29 March new command responsibilities in what was left of his military region. General Niem, commanding the 22d Division, was responsible for Binh Dinh and Phu Yen Provinces. Qui Nhon, the last enclave in Binh Dinh, fell on 2 April. He controlled for a brief period the 96th Battalion, 21st Group, which had fought at Ban Me Thuot and regrouped to fight again at Tuy Thoa in Phu Yen Province.
The mountain provinces of Tuyen Duc and Lam Dong Districts were the responsibility of Maj. Gen. Lam Quang Tho, commandant of the Military Academy, Vietnam's West Point, at Dalat. In addition to the territorials, General Tho had some of the survivors of the 24th Ranger Group who had marched through the mountains after the fall of Quang Duc.
Brig. Gen. Le Van Than, the Deputy Commanding General of Military Region 2, was sent to Cam Ranh. He would defend the Cam Ranh Special Sector, Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan Provinces. He was also to re-form the 23d Infantry Division out of the 4,900 troops mustered at Cam Ranh.
The most critical mission, the defense of Khanh Koa Province, fell to Brig. Gen. Tran Van Cam, in command the 3d Airborne Brigade, the 40th Infantry, the 34th Ranger Battalion, and territorials. But before General Cam could move from Phu Yen Province, where he was controlling the eastern end of the exodus on Route 7B, the 10th NVA Division attacked the 3d Airborne in the Deo Cao Pass on 30 March. Supported by the 40th Artillery Regiment and with two company of tanks attached, elements of the 28th and 66th Regiments the next day surrounded the 5th Airborne Battalion, at that time reduced by casualties to 20 percent strength.
The 3d Airborne Brigade was deployed in depth from Chu Kroa Mountain south for about 15 kilometers along the high ground over the highway. Heavy enemy fire knocked out 5 of 14 armored personnel carriers supporting the brigade, and the three 105-mm. howitzer batteries in the force had to move to the rear, setting up near Buon Ea Thi where, unfortunately, they were beyond supporting range of the forward Airborne positions. The collapse of the Airborne defense proceeded very rapidly afterwards. At Buon Ea Thi elements of the 10th NVA Division outflanked Airborne positions along the road and struck the 6th Airborne Battalion. Although the troopers knocked out three T-54 tanks, they could not hold. With the brigade split at Buon Ea Thi, a rapid withdrawal was imperative to conserve what was left of the decimated force.
The 3d Airborne Brigade, less than one fourth of its soldiers still in ranks, marched back through Duc My and Ninh Hoa and stopped in a narrow defile where National Route 1 edged along the beach below Hon Son Mountain, just north of Nha Trang.
The 10th NVA Division was close behind. On 1 April, NVA tanks rolled through Duc My and Ninh Hoa and headed for Nha Trang. The American Consul General and his staff left Nha Trang by air for Saigon, the II Corps staff drove south to Phan Rang, the defeated remnants of the Airborne, Rangers, territorials, and 40th Infantry followed. The VNAF evacuated Nha Trang Air Base at 1500 and all flyable aircraft were flown out. On 2 April, NVA tanks entered the city.
The momentum of the NVA advance was such that a defense at Cam Ranh was no longer feasible. Recognizing this, the JGS authorized the immediate evacuation of all that remained of II Corps through that port, and by 2 April, the evacuation was in full swing.
Chapter 17 The Last Act in the South
Tri Tam and Tay Ninh
The 1975 Communist offensive was coordinated country-wide. The NVA
The attack on Tri Tam began at 0600 on 11 March with an intense
The province chief reacted by sending two RF battalions east along
Meanwhile, the ARVN III Corps commander had dispatched another relief
With Tri Tam in its possession, the NVA now controlled the Saigon
While the NVA Tay Ninh battalions blocked Highway 22 north of Go Dau
Ben Cau was only one of eight outposts west of the Song Vam Co Dong
General Toan, commanding III Corps, reacted to the crisis developing
While a battalion of the 48th ARVN Infantry attacked west out of Go
Connecting Saigon with the delta of Military Region 4, Route 4, even
The Eastern Front
While General Toan was committing more than half of his corps to the
Just before the NVA attacked, the 18th ARVN Division was spread out.
The NVA forces of Nam Bo began the Long Khanh-Binh Tuy campaign with
The day before, the 3d Battalion, 43d Infantry, killed 10 enemy in
North from Xuan Loc, on Route 20, hamlets along the road were
Evidences of increasing heavy NVA commitments in Long Khanh flowed
The rest of the 48th Infantry was still heavily engaged near Go Dau
The outer defenses of Tay Ninh and Hau Nghia began to crumble rapidly
North of the airfield at Tay Ninh was the main outpost on local Route
The eastern prong of the NVA offensive in Tay Ninh was still pressing
Then General Toan asked the Chief of the JGS, General Vien, for an
The planned ARVN withdrawal from its two enclaves in Binh Long
The northern defenses of Saigon were now about 14 kilometers north of
As the ring of Communist divisions tightened around Military Region
The Ford administration pressed ahead with efforts to convince
Although the decline of U.S. support was the crucial factor in the
The Defense and State Departments were receiving reasonably accurate
As the end of March approached, reports from Saigon told Washington
a. The GVN has a new strategy. It calls for defending from Khanh Hoa
(1) if GVN forces in MR's 1 and 2 could have been extracted more or
(2) if the enemy forces committed, or to be committed, against the
(3) if the U.S. commitment to the defense of South Vietnam were
b. With regard to factor (1), above, of all the major formations in
c. With regard to factor (2), the enemy has reinforced in GVN MR 3.
d. Factor (3) has not been decided, but defeat is all but certain
2. RVNAF Capability to Regroup.
a. Assuming necessary equipment is available and that the 22d ARVN
(1) The 22d Division (4 regiments). (now questionable)
(2) A three-brigade Marine Division.
(3) One other division.
(4) Three to four Ranger groups.
(5) Seven direct support and two general support artillery battalions.
(6) Four armored cavalry squadrons.
b. One and probably two additional divisions should be ready for
c. Although the three existing ARVN divisions in MR 4 have been
d. Summary: Success in the above regroupments would provide ARVN with
3. Enemy Strength Available for MR 3 and 4 Operations.
We believe that the 341st NVA Division has arrived, that the 320 B
4. Near Term Projection.
a. If the Communists allow the GVN six to eight weeks before
b. Opposing are two ARVN division equivalents, plus territorials.
c. In central MR 3, the Communist threat may have temporarily
d. In eastern MR 3, elements of the 6th and 7th NVA Divisions,
e. The movement of either the 7th or 9th ARVN Division out of the
f. The fighting will be very heavy with high GVN losses which will
It is possible that with abundant resupply and a great deal of luck,
By this time agencies in Washington were equally gloomy. A DIA
Meanwhile, a misconception was spreading in Washington that the
General Smith could not let that impression stand and sent a message
On the contrary, there was heavy fighting all along the coastal plain
In the hills south of Phu Bai, the 1st ARVN Div repelled numerous
In Phu Loc District just north of Hai Van Pass on QL-1, an
These attacks could not be described as "little fighting."
In the An Khe/Binh Khe region along QL-19 in Binh Dinh Prov, the ARVN
Likewise along QL-21, the ARVN fight at Khanh Duong was a battle of
Respectfully recommend that you suggest to the Chairman that he
Meanwhile the bloody struggle continued as the GVN assembled its few
Reorganization and Redeployment
The stiff ARVN resistance and strong local counterattacks in Tay
On 1 April, General Toan commanding III Corps, returned the
The 52d ARVN Infantry, 18th Division, meanwhile was pressing forward
General Toan also returned the battalions of the 7th Infantry
Shocked by the necessity to withdraw the RVNAF from the northern
Colonel Edward Pelosky, Chief of the Army Division, DAO, took the
By 29 March no contributions to the plan had been received from the
By 2 April, the survivors of the Marine Division were disembarking at
Meanwhile, on 1 April the evacuation of Nha Trang came to an end when
As of 11 April, about 40,000 troops from Military Regions 1 and 2 had
The 3d Division on 11 April had about 1,100 men at Ba Ria, Phuoc Tuy,
The 22d ARVN Division, whose tough resistance in Binh Dinh was one of
A critical battle was shaping up in Long An as the 5th NVA Division,
The NVA kept the pressure on Bien Hoa and Tay Ninh Provinces,
The South Vietnamese fought splendidly at Xuan Loc, but the NVA high
After the first NVA attempt to seize Xuan Loc had been soundly
West of Xuan Loc, between Trang Bom and the intersection of Highways
The NVA attacked the rear base of the 52d ARVN Infantry on Route 20,
On the 12th, battalions of the 52d ARVN Infantry were still in heavy
With the situation apparently temporarily stabilized, General Smith
1. We have a victory in the making. In the battle for Long Khanh
2. This battle for control of the vital road junction of QL-1 and
3. As the battle progressed, it became clear that the enemy was
4. This morning, the beginning of the fifth day of the battle, ARVN
5. The valor and aggressiveness of GVN troops, especially the Long
The message made well the point that the South Vietnamese in Long
The NVA assault resumed on 13 April. By this time, seven of the nine
Meanwhile, the 1st Airborne Brigade continued to attack north toward
The NVA continued sending additional forces into Military Region 3.
The JGS and the ARVN III Corps bolstered the inner defenses of Saigon
The inner defenses of Saigon were manned by territorials and a few
The eastern and southeastern approaches to Saigon were anchored at
On the west, although Long An territorials and the 12th ARVN Infantry
In Long An Province, the 5th NVA Division persisted in heavy attacks
Far to the east and north of the capital, the final battles for Ninh
Binh Thuan Province held out for two additional days, but Phan Thiet
Xuan Loc was 100 kilometers west of Phan Thiet and it was here that
The Last Week
An uneasy quiet settled over the battlefields between 20 and 26 April
The Defense Attache Office at Tan Son Nhut had established an
Clinging to the hope that the North Vietnamese might stop the
Preparations complete, the NVA resumed the attack on 26 April, with
The NVA in Long An and Hau Nghia Provinces renewed attempts to
On 27 April, Vice President Tran Van Huong, who had succeeded
Early in the evening of the 28th, a flight of A-37s, piloted by VNAF
On 29 April a heavy bombardment of Tan Son Nhut began. Rockets and
By dawn on 30 April the American evacuation was complete. That
Note on Sources, Chapters 15-17
General Van Tien Dung's articles on the final offensive set the stage
The Weekly Intelligence Summaries published by DAO and J2/JGS were
Generals Vien and Truong read and commented on the deployments,
Most of the data on the April reconstitution was derived from the
Finally, the most important single check on the accuracy of the
Chapter 18 Was Defeat Inevitable?
What happened in the last two years of the struggle in Vietnam cannot really be understood in isolation from the many years of war that preceded the final period. Considerable treatment was therefore given to events immediately preceding the Paris agreement, to the balance of forces in the South, to the disposition of forces following the Communist 1972 offensive, and to the cease-fire landgrab battles. Although measurements of power were not attempted, for the nature of ground combat does not lend itself to such analysis, it was clear that a temporary stalemate had been reached. The South was strong defensively and growing stronger with its newfound confidence, stability, and steadily improving combat efficiency, all brought about largely by the success of the Vietnamization program.
On the other hand, North Vietnam's expeditionary force, although no longer supported by an effective southern guerrilla force and badly battered by the battles of 1972, embarked on an intensive program of reorganization, modernization, and logistical buildup without interference from the United States or South Vietnam. The United States had withdrawn its forces from South Vietnam and that country lacked the military strength to attack the enemy's rear logistical areas and new lines of communication.
Generalizations about the character of the struggle in Vietnam inevitably fail many tests for validity and often lead to less rather than more understanding. That is why so much detail has been included in this account. One generalization, however, seems clear. During the last two years of the war, the South adopted an aggressive defense that strengthened its influence and improved security in the populated regions of the country. Seriously concerned about that success, the Communists responded with plans and operations specifically directed to "defeat pacification."
Although the antipacification plan was a failure, the NVA eliminated step by step isolated government outposts, most of which interfered in some degree with the Communist plan for developing sparsely populated regions and securing the expanded and modernized logistical system supporting the rapidly growing expeditionary force in the South. So, despite some notable Southern gains, as in the Seven Mountains of Chau Duc and the Tri Phap, and in Svay Rieng Province of Cambodia, the South's defenses around major population centers eventually became the forward line of contact.
As outposts fell, the armed forces of South Vietnam benefitted in that there were fewer demands placed upon strained logistical and tactical resources. On the other hand, the resources thus freed were insufficient to build up significant reserves. The compression of South Vietnam defenses around the population centers also meant that the advantages of the NVA multiplied. Its heavy artillery came within range of final objectives, its logistical system was able to expand without effective observation or interference, and strategic options increased. It enjoyed the decisive advantage of the ability to mass, with considerable surprise, overwhelming combat power against strategic objective areas. This, essentially, is what happened at Ban Me Thuot.
Yet the outcome could have been different. Unit for unit and man for man, the combat forces of South Vietnam repeatedly proved themselves superior to their adversaries. Missing, however, were inspired civil and military leadership at the highest levels and unflagging American moral and material support. The required leadership was certainly available in the South Vietnamese armed forces, but it was not allowed to surface and take charge in enough situations. The United States might conceivably have responded consistently and more generously had the South Vietnamese been able to demonstrate conclusively the validity of their cause through beneficent and self-sacrificing leadership at the top. But convincing reforms were needed in South Vietnam long before the cease-fire of January 1973 in order to have reversed the momentum of decreasing American support. Lest the impression be left that the civil and military leadership in North Vietnam was morally superior to that in the South or that the citizens of NorthVietnam enjoyed greater freedoms, one need only look at the events that have transpired in the South since May 1975. Even in embattled South Vietnam, the citizenry largely went about its private affairs without interruption or governmental interference, and the rule of law was preserved. But what was missing was a national leader of great stature and strength who was committed to personal sacrifice, willing to get tough with inept or corrupt subordinates, and able to rally the support he would need to stay in office. Such a man did not emerge. But even without strong leadership, substantial American support for an indefinite period would have made the difference. Given more time, a new generation of younger South Vietnam leaders probably could have produced the leadership to institute the internal reforms so badly needed.
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