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Hell in An Loc

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In 1972 a North Vietnamese offensive of more than 30,000 men and 100 tanks smashed into South Vietnam and raced to capture Saigon. All that stood in their way was a small band of 6,800 South Vietnamese (ARVN) soldiers and militiamen, and a handful of American advisors with U.S. air support, guarding An Loc, a town sixty miles north of Saigon and on the main highway to it. This depleted army, outnumbered and outgunned, stood its ground and fought to the end and succeeded. Against all expectations, the ARVN beat back furious assaults from three North Vietnamese divisions, supported by artillery and armored regiments, during three months of savage fighting. This victory was largely unreported in the U.S. media, which had effectively lost interest in the war after the disengagement of most U.S. forces. Thi believes that it is time to set the record straight. Without denying the tremendous contribution of the U.S. advisors and pilots, this book is written primarily to tell the South Vietnamese side of the story and, more importantly, to render justice to the South Vietnamese soldier.

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1. The Sieges of the Indochina Wars

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One

The Sieges of the

Indochina Wars

In Valley of Decision,1 John Prados and Ray W. Stubbe reported that at the height of the siege of Khe Sanh, in February 1968, Gen.

William C. Westmoreland asked Col. Reamer W. Argo, command historian, to make a study comparing Khe Sanh with past sieges and to recommend a course of action for the embattled garrison. Argo and his team found that of the fifteen sieges identified during the twentieth century, defenders resisted successfully only in two instances: the Russians at Leningrad (1941–1944) and the Americans at Bastogne (1944).

If asked about the successful sieges in the military history of

Viet Nam, it is doubtful that the command historian would know that toward the end of the eighteenth century, at the port of Quy

Nhon, 280 miles southeast of Khe Sanh, Gen. Vo Tanh, on orders from Emperor Nguyen Anh, held out for two years (from 1779 to 1801) against the Grand Army of Tay Son, preventing the latter from linking up with its navy in order to launch a coordinated attack on the cities of Phan Thiet and Gia Dinh in the south. The heroic stand of Vo Tanh also allowed Emperor Nguyen Anh’s army to bypass the siege of Quy Nhon to capture Hue on February 2,

 

2. Setting the Stage

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Two

Setting the Stage

Tay Ninh, Binh Long, Phuoc Long, Long Khanh, and Binh

Tuy, the northern provinces of Military Region III (MRIII), with their dense forests, small hills, and low elevations, offer a sharp contrast to the lush and flat rice fields immediately to the south. They form a natural arc extending from Cambodia to the west and north to the South China Sea to the east. This area constitutes the southernmost foothills of the Chaine Annamitique and a quasi-buffer zone between the Mekong Delta and the Central Highlands.

The area known as Dong Nai Thuong (Upper Valley of Deer)— squeezed between the Song Be River to the east and the Saigon River to the west—contains some of the most beautiful forests consisting of a vide variety of tropical trees—including teaks and other precious species. It also contains some of the richest rubber plantations in the world. At the beginning of the twentieth century, after the situation in Indochina had been temporarily stabilized, the French colonialists began to exploit this fertile region in conjunction with large swaths of uncultivated lands in adjacent Cambodia to plant rubber trees. The soil in this area, in fact, contains a red laterite clay that is very suitable to the culture of rubber trees. Two administrative agencies were established at Hon Quan (1908) and Ba Ra (1920) to supervise the forest abatement and road construction projects. Two

 

3. The Opening Salvos

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Three

The Opening Salvos

Toward the end of March, President Thieu, who was actively involved in the pacification process—and for this reason was dubbed “the number one pacification officer” by William Colby, former CIA chief in Saigon—setting aside intelligence reports of an impending NVA offensive, convened the annual meeting of all corps commanders and province chiefs to review the progress of the national pacification program. The meeting took place at the

Rural Development Training Center at the seaside resort city of

Vung Tau. While the convention was in progress, word broke out on March 30 that NVA regular divisions, supported by artillery and armored regiments, after having conducted heavy artillery preparations on ARVN 3rd Division positions in the northern area of Quang

Tri province, had crossed the Ben Hai River—which separated the two Viet Nams under the 1954 Geneva Peace Agreement. What was known as the “Easter Offensive” had begun.

The launching of this major offensive was planned to coincide with the dry season because of the difficulties in moving troops, equipment, and supplies for such large scale operations during the rainy season. The northern provinces of MRI are affected by the northeast monsoon and can expect good weather from February to

 

4. Prelude to the Battle of An Loc

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Four

Prelude to the

Battle of An Loc

While the battle was raging in Loc Ninh, President Thieu, on

April 7, convened a meeting of the corps commanders at the Independence Palace in Saigon to assess the national military crisis.

Present at the meeting were Gen. Tran Thien Khiem, the prime minister, Gen. Cao Van Vien, Chairman of the JGS, Gen. Dang Van

Quang, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, and the four corps commanders.

By that time, President Thieu and ARVN/JGS believed that the main thrust of the enemy Easter Offensive was in MRI. I Corps, in fact, was reeling from enemy multi-divisional assaults and the overextended 3rd Division was forced to retreat behind the Cam Lo River.

The 57th and 2nd Regiments, outgunned and outnumbered, had fallen back to the new defense line extending from Dong Ha to RN 9. The

56th Regiment and the 147th Marine Brigade—the latter was under the tactical control of the 3rd Division—also suffered heavy casualties and had to abandon two strategic positions on the western flank of the 3rd Division. To make matters worse, Lt. Col. Pham Van Dinh, the 56th Regiment commander, had just surrendered to the enemy at the former U.S. Camp Carroll with the remnants of his regiment. A promising young officer, Dinh had distinguished himself during the

 

5. The First Attack on An Loc

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Five

The First Attack on An Loc

While the defenders took advantage of the lull preceding the attack to reinforce the garrison with fresh units, the NVA brought in additional anti-aircraft outfits in an effort to cut off resupply by air.

At the time the attack on An Loc began, the NVA had up to nine anti-aircraft battalions positioned around the city. On the morning of April 12, a Chinook helicopter from Bien Hoa-based VNAF

237th Helicopter Squadron, piloted by Maj. Nguyen Huu Nhan, deputy squadron commander, was shot down over An Loc by enemy mortars and anti-aircraft fire while on an ammunition resupply mission. The hovering helicopter burst into a ball of flames over the LZ. All five crewmen were killed. Lt. Col. Nguyen Phu Chinh, the 237th Helicopter Squadron commander, later reported that his squadron had previously received a unit citation by III Corps for outstanding service; it also had received the Chinook pin and many letters of commendation from Boeing Company—which manufactured the Chinook helicopter—for having achieved 25,000 flying hours without accident. Alas, this safety record was shattered at An

 

6. The Second Attack on An Loc

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Six

The Second Attack on An Loc

The landing of the paratroopers in the Doi Gio area added a new dimension to the battle of An Loc: it forced the enemy to try to capture the city before the rescuing units joined forces with the defenders. So, after only one day of recuperation and refurbishing, the enemy renewed their efforts to take An Loc. Following their usual tactics of “tien phao hau xung” (or first, artillery; next, assault), the enemy unleashed a devastating artillery barrage on the city on April 15 from 4:30 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. causing multiple fires.

Over 1,000 artillery rounds of all calibers slammed into An Loc.

The NVA gunmen were specifically targeting the 5th Division and

Binh Long Sector headquarters in the southern sector.

At 6:00 a.m., the enemy’s 9th Division launched a two-pronged attack with the 272nd Regiment supported by a tank company in the north and northwest, and the 271st Regiment supported by another tank company in the west.

At 7:00 a.m., the 272nd Regiment broke through the defensive positions of the 8th Regiment, which had to fall back to Hung

 

7. Reinforcing An Loc

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Seven

Reinforcing An Loc

While the war was raging at Loc Ninh, General Minh, III Corps commander, finally realizing that Binh Long—and not Tay Ninh— was the main objective of the enemy’s 1972 Easter Offensive, ordered the 43rd Regiment of the 18th Division, reinforced with the 5th

Armored Squadron, to secure Route 13 north of Lai Khe. The relief column received 130mm artillery fire but met only light enemy resistance. It arrived at Chon Thanh without incident on April 7.

The next day, the column was subjected to an intense artillery barrage and engaged by a regiment-size enemy blocking force south of Tao O creek. The enemy, well protected by an intricate system of underground inter-connecting reinforced bunkers, stopped the

43rd Regiment’s progression despite powerful artillery and tactical air support. The death of Col. Truong Huu Duc, the 5th Armored

Squadron commander, during an aerial inspection of the battle of

Tao O caused the attack to lose momentum and the 43rd Regiment—which suffered 30% losses—to withdraw out of the enemy artillery range and reorganize.1

 

8. The Third Attack on An Loc

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Eight

The Third Attack on An Loc

In early May, intelligence reports confirmed that two regiments of the NVA 5th Division, the E6 and the 174th, had moved from their location south of Loc Ninh to the Doi Gio-Hill 169 area southeast of An Loc. This area was abandoned by the 1st Airborne

Brigade after the 6th Battalion was overrun by superior NVA forces on April 20. There were also reports that elements of the 9th Division were occupying new positions southwest of the city and the

141st and 165th Regiments of the 7th Division had moved from their blocking positions in the vicinity of Tau O on Route 13 to an area just three kilometers south of An Loc.

During the night of May 5, the enemy launched a probing attack on the 81st Commando Group positions. The fighting lasted until dawn. The enemy left many dead on the barbed wire on the defense perimeter. In the pocket of each dead body the commandos found a small piece of paper inscribed with the following words:

“At all costs, capture the 5th Division commander alive, raise the flag of victory.”1

 

9. Securing Route Nationale 13

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Nine

Securing Route Nationale 13

As mentioned in an earlier chapter, General Minh, III Corps commander, was concerned about an attack on the cities immediately north of Saigon by elements of NVA’s 7th Division in conjunction with two independent VC regiments and other local units. The latter constituted what was known as the Binh Long Division. An attack on these cities would not only threaten the capital of South

Viet Nam, but may also cost Minh his command. Thus, to defeat the enemy attempt to bypass An Loc and to race toward Saigon,

Minh used the entire 21st Division, reinforced with one armored squadron, to secure Route 13 and link up with the besieged garrison of An Loc from the south.

In General Minh’s view, blocking a possible enemy advance toward Saigon, in fact, was as important as securing Route 13, at least during the initial stage of the 21st Division deployment in MRIII.

The U.S. advisors with the 21st Division seemed to agree: in response to complaints by Saigon correspondents about the lack of progress of the 21st Division, Col. J. Ross Franklin, senior advisor to the 21st Division, angrily told one journalist: “You people write that the 21st is not clearing the highway to An Loc. That’s not our job. We are here to find and engage the NVA 7th Division, which is the only big enemy outfit not committed to this Hanoi offensive.

 

10. End of the Siege

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Ten

End of the Siege

Immediately after the historic link-up between the 6th and 8th

Airborne Battalions, ARVN troops launched a counter-attack to recapture the lost terrain in the city. In the north, the 81st Airborne Commando Group and the 3rd Ranger Group reoccupied the northern part of An Loc without encountering enemy resistance. On June 10, the commandos captured one soldier who was hiding under a deep underground bunker. He said he was a cook with a unit from the 5th Division. He also disclosed that there were so many soldiers killed in his unit that he was ordered to pick up a weapon and fight, but he was so scared that he kept digging a bunker to avoid Air Force bombs.1

The next day, the 3rd Ranger and the 81st Commando attacked northward in tandem to retake the high ground north of An Loc.

On June 12, the 36th Ranger Battalion raised the national flag on the artillery dependents quarters. Subsequently, the 52nd Ranger

Battalion seized the Dong Long airport and high ground next to

Dong Long Hill to support the advance of the 81st Commando

 

11. The ARVN 18th Division in An Loc

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Eleven

The ARVN 18th Division in An Loc

Colonel (later General) Le Minh Dao had a rather unremarkable career. In the early 1960s, he served as an aide-de-camp for a French-trained general who was one of the masterminds of the coup d’etat against President Diem. Dao subsequently attracted the attention of the “Delta Clan,” which awarded him the position of province chief of Chuong Thien and Dinh Tuong provinces. Gen.

Nguyen Van Minh, III Corps Commander, appointed Dao to the important position of 18th Division commander despite the fact that

Dao had no combat experience.

Dao surprisingly rose to the occasion. He succeeded in transforming a young and ineffective division into a good fighting force.

Dao also had a high sense of theatrics and public relations. It was reported that one day, as he was visiting his wounded soldiers at the Cong Hoa General Hospital, one soldier complained about the poor quality of his wheelchair, compared to the German-made wheelchair of a fellow soldier in his room. As the latter was willing to trade his for 30,000 dong (or about forty U.S. dollars), Dao pulled out his wallet and gave the money to the other soldier in front of about thirty patients in the room. The soldier straightened himself up in an erect posture in his wheelchair, saluted his division commander and, overwhelmed by emotion, started to cry.1

 

12. Assessing the Battle of An Loc

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Twelve

Assessing the Battle of An Loc

Historians and even generals seem to have a tough time categorizing a siege as “successful” or “unsuccessful” from the defenders’ perspective. The authors of Valley of Decision, for example, mentioned that during a meeting of the National Security Council on

March 27, 1968, Gen. Earl Wheeler, Chairman of the JCS, seemed to suggest that Hanoi had achieved its goal at Khe Sanh—that is, the NVA may have lured U.S. troops away from Hue and Saigon, their main objectives during the Tet Offensive. General Westmoreland, the former MACV commander, on the contrary, stated in a 1968 interview that he was proudest of his decision to hold Khe

Sanh, implying that Khe Sanh constituted an important U.S. victory.

What then are the yardsticks for measuring the success or failure of a siege? General Wheeler seemed to suggest that Khe Sanh was a failure because the U.S. had forfeited the initiative and had fallen to NVA’s stratagem of holding U.S. forces in Khe Sanh with ambushes and limited attacks on outposts on surrounding hills while launching all-out assaults on Hue and major urban centers. Deceiving and outwitting the enemy are as old as warfare itself. In Art of War, fourth-century B.C. Chinese strategist Sun Tzu called it

 

13. The Aftermath

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Thirteen

The Aftermath

The Paris Agreement

After the ARVN’s victory in Kontum in May, the recapture of

Quang Tri and the liberation of An Loc in September, Hanoi finally realized they had lost the 1972 Easter Offensive. Their best divisions had been convincingly defeated—some of them badly mauled—by the South Vietnamese Army. The debacle of the NVA’s Nguyen Hue campaign pushed Hanoi to sign the Paris Peace Agreement in January 1973 to save what was left of its invading army from attacks by

ARVN units and bombardments by the USAF and VNAF. On the other hand, for the Communists, peace is considered only as a temporary phase of relative military quiescence, an expedient breathing space to be used for revising tactics and refurbishing arms for renewed fighting under more favorable conditions. Thus, shortly after the signing of the Agreement, the NVA feverishly prepared for a new invasion.

The Paris Agreement was an American creation that allowed the United States to disengage “with honor,” but didn’t solve the basic issue over which the war had been fought for a quarter of a century. The issue, according Arnold Isaacs, a noted author on

 

Epilogue

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Epilogue

After the fall of South Viet Nam in 1975, politicians and military analysts predicted that Viet Nam’s pro-Western neighbors would fall like dominoes in the face of seemingly unstoppable North Vietnamese divisions equipped with the latest Soviet and Chinese weaponry. Thirty-three years later, no dominoes have fallen. Instead, the

Soviet Union has collapsed along with the international Communist system.

Bui Tin, a former colonel in the North Vietnamese army and the editor of Nhan Dan, the VCP’s mouthpiece, believed that the

Vietnamese Communist regime will also die because heaven is no longer on their side. He wrote: “I believe that although heaven was on the side of the North Vietnamese during the war, the Communist utopia will not last long. Heaven is just. When living kindly, one will reap goodness. When sowing wind, one will reap tempest.

Communism has reached its glorious goal, but in the process, it has bankrupted itself, both in theory and in deed. Its goal to build a society without exploitation is contradicted by its cruel and inhumane practices, its violence against its opponents, and its embrace of class struggle and war.”1

 

Appendix: Senior ARVN Commanders and U.S. Counterparts

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