Chapter 17 The Last Act in the South
Tri Tam and Tay Ninh
The 1975 Communist offensive was coordinated country-wide. The NVA troops of COSVN struck their first major blow of the campaign at Tri Tam, the district seat of Dau Tieng District at the southwestern edge of the Michelin Plantation. West of Tri Tam, across the Saigon River, local Route 239 passed through another large plantation, Ben Cui, before it joined local Route 26 (LTL-26), which ran northwest into Tay Ninh City and southeast to the ARVN forward base at Khiem Hanh. All traffic to Tri Tam had to pass over Routes 26 and 239, and by outposts manned by Tay Ninh territorials. Tri Tam was defended by three RF Battalions and nine PF platoons. III Corps had anticipated the attack on Tri Tam - major elements of the 9th NVA Division had been observed concentrating north of the town - so the province chief reinforced the garrison with two additional RF companies on 10 March.
The attack on Tri Tam began at 0600 on 11 March with an intense artillery and mortar bombardment, followed by an assault by T-54 tanks and infantry. But the success of the attack was assured by the earlier severing of the line of communication; at 0330, NVA infantry and tanks overran an RF outpost on Route 239 about 10 kilometers west of Tri Tam.
The province chief reacted by sending two RF battalions east along Route 239 toward Ben Cui, but they were stopped by heavy fire short of the lost outpost. NVA tanks were already in the Ben Cui Plantation. Meanwhile, as the day wore on in embattled Tri Tam, the territorial defenders held on, destroying two T-54s in the town. The main attack was coming from the east, and the ARVN soldiers blew the bridge on Route 239 east of the town Fighting raged through the night, and as dawn broke on 12 March, ARVN territorials still held Tri Tam. The 95C and 272d NVA Regiments, and at least a company of tanks, supported by a regiment of artillery, continued the attack that day and eliminated the last resistance in Tri Tam.
Meanwhile, the ARVN III Corps commander had dispatched another relief column toward Tri Tam. Task Force 318, composed of tanks and armored personnel carriers from the 3d Armored Brigade, with the 33d Ranger Battalion attached, was stopped by heavy B-40 and 130-mm. gunfire before it could reach Tri Tam. Three officers, including a company commander, were among the heavy casualties in initial fighting near Ben Cui.
With Tri Tam in its possession, the NVA now controlled the Saigon River corridor from its beginning, near Tong Le Chon, to the ARVN outpost at Rach Bap in the Iron Triangle. The ARVN base at Khiem Hanh was now within easy range of NVA artillery. Khiem Hanh's principal mission was to prevent major enemy units from closing on Routes 22 or 1 (QL-22 and QL-1) near the critical river port and road junction at Go Dau Ha. Tri Tam was thus the first important objective in a campaign to isolate Tay Ninh Province from Saigon. On the eve of the assault on Tri Tam three main force Tay Ninh NVA battalions, the D-14, D-16, and D-18, with support from the 101st NVA Regiment and the 75th Artillery Division closed Highway 22 between Go Dau Ha and Tay Ninh City. The 75th Artillery Division had five regiments operating in Tay Ninh for this campaign, and the 377th NVA Antiaircraft Artillery Division had about 15 antiaircraft battalions, some providing direct support for infantry.
While the NVA Tay Ninh battalions blocked Highway 22 north of Go Dau Ha, the 6th and 174th Regiments, 5th NVA Division, attacked out of Cambodia and struck the ARVN base at Ben Cau, northwest of Go Dau Ha between the international boundary and the Song Vam Co Dong. Initial assaults were repulsed, and two PT-76 tanks were destroyed. When two large concentrations of tanks were sighted west of Go Dau Ha on 12 March, fighter-bombers destroyed eight and damaged nine, losing three aircraft in the engagement. Ben Cau, however, fell on 14 March as defending territorials pulled back toward Go Dau Ha.
Ben Cau was only one of eight outposts west of the Song Vam Co Dong that came under heavy attack on 12 March. Most of them held out until the night of 13 March, but nearly all were in enemy hands by the next day.
General Toan, commanding III Corps, reacted to the crisis developing at Go Dau Ha by reinforcing at Khiem Hanh and along Routes 1 and 22. He deployed the 3d Armored Brigade, with its three battalions, reinforced by the 64th and 92d Ranger Battalions (from Tan Uyen District, Bien Hoa) and the 48th Infantry, 18th Division, reinforced with armored personnel carriers (from Corps reserve in Long Binh, Bien Hoa) to Khiem Hanh and Go Dau Ha. He also pulled the 3d Battalion, 7th Infantry, from the 5th Division at Lai Khe and sent it to reinforce Khiem Hanh.
While a battalion of the 48th ARVN Infantry attacked west out of Go Dau Ha to clear Route 1 to the Cambodian frontier, the 46th Infantry attacked north along Route 22 to help territorials clear the road to Tay Ninh against heavy resistance and intense artillery fire. Antiaircraft fire was so heavy in the area that General Toan was unable to land his helicopter at Go Dau Ha on 13 March. Route 22 between Go Dau Ha and Tay Ninh remained closed.
Connecting Saigon with the delta of Military Region 4, Route 4, even more critical than Route 22, was also threatened by the widespread offensive in Military Region 3. This highway passed through the rich, densely populated rice lands and pineapple farms of Long An Province on the boundary between the two military regions. Long An territorials were among the best troops in the country, and they gave a good account of themselves in initial fighting with local main-force battalions in early March, although suffering high casualties. Recognizing the need to keep Highway 4 open, the JGS had given General Toan two battalions of Marines, the 14th and 16th, which comprised the new 4th Brigade, to stiffen the defense in Long An. The Marines and RF operated well together and secured Long An throughout March.
The Eastern Front
While General Toan was committing more than half of his corps to the western flank, an NVA offensive erupted in the east and center. Available ARVN forces were inadequate to cope with the widespread attacks. Since the enclaves at An Loc and Chon Thanh in Binh Long were of no further military or political value, the ARVN battalions could be withdrawn and used to bolster the hardpressed defenses throughout the region. Furthermore, a new enemy division was discovered near Chon Thanh - the 341st from just above the 17th parallel. To save the Rangers and territorials in An Loc and Chon Thanh, General Toan began an evacuation on 18 March. Among the first to be moved were 12 105-mm. howitzers, while 5 of the 155-mm. howitzers had to be destroyed because the VNAF did not have heavy-lift helicopters to move them. But despite the appearance of the 341st NVA Division and a new regiment - the 273d Infantry from North Vietnam's 4th Military Region - the most critical threat developed not in the center but on the eastern flank.
Just before the NVA attacked, the 18th ARVN Division was spread out. The 1st Battalion, 43d Infantry, was securing Route 20 north of Xuan Loc, the capital of Long Khanh Province. The Regiment's 2d Battalion was south of Dinh Quan, and the 3d Battalion was in Hoai Duc District Town in Binh Tuy Province. The 52d Infantry, minus its 3d Battalion on Route 1 between Bien Hoa and Xuan Loc, was in Xuan Loc with elements operating northwest of the town. The 48th Infantry was still attached to the 25th Division in Tay Ninh Province.
The NVA forces of Nam Bo began the Long Khanh-Binh Tuy campaign with strong attacks against ARVN positions on the two principal lines of communication in the region, Highways 1 and 20 (QL-1 and QL-20), striking outposts, towns, bridges, and culverts north and east of Xuan Loc. On 17 March, the 209th Infantry Regiment and the 210th Artillery Regiment, 7th NVA Division, opened what was to become one of the bloodiest, hardest fought battles of the war, the battle for Xuan Loc. The 209th struck first at Dinh Quan, north of Xuan Loc, and at the La Nga bridge, west of Dinh Quan. Eight tanks supported the initial assault on Dinh Quan, and NVA artillery fire destroyed four 155-mm. howitzers supporting the territorials. Anticipating the attack, General Dao, commanding the 18th ARVN Division, had reinforced the La Nga bridge the day before, but the intense fire forced a withdrawal from the bridge. After repeated assaults, the 209th NVA Infantry penetrated Dinh Quan, and the 2d Battalion, 43d Infantry, as well as the RF battalion were forced to withdraw with heavy losses on 18 March.
The day before, the 3d Battalion, 43d Infantry, killed 10 enemy in heavy fighting northwest of Hoai Duc. At the same time another outpost of Xuan Loc District, Ong Don, defended by an RF company and an artillery platoon, came under artillery and infantry attack. The NVA assault was repulsed with heavy losses on both sides, and another RF company, sent to reinforce, ran into strong resistance on Highway 1 west of Ong Don. North of Ong Don, Gia Ray on Route 333 was under attack by the 274th Infantry Regiment, 6th NVA Division. The 18th ARVN Division headquarters therefore realized that two NVA divisions, the 6th and the 7th, were committed in Long Khanh. While the battle raged at Gia Ray, another post on Highway 1 west of Ong Don came under attack. Meanwhile, a bridge and a culvert on Highway 1 on each side of the Route 332 junction were blown up by NVA sappers. Thus, all ARVN forces east of Route 332 were isolated from Xuan Loc by formidable obstacles and enemy road blocks.
North from Xuan Loc, on Route 20, hamlets along the road were occupied in varying degrees by enemy soldiers, and the territorial outpost far to the northeast near the Lam Dong boundary was overrun. General Dao decided to counterattack up Route 20 with his 52d Infantry, minus one battalion but reinforced with the 5th Armored Cavalry Squadron from Tay Ninh Province. The regiment was ordered to clear the road as far as Dinh Quan. But the attack quickly stalled as it met heavy resistance well short of its objective.
Evidences of increasing heavy NVA commitments in Long Khanh flowed into III Corps headquarters in Bien Hoa. The 141st Regiment, 7th NVA Division, had apparently participated in the attack on Dinh Quan. Hoai Duc was overrun by the 812th Regiment, 6th NVA Division, while that division's other two regiments, the 33d and 274th, seized Gia Ray. The ARVN outpost on the conical peak of Chua Chan, standing 2200 feet above Xuan Loc and providing excellent observation, also fell to 6th NVA Division forces and Xuan Loc itself began to receive artillery fire, including 105-mm. General Toan responded to the burgeoning threat on his eastern flank first by sending the 5th Armored Cavalry Squadron and then one battalion of the 48th Infantry from Tay Ninh to Long Khanh.
The rest of the 48th Infantry was still heavily engaged near Go Dau Ha. The 3d Battalion made contact with an NVA Company west of the Song Vam Co Dong on 17 March, killed 36, and captured a number of weapons. Meanwhile, on Route LTL26 east of Tay Ninh City, an outpost at Cau Khoi, manned by the 351st RF Battalion, was overrun.
The outer defenses of Tay Ninh and Hau Nghia began to crumble rapidly after the fall of Cau Khoi. Following an intense bombardment by 105-mm. howitzers and 120-mm. mortars, the 367th Sapper Regiment, 5th NVA Division, seized Duc Hue on 21 March, advancing enemy-held positions to the Vam Co Dong southwest of the critical village of Trang Bang on Route 1. If the NVA could take Trang Bang, Go Dau Ha and all of Tay Ninh would be isolated.
North of the airfield at Tay Ninh was the main outpost on local Route 13. The NVA struck here on 22 March, and the defenders withdrew to an alternate position, Mo Cong II, to the south. The attack continued on the 23d, and Mo Cong II was lost, compressing the perimeter north of Tay Ninh to less than 10 kilometers deep.
The eastern prong of the NVA offensive in Tay Ninh was still pressing against the vital position at Khiem Hanh. Just north of Go Dau Ha,Khiem Hanh was an essential strongpoint preventing the enemy from reaching Route 1 from the north and seizing Go Dau Ha and Trang Bang. From Trang Bang, Route 1 provided a high-speed approach through the 25th ARVN Division base at Cu Chi and on to Tan Son Nhut and Saigon. On 23 March, ARVN soldiers and tanks made contact with NVA forces near Truong Mit, northwest of Khiem Hanh. The enemy had advanced through Cau Khoi on Route 26. A major battle developed on the 24th and casualties were very heavy on both sides. The 3d Battalion, 7th ARVN Infantry, 5th Division, attached to the 25th Division, lost over 400 men killed, wounded, and missing, and the attacking 271st Regiment, 9th NVA Division, left nearly 200 dead. The artillery, tank, and automatic weapons fire was intense; the 271st was supported by a battalion of 37-mm. antiaircraft weapons used as field artillery, as well as by the 42d Artillery Regiment with its 85-mm. and 122-mm. guns. The decimated battalion of the 7th Infantry was withdrawn from combat and sent to the regimental base at Phu Giao in Binh Duong Province. As a precaution against being flanked by a strong attack down the Saigon River corridor, General Toan sent the 2d Battalion, 7th Infantry, to reinforce Rach Bap, the western anchor of the Iron Triangle.
Then General Toan asked the Chief of the JGS, General Vien, for an Airborne brigade to use in a counterattack at Truong Mit. General Vien refused the request; he could not agree to further dissipating the smallfgeneral reserve while General Toan still had a few uncommitted units. Therefore, on 25 and 26 March, the hard-fighting 3d Armored Brigade, together with elements of the 25th ARVN Division, attacked the 271st NVA Regiment at Truong Mit and succeeded in reoccupying the position. Losses were again heavy on both sides. General Toan then reinforced the defense by sending the headquarters and two battalions of the 48th Infantry, 18th Division, to Khiem Hanh.
The planned ARVN withdrawal from its two enclaves in Binh Long Province was still under way when the 9th and 341st NVA Divisions attacked at Chon Thanh on 24 March. A battalion of T-54 tanks accompanied the assault, and in the first day's action seven of these were destroyed by the VNAF and the defending 31st and 32d Ranger Groups. The Chon Thanh position held firm, and the evacuation from An Loc continued without interruption. On the 26th, the 341st NVA Division attacked again, apparently trying to retrieve disabled tanks, but was repulsed again. By 27 March the withdrawal from An Loc was complete, and the 31st and 32d Ranger Groups still held Chon Thanh. The 341st NVA Division, reinforced with the 273d Independent Regiment from North Vietnam, got set for yet another assault on the strongpoint. Following a 3,000-round bombardment by 105-mm. and 155-mm. howitzers and 120-mm. mortars, a regimental-sized force supported by an understrength tank battalion attacked Chon Thanh on 31 March. Again the determined Rangers drove back the attackers, destroying 11 more tanks. But it was clear that if the fighting strength of the two Ranger groups was to be preserved to fight again, they would have to pull out of Chon Thanh. Accordingly, on 1 April the VNAF saturated the assembly areas and bivouacs occupied by the badly mauled 341st Division with 52 sorties; under the cover of this attack, the 32d Ranger Group was airlifted out of Chon Thanh and set down in another hot spot, Khiem Hanh in Tay Ninh Province. That night, three battalions of the 31st Rangers and the one remaining RF battalion began a withdrawal to Bau Bang and Lai Khe, taking artillery and light tanks with them. The northern defenses of Saigon were now about 14 kilometers north of the 5th Division base at Lai Khe, but this was not really a significant change since the fire base at Chon Thanh had long been isolated by strong NVA blocking positions on Highway 13 around Bau Long. Nevertheless, the arc of main force NVA divisions was pressing ever closer to the heart of the nation, and the vital lines of communications to the outer defenses were either severed or dangerously threatened.
As the ring of Communist divisions tightened around Military Region 3, the flow of military assistance to Vietnam was slowed by events in Washington. Members of a House caucus on 12 March voted 189 to 49 in favor of a resolution opposing more military aid for either Cambodia or Vietnam before the end of the fiscal year. The next day, 13 March, the House Foreign Affairs Committee rejected a compromise proposal that would have provided some additional aid.
The Ford administration pressed ahead with efforts to convince Congress that additional assistance was essential to the survival of Vietnam and that the Congressional approach to this issue was the cause of the Vietnamese decision to withdraw from the highlands. Although the decline of U.S. support was the crucial factor in the overall disaster in Vietnam, the proximate cause of the highlands debacle was the failure of the corps commander to accept an intelligence estimate and to fight the battle of Ban Me Thuot with forces available. Then, when he followed this critical mistake with two others - inadequate planning and execution of the counterattack from Phuoc An and a horribly mismanaged withdrawal down Route 7B - he started the entire nation on a downhill slide that not even the valor of thousands of loyal officers and soldiers could reverse.
The Defense and State Departments were receiving reasonably accurate daily reports from the DAO and Embassy in Saigon, but most journalists in Vietnam were having difficulty discovering what was really happening on the battlefield, and it has been argued that military assistance could not have stemmed South Vietnam's decline because the South Vietnamese lacked the will to fight. As in every war, some units performed poorly under attack, but the growing certainty that defeat was imminent, now that the United States had cut back military assistance, was at the root of the decline in combat efficiency. Yet there were countless instances of great tenacity in defense and awesome valor in combat, even in the face of overwhelming enemy firepower and numbers.
As the end of March approached, reports from Saigon told Washington that a crisis was rapidly approaching. Blocked by Congress from providing relief in the form of additional assistance, President Ford dispatched General Frederick C. Weyand, U.S. Army Chief of Staff and the last senior American commander in Vietnam, to Saigon to make a personal assessment of the situation. General Weyand arrived on 27 March. He met with Ambassador Martin and Maj. Gen. Homer D. Smith, Jr., the Defense Attache, as well as with President Thieu and General Vien. He also met privately with the author on two occasions before his departure to brief President Ford on 3 April. In these two meetings, the author stressed the point that although a decision to renew the U.S. commitment to Vietnam was essential to its survival, it was already too late for this alone. A U.S. military effort was required and, as a minimum, would have to include U.S. airpower against NVA formations, bases, and lines of communication in South Vietnam. The author followed his discussions with General Weyand with a written summary of his assessment on 31 March quoted in its entirety:
a. The GVN has a new strategy. It calls for defending from Khanh Hoa south and what remains of GVN MR's 3 and 4. This strategy might have held the promise of success
(1) if GVN forces in MR's 1 and 2 could have been extracted more or less intact for employment in the south;
(2) if the enemy forces committed, or to be committed, against the new, truncated South Vietnam were not in the process of being heavily reinforced and
(3) if the U.S. commitment to the defense of South Vietnam were expressed in the form of immediate deliveries of essential equipment, ammunition and supplies; followed by assurances that this support would be continued for as long as the North's aggression makes it necessary.
b. With regard to factor (1), above, of all the major formations in MR's 1 and 2, only the 22d Division stands a chance to be extracted intact (as of now, a slim chance).
c. With regard to factor (2), the enemy has reinforced in GVN MR 3. Reinforcement continues and the potential for more is very real.
d. Factor (3) has not been decided, but defeat is all but certain within 90 days without it. Because of factors (1) and (2), material and political support may no longer be enough to provide a successful defense. Only the application of U.S. strategic airpower in South Vietnam can give this any degree of probability.
2. RVNAF Capability to Regroup.
a. Assuming necessary equipment is available and that the 22d ARVN Division is able to disengage from Binh Dinh, the following can be ready for redeployment in 20 to 40 days:
(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 deployment in about 120 days.
c. Although the three existing ARVN divisions in MR 4 have been fairly aggressive, they are seriously understrength. Upgrading the divisions by reassigning territorial forces is underway. Territorial forces themselves, the key to Delta security, must continue to be upgraded.
d. Summary: Success in the above regroupments would provide ARVN with 13 divisions (or division equivalents of ARVN/Rangers/VNMC) within 40 days; an additional two divisions in four months.
3. Enemy Strength Available for MR 3 and 4 Operations.
We believe that the 341st NVA Division has arrived, that the 320 B Division is currently enroute to MR 3 and that two other divisions currently deployed in the south or from the NVN reserve will also move to MR 3 in the next one to three months. The movement of units to MR 3 will allow the use of infiltrators to rebuild units and the allocation of significantly larger numbers of infiltrators of GVN MR 4. Because of difficulties in terrain and supply, we do not believe that a new NVA division will try to move into MR 4.
4. Near Term Projection.
a. If the Communists allow the GVN six to eight weeks before initiating major attacks in MR 3, the GVN possibly could organize a successful defense. The principal battle area will probably be Tay Ninh Province where the Communists have a three division equivalent of infantry/sappers plus 20 artillery battalions and three armor battalions. They might deploy one of the newly arriving divisions to the Tay Ninh area.
b. Opposing are two ARVN division equivalents, plus territorials. Probably another four or five ARVN regimental equivalents would be moved to this front, but regiments of the 5th and 18th ARVN Divisions now in Tay Ninh would return to their normal AO's. Thus, in Tay Ninh (with overlap in Hau Nghia) the GVN would probably deploy a total of seven or eight infantry regiments, supported by an armor brigade. An airborne brigade could be reserve. The GVN's ability to withstand and neutralize expected heavy artillery and AAA fire will be key factors.
c. In central MR 3, the Communist threat may have temporarily lessened (since the 7th and 9th Divisions are deployed to eastern and western MR 3 respectively) but the 341st Division and another division will probably be committed to strike sotthward in southern Binh Duong Province. These forces would be supported by about eight battalions of artillery and several tank battalions. The three regiments of the 5th ARVN Division would probably require support by at least another regiment and an airborne brigade. ARVN could probably withstand a two-division attack although they would probably abandon Phu Giao.
d. In eastern MR 3, elements of the 6th and 7th NVA Divisions, possibly reinforced by another division, will probably continue attacks to overrun Xuan Loc and establish a lodgment north of Bien Hoa. ARVN has only the 18th Division in this area. To meet this threat and also to open routes 1 and 20 will probably require another ARVN division equivalent. The GVN must also protect the water routes to Saigon and the key LOC's from the Delta.
e. The movement of either the 7th or 9th ARVN Division out of the northern Delta would result in Route 4 being closed, and the departure of the 21st Division would endanger Can Tho and open up the southern Delta to nearly unlimited Communist gains.
f. The fighting will be very heavy with high GVN losses which will have to be replaced immediately. The GVN will have trouble matching Communist 130-mm. artillery and VNAF effectiveness will be limited by Communist AA weapons. The last two reconstituted divisions will have to be ready for commitment by early summer. If heavy rains occur early this year, Communist elements in the Parrot's Beak will probably have to withdraw from forward positions. This would allow the GVN time to regroup and refit units in Tay Ninh and Kien Tuong Provinces.
It is possible that with abundant resupply and a great deal of luck, the GVN could conduct a successful defense of what remains of MR's 3 and 4. It is extremely doubtful that it could withstand an offensive involving the commitment of three additional Communist divisions in MR 3 without U.S. strategic air support in SVN. With defeat in MR 3 tantamount to defeat of the GVN, South Vietnam would be almost certain to fall within three to six months (or sooner) By this time agencies in Washington were equally gloomy. A DIA assessment of 3 April gave south Vietnam only 30 Days.
Meanwhile, a misconception was spreading in Washington that the current reverses in Vietnam did not involve much combat. In his news conference of 2 April, Secretary of Defense Schlesinger spoke of "relatively little major fighting." He repeated this view on "Face the Nation" on 6 April: "It is plain that the great offensive is a phrase that probably should be in quotation marks. What we have had here is a partial collapse of South Vietnamese Forces, so that there has been very little major fighting since the battle of Ban Me Thuot, and that was an exception in itself."
General Smith could not let that impression stand and sent a message to CINCPAC and a number of addressees in Washington attempting to correct the record:
On the contrary, there was heavy fighting all along the coastal plain and in the foothills from south of Phu Bai to Khanh Duong in Khanh Hoa Province.
In the hills south of Phu Bai, the 1st ARVN Div repelled numerous heavy two-divisional attacks and even gained some lost positions before it finally was ordered to withdraw because its northern flank was exposed.
In Phu Loc District just north of Hai Van Pass on QL-1, an overpowering attack by up to two regiments of the enemy's 325th Div forced outnumbered ARVN defenders back from their positions and severed the line of communications.
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 22d Div defended strongly with great perseverance against determined and heavy NVA attacks. Outflanked, outgunned, and eventually cut off, the 22d fought its way back to the beaches and was eventually evacuated. This was a long and heavy battle.
Likewise along QL-21, the ARVN fight at Khanh Duong was a battle of major proportions. The NVA 10th Div employed three and possibly four infantry regiments to overcome the ARVN Defenses. The ARVN 3d Airborne Bde was reduced to only 600 men by the time it was able to fight its way out of encirclement and regroup intact near Phan Rang.
Respectfully recommend that you suggest to the Chairman that he acquaint the Secretary with these facts so that an accurate representation of what has occurred might be presented to the American people. There is a "great offensive" underway.
Meanwhile the bloody struggle continued as the GVN assembled its few forces recovered from the defeated regions, reorganized and redeployed for the final stand.
Reorganization and Redeployment
The stiff ARVN resistance and strong local counterattacks in Tay Ninh, Binh Duong, Binh Long, and Long Khanh Provinces caused the NVA to pull back and regroup. Meanwhile, a relative calm settled over the battlefields during the first week of April, and the ARVN exploited the opportunity to reorganize shattered units arriving from the north and redeploy forces to meet the certain resumption of the NVA attacks.
On 1 April, General Toan commanding III Corps, returned the headquarters and two battalions of the 48th Infantry to their parent division, the 18th, from Tay Ninh Province. The regiment moved to the Xuan Loc area but sent its 2d Battalion down to Ham Tan on the coast of Binh Tuy Province to secure the city and port while large numbers of refugees poured into the province from the north. About 500 troops, survivors of the 2d ARVN Division, were among those arriving from Military Region 1. When reorganized and re-equipped, they would take over the security mission in Ham Tan.
The 52d ARVN Infantry, 18th Division, meanwhile was pressing forward on Route 20 south of Dinh Quan and in sharp fighting on 1 April killed over 50 NVA troops. The other regiment of the 18th was fighting east along Route 1, near Xuan Loc and in contact with a major enemy force.
General Toan also returned the battalions of the 7th Infantry fighting on Highway 1 near Go Dau Ha to their division at Lai Khe. This left the defense of Tay Ninh Province and its line of communication to the 25th ARVN Division, elements of the 3d Armored Brigade, Rangers, and territorials.
Shocked by the necessity to withdraw the RVNAF from the northern military regions, intensely preoccupied with the fierce battles raging within sight and sound of the nation's capital, unable to obtain reliable information concerning the status of withdrawing and decimated units, and further concerned with enormous personal and family tragedies that permeated all their thoughts, the officers of the Joint General Staff neglected until very late -and until prodded into action by the Defense Attache Office - the planning required for reorganizing and re-equipping shattered units whose members were pouring into the southern ports.
Colonel Edward Pelosky, Chief of the Army Division, DAO, took the lead in encouraging the Central Logistics Command to develop the plan. On 27 March, General Khuyen, the Chief of Central Logistics Command, as well as the Chief of Staff of the JGS, approved a plan setting forth a schedule for the reconstitution of units from Military Regions 1 and 2 and including the requirements for replacement vehicles, weapons, and all types of equipment and supplies. Unfortunately, General Khuyen had been unable to secure from the personnel, plans, and operations sections of the JGS information concerning personnel strengths and unit dispositions, and the plan was therefore not only incomplete but unworkable. Data concerning units available for reconstitution and information on the numbers and locations of officers, noncommissioned officers, and soldiers for these units were therefore not even considered. The unreality of the plan was aggravated by the fact that it was predicated on the availability of funds in a supplemental appropriation and the significant absence of a clear, fully coordinated statement of priorities. But despite these shortcomings, planning and reorganization went ahead, and the Army Division of the DAO reprogrammed unused funds and called forward as much supplies and equipment as could be realistically obtained under the severe funding limits and reasonably employed upon arrival.
By 29 March no contributions to the plan had been received from the J-1, J-3, or J-5 although the Operations and Plans Division, DAO, made another appeal for full JGS participation. Again, although these other staff sections were not represented, joint South Vietnamese-American planning continued, the .S. side being represented by the DAO, and the South Vietnam side being represented by only RVNAF logisticians from the Central Logistics Command. The revised plan was approved by General Khuyen on 1 April and published as a JGS document, signed by General Vien, on 5 April. By this time, the JGS had become fully involved, and the plan included an activation schedule that dealt with the availability of units, personnel, and equipment as well as an obvious, although unstated, concept for deployment after reconstitution.
By 2 April, the survivors of the Marine Division were disembarking at Vung Tau. Under the leadership of their commander, Maj. Gen. Bui The Lan, they were moved into the 4th Battalion's camp there for processing and reorganization. In all, of the 12,000 Marines who had been deployed in Military Region 1, about 4,000 were at Vung Tau. The equipment for a reorganized division was on hand in the Saigon-Long Binh area, but moving it to Vung Tau would be difficult. A more serious problem was the shortage of infantry leaders; 5 Marine battalion commanders and 40 company commanders had been killed in action during March and April. Nevertheless, the division rapidly took shape. One brigade of three rifle battalions and one artillery battalion was ready to receive equipment in three days. Ten days later, an additional similar brigade was formed.
Meanwhile, on 1 April the evacuation of Nha Trang came to an end when NVA troops moved in to occupy the harbor. But the evacuation of Cam Ranh Bay continued. Farther south, Phan Rang Air Base came under increasing enemy pressure, and its evacuation began, although the VNAF's 6th Air Division continued limited operations from the field. A forward command post of III Corps was established at Phan Rang under Lt. Gen. Nghi and on 7 April the 2d Airborne Brigade was flown into Phan Rang. On 9 April, the brigade moved to Du Long, north of Phan Rang on Highway 1, to block the 10th NVA Division, moving south from Cam Ranh in the face of intensive air strikes by the VNAF. Meanwhile, Phan Thiet, the town and air base southwest of Phan Rang in Binh Thuan Province, was under attack. Binh Thuan territorials fought extremely well, but they could not hold for long against large NVA formations approaching through the hills from the north. Highway 1 would be cut in Binh Thuan and Phan Rang isolated. Phan Thiet on 12 April came under heavy attack, and its three RF battalions and 20 PF platoons were overwhelmed at the end of a determined defense.
As of 11 April, about 40,000 troops from Military Regions 1 and 2 had reported to training camps or had been reassigned to units in Military Region 3. The 2d ARVN Division, which had been assembled at Ham Tan, had grown to 3,600, including two RF battalions assigned to it from Gia Dinh Province. Its reconstituted 4th Infantry Regiment was sent to Phan Rang, relieving the 2d Airborne Brigade, but the balance of the division would have four light battalions when the outfitting was complete. Regrettably, the 4th Infantry was destroyed for the second and final time in the defense of Phan Rang.
The 3d Division on 11 April had about 1,100 men at Ba Ria, Phuoc Tuy, and would be assigned another 1,000 soon, but it was short all types of weapons and equipment. The 1st Division was also at Ba Ria but with only two officers and 40 men. Near Ba Ria, at Long Hai, was the 23d Division with about 1,000 men and 20 rifles.
The 22d ARVN Division, whose tough resistance in Binh Dinh was one of the most remarkable feats of determination, courage, and leadership of the war, was in better shape than other divisions. At the Van Kiep National Training center at Vung Tau, the 22d had about 4,600 men, one-third of whom were territorials from Military Region 2. It was short of all categories of equipment, however; although it had enough artillerymen to man three battalions, it had no howitzers. Nevertheless, sparsely equipped and barely organized, it was ordered to deploy to Long An Province on 12 April.
A critical battle was shaping up in Long An as the 5th NVA Division, moving down from Svay Rieng Province in Cambodia, launched a strong attack near Tan An with its 275th Regiment on 9 April. The Long An territorials fought well and were reinforced from IV Corps by the 12th Infantry, 7th ARVN Division. Against light losses, the 2d Battalion, 12th Infantry, killed over 100 members of the 275th NVA Regiment, forcing its commander to ask for reinforcement. The next day, the NVA attacked the Can Dot airfield in Tan An and, after closing Highway 4, were driven off with heavy losses by Long An territorials. In two subsequent days of heavy fighting, the three Long An battalions, the 301st, 322d, and 330th, accounted for over 120 enemy killed and 2 captured. Meanwhile, the 12th ARVN Regiment, fighting two regiments of the 5th NVA Division, killed over 350 and captured 16. Into this combat the JGS sent the reconstituted 22d Division, the first battalion arriving on 12 April and two more following later. To provide unity of command against the 5th NVA Division, the JGS adjusted the boundary between III and IV Corps, giving the Tan An battle area to IV Corps.
The NVA kept the pressure on Bien Hoa and Tay Ninh Provinces, primarily with frequent heavy attacks by fire during the first two weeks of April. Rockets hit Bien Hoa Air Base and the military training center and schools at Bear Cat, while Tay Ninh was struck repeatedly by 105-mm. and 155-mm. artillery as well as rockets. The ARVN clung to Khiem Hanh, maintaining control of Trang Bang and Cu Chi, but skirmishes with enemy forces were frequent. Meanwhile, the final major battle of the war was taking shape at Xuan Loc.
The South Vietnamese fought splendidly at Xuan Loc, but the NVA high command used the battle as a "meat grinder," sacrificing its own units to destroy irreplaceable ARVN forces. Meanwhile I Corps could slip to the west and set the stage for an assault on Saigon.
After the first NVA attempt to seize Xuan Loc had been soundly repulsed, the 341st NVA Division on 9 April began a second assault on the town, defended by the 18th ARVN Division. Infantry and tanks were preceded by an artillery bombardment of about 4,000 rounds, one of the heaviest in the war. With tanks firing down the streets, hand-to-hand fighting developed in a fierce battle that lasted until dusk. By that time, the 43d ARVN Infantry had driven most of the shattered enemy force from the town, and the 52d ARVN Infantry base on Route 20 was still in friendly hands. The enemy resumed the attack the next day, this time committing the 165th Regiment of the 7th NVA Division along with regiments of the 6th and 341st NVA Divisions. Again the attack failed.
West of Xuan Loc, between Trang Bom and the intersection of Highways 1 and 20, the ARVN 322d Task Force and 1st Airborne Brigade (two battalions) were trying to force their way east against stiff resistance.
The NVA attacked the rear base of the 52d ARVN Infantry on Route 20, the 43d Infantry in the Xuan Loc, and the 82d Ranger Battalion on 11 April, the third day of the battle. At that time, the battalion of the 48th Infantry securing Ham Tan went back to Xuan Loc, and the 1st Airborne Brigade moved in closer to the town. Task Force 322 was making very slow progress opening the road from Trang Bom to Xuan Loc, and General Toan ordered Task Force 315 from Cu Chi to reinforce.
On the 12th, battalions of the 52d ARVN Infantry were still in heavy fighting north of Xuan Loc, but the town, although demolished, was still held by the 43d ARVN Infantry. NVA losses to that point were probably in excess of 800 killed, 5 captured, 300 weapons captured, and 11 T-54 tanks destroyed. ARVN casualties had been moderate. Most of the 43d ARVN Regiment was holding east of the town; the 48th was southwest; the 1st Airborne Brigade was south but moving north toward the 82d Ranger Battalion; and the 322 Task Force was on Route 1 west of the Route 20 junction, attacking toward Xuan Loc.
With the situation apparently temporarily stabilized, General Smith thought it appropriate to inform Hawaii and Washington that the RVNAF was putting up a determined and so far successful battle for Xuan Loc. He sent a message on "The Battle of Long Khanh" to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General George S. Brown, on 13 April 1975:
1. We have a victory in the making. In the battle for Long Khanh RVNAF has shown unmistakably its determination, its will and its courage o fight even though the odds are heavily weighted against them. Although the battle may have passed only through Phase 1, we can say without question that RVNAF has won round one.
2. This battle for control of the vital road junction of QL-1 and QL-20 and the province capital at Xuan Loc began on 9 April with a 3,000 round concentration of artillery, rocket and mortar fire. Outnumbered GVN forces were driven from the city and from the many villages and hamlets along QL-20. ARVN quickly counterattacked and by nightfall on the first day of the battle had driven most of the enemy from Xuan Loc, although NVA troops still occupied many hamlets and villages.
3. As the battle progressed, it became clear that the enemy was determined to destroy the defenders and occupy this eastern gateway to Bien Hoa at all costs. By the third day of the battle, elements of three NVA divisions were committed.
4. This morning, the beginning of the fifth day of the battle, ARVN still holds its positions. It has reinforced and now has all regiments of the 18th Div, the 1st Airborne Bde, two Ranger Bns, three RF Bns and two armored task forces in the battle area. ARVN means to stay. VNAF has provided continuous outstanding close support. Enemy losses have been staggering. Even after adjusting for possible double-counting, enemy killed and left on the battlefield exceed 1200. The equivalent of a tank Bn has been wiped out; nearly 30 tanks. Over 200 weapons have been captured including a 37 gun, ten mortars, several recoilless guns and 25 B-40 grenade launchers.
5. The valor and aggressiveness of GVN troops, especially the Long Khanh Regional Forces, is certainly indicative that these soldiers, adequately equipped and properly led, are, man-for-man, vastly superior to their adversaries. The battle for Xuan Loc appears to settle for the time being the question "will ARVN fight."
The message made well the point that the South Vietnamese in Long Khanh were indeed fighting to the death for their country. It was a great cooperative effort between the ARVN and the VNAF that enabled the 18th Division, the 1st Airborne Brigade, and the Rangers to hold on. Two resupply missions were flown into the besieged town; on 12 April, CH-47 helicopters brought in 93 tons of artillery ammunition and followed with 100 tons the next day. Meanwhile, the VNAF reactivated some A1-E fighter-bombers and used a modified C-130 transport to drop 15,000-pound bombs (flown in by the U.S. Air Force) on enemy positions. These airplanes, flying against intense antiaircraft fire, took a heavy toll of the NVA divisions around Xuan Loc.
The NVA assault resumed on 13 April. By this time, seven of the nine regiments of the 6th, 7th, and 341st Divisions had been committed to the Long Khanh battle. The attack began at 0450 against the headquarters and 1st Battalion, 43d ARVN Infantry, and lasted until 0930. When the enemy withdrew, he left 235 dead and about 30 weapons on the field. The attack picked up again at noon and lasted until 1500, but the 43d, with heavy VNAF support held.
Meanwhile, the 1st Airborne Brigade continued to attack north toward Xuan Loc, and Task Force 322, now reinforced by the 315th and 316th Task Forces, struck from the west. VNAF observers had discovered two batteries of 130-mm.guns northeast of Xuan Loc and took them under attack.
The NVA continued sending additional forces into Military Region 3. The I Corps from Thanh Hoa Province in North Vietnam set up its headquarters in Phuoc Long along with the 312th, 320B, 325th, and 338th Divisions. The 312th stayed with corps headquarters in Phuoc Long, but the 320B and 325th moved to Long Khanh where the 325th entered the battle on 15 April. The 10th and 304th Divisions were also on the march toward Saigon from Military Region 2. Aerial photography revealed a major concentration of antiaircraft artillery, including radar-controlled 85-mm. and 37-mm. guns around Don Luan, as well as SA-2 missile transporters and equipment on Route 14 south of Quang Duc.
The JGS and the ARVN III Corps bolstered the inner defenses of Saigon while the battle continued on the vital eastern approaches at Xuan Loc. General Ba, commanding the 25th ARVN Division, put a forward command post with his 50th Infantry Regiment at Go Dau Ha. In Tay Ninh City he had the 49th Infantry and the headquarters and one battalion of the 46th Infantry. The balance of the 46th was on Route 22 between Tay Ninh City and Go Dau Ha.
The inner defenses of Saigon were manned by territorials and a few regular formations, some of which had been recently reconstituted. Three Ranger groups were on the western approaches. The new 8th Ranger Group had its 1,600-man force near Phu Lam on the edge of Saigon where Route 4 enters the city from the Mekong Delta. Southwest of Phu Lam on Route 4 near Binh Chanh was the 6th Ranger Group, recently reorganized with about 2,600 men. North of the city was the newly organized 9th Ranger Group with about 1,900 men protecting Hoc Mon District only five kilometers north of Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Each group had four 105-mm. howitzers but little fire-direction equipment, and all were short of radios and machine guns. The Rangers and territorials in Hoc Mon intercepted a 100-man NVA group on 14 April, capturing five soldiers from the 115th Sapper Regiment, 27th Sapper Division, and killing 11 others. The sappers were accompanying a special group of terrorists and propagandists whose mission was to start uprisings in Go Vap near Tan Son Nhut. Liberation radio had been calling for popular uprisings since 11 April, but these appeals, like all others in past offensives, were ignored by the population.
The eastern and southeastern approaches to Saigon were anchored at Long Binh by a brigade of marines. The exhausted 18th ARVN Division was falling back from Xuan Loc through Trang Bom toward Bien Hoa City by 15 April, and Long Binh would soon become the front line on the east.
On the west, although Long An territorials and the 12th ARVN Infantry were still holding at Tan An, NVA artillery moved in close enough to Saigon to blast Phu Lam with 122-mm. rockets on 18 April. A large ARVN radio transmitter site was located near the Route 4 road junction at Phu Lam. Two barracks housing the troops and their dependents were demolished. This attack, only seven kilometers south of the Tan Son Nhut runways and the offices of the Defense Attache, emphasized the serious threat to the city. The enemy attack plan called for severing Route 4 near Binh Chanh. Here they would prevent the 7th and 9th ARVN Divisions from moving up Route 4 to assist in the defense of the city, and from Binh Chanh sappers and terrorist teams would infiltrate through Phu Lam to Tan Son Nhut and Saigon.
In Long An Province, the 5th NVA Division persisted in heavy attacks along the old Military Region 3 and 4 boundary, but by 15 April was forced to pull back to the northwest. The 12th ARVN Infantry had inflicted heavy losses on the 6th and 275th NVA Regiments near Tan An. By this time, small, ill-equipped battalions of the reconstituted 41st and 42d Regiments, 22d ARVN Division, had been deployed in Ben Luc and Tan An. But the NVA force was growing rapidly. Elements of five NVA divisions were now in Long An and southwestern Hau Nghia: the 3d, 5th, 8th, and 9th Infantry Divisions and the 27th Sapper Division. Additionally, the 262d Antiaircraft Regiment and the 71st Antiaircraft Brigade had batteries near the Long An-Hau Nghia boundary.
Far to the east and north of the capital, the final battles for Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan Provinces were being fought. Major attacks by the 3d NVA Division, down from its successes in Binh Dinh Province, began on 14 April against the reconstituted battalions of the 2d ARVN Division, the 31st Ranger Group and the territorials. The attacks were repulsed on the 14th and 15th, but the defenders were finally overwhelmed on 16 April and Phan Rang was lost. The last of the 6th Air Division abandoned the airfield with the remaining flyable airplanes, leaving four AC-119s and two A-37s to the enemy.
Binh Thuan Province held out for two additional days, but Phan Thiet fell on 18 April. Some of the best territorial troops in the country had put up one of the most determined and aggressive defenses of the war.
Xuan Loc was 100 kilometers west of Phan Thiet and it was here that the final decisive battle was still being fought. After a week of the toughest,continuous combat experienced since the offensive began, the 18th ARVN Division had to give ground and fight its way back toward Bien Hoa. The armored task forces on Route 1 had to pull back also; half of their equipment had been destroyed, and the 6th NVA Division was moving north of Route 1 toward Trang Bom. NVA 130-mm. gun batteries were seen in the jungles north of Route 1, also moving toward Bien Hoa and on 15 and 16 April the air base was hit, first by 122-mm. rockets, then by 122-mm. gunfire. The runway had to be closed for awhile on the 15th due to small craters and debris, but the guns on the 16th were more accurate than the rockets and damaged 6 F-5s and 14 A-37s. Sappers penetrated the base on the night of the 15th and blew up part of the ammunition storage area. That night also marked the end of the organized defense of Xuan Loc following a furious assault on ARVN positions at the junction of Routes 1 and 20. An artillery bombardment of 1,000 rounds fell on the headquarters and 3d Battalion, 52d ARVN Infantry, an artillery battalion, and elements of the 5th Armored Cavalry Squadron. Four 155-mm. and eight 105-mm. howitzers were destroyed, and the NVA infantry and tank attack forced the battered ARVN force back along Route 1. A general withdrawal began and continued until 20 April, by which time no organized ARVN forces existed east of Trang Bom. Meanwhile, the 1st Airborne Brigade, frustrated in its attack toward Xuan Loc, withdrew through the plantations and jungles toward Ba Ria in Phuoc Tuy Province, where it would defend until South Vietnam capitulated.
The Last Week
An uneasy quiet settled over the battlefields between 20 and 26 April while the enemy made plans, conducted reconnaissance, and issued orders for the final drive. Sixteen NVA divisions were now in Military Region 3 and poised for a three-pronged attack on Saigon. The Defense Attache Office at Tan Son Nhut had established an evacuation control center on 1 April and had started sending nonessential American civilian employees home on 4 April. On the 20th it began a full-scale evacuation of its personnel, dependents, and Vietnamese civilian employees.
Clinging to the hope that the North Vietnamese might stop the offensive and negotiate a settlement providing for some South Vietnamese representation, President Thieu resigned from office on 21 April. But the removal of this long-trumpeted obstacle to reconciliation of North and South had no discernable effect. The North's successes on the battlefields and the absence of any prospect of U.S. support had left no basis for negotiation. The South no longer had anything to bargain with.
Preparations complete, the NVA resumed the attack on 26 April, with Bien Hoa the focus east of Saigon. The town and air base received heavy artillery fire, and the NVA divisions on Route 1 began moving toward Bien Hoa. South of Long Binh, Route 15 was interdicted, isolating Vung Tau, and Ba Ria fell to the NVA. DAO plans for large-scale evacuation though Vung Tau were abandoned. The NVA in Long An and Hau Nghia Provinces renewed attempts to dislodge the stubborn ARVN defenses in the west.
On 27 April, Vice President Tran Van Huong, who had succeeded President Thieu, having failed in trying to form a government with which the Communists would negotiate, was succeeded by Duong Van "Big" Minh. But this move was as irrelevant as had been Thieu's resignation.
Early in the evening of the 28th, a flight of A-37s, piloted by VNAF pilots forced into enemy service, bombed Tan Son Nhut Air Base. A number of aircraft were destroyed on the ground, but the field remained operational. The blow was more damaging psychologically than materially, although most Saigonese thought it was an attempted coup d'etat rather than an enemy action. It was the first time airpower had been used against the South and it signalled the beginning of the end.
On 29 April a heavy bombardment of Tan Son Nhut began. Rockets and artillery hit aircraft storage areas and runways, and rockets landed in the DAO compound. Cu Chi was under attack, and NVA sappers and infantry were in Go Vap, just north of Tan Son Nhut. It was clearly the time for the few remaining Americans to leave.
By dawn on 30 April the American evacuation was complete. That morning Duong Van Minh surrendered the country to the North Vietnamese Army.
Note on Sources, Chapters 15-17
General Van Tien Dung's articles on the final offensive set the stage for the action in these chapters. The factual record of the combat actions and order of battle was derived from multiple sources. Principal among them were
the following: reports of DAO Regional Liaison Officers in the field, particularly those in Military Regions 1, 2, and 3 who visited units in
combat, as well as senior commanders and staff officers, reports of the Consul Generals, particularly those at Da Nang and Nha Trang; reports of offices of the U.S. Embassy, Saigon; notes and recollections of the author, who visited each military region and had conversations with senior commanders and staff officers, DAO fact sheets and assessments prepared for General Weyand, and the author's notes and recollections of meetings with General Weyand.
The Weekly Intelligence Summaries published by DAO and J2/JGS were also used, as were the final DAO Quarterly Assessment and the report of Army Division, DAO.
Generals Vien and Truong read and commented on the deployments, plans, and combat described, and American newspaper accounts were used for statements of U.S. officials concerning the final offensive.
Most of the data on the April reconstitution was derived from the "Army Division Final Report," Vol IX: "Reconstitution of Forces," Defense Attache Office, Saigon, 18 June 1975 (compiled by the Residual USDAO Saigon Office, Fort Shafter, Hawaii).
Finally, the most important single check on the accuracy of the account of this final offensive was contributed by Colonel Hoang Ngoc Lung, J2/JGS, who corrected several misconceptions and provided invaluable perspectives.