Paratroopers, check your static lines!
The Fall of Saigon was surprisingly rapid, and it revealed the Communist planning and efforts, that had been advancing for years. This article is merely an overview of events that took place in March and April, 1975
The Central Highlands, March 1975
General Dung reported on 9 January, one day after the Poltical Bureau’s conference adjourned, the Central Mililary Party Committee met to prepare military plans. 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 said, “We must definitely raise the problem of liberating Ban Me Thuot and Duc Lap. It would be absurd, if with almost five dIvisions in Ihe Central Highlands, we could not attack Ban Me Thuot.”
Comrade Vo Nguyen Giap then discussed offensive targets, objectives of the campaign, and orders for deploying forces. The Central Highlands campaign was codenamed “Campaign 275.” Comrade Vu Lang, the front commander left for the Ban Me Thuot area to assess the situation.
Isolating the Battlefield
The B-3 Front counted on surprise and overwhelming force to capture Ban Me Thuot, with diversionary attacks in Kontum and Pleiku Provinces to prolong these advantages, and prevent ARVN reinforcing. Diversions began, while the 10th, 316th, and 320th NVA Divisions converged on the initial objectives.
Campaign 275 opened on 4 March with simultaneous attacks along Route QL-19, that closed the highway at Mang Yang Pass. NVA sappers blew Bridge 12 southeast of Binh Khe, and infantry struck ARVN territorials overwatching An Khe Pass, and overran an ARVN artillery position. The Phu Cat air base received rocket fire.
While ARVN territorials and the 47th Regiment struggled against withering NVA assaults, South Vietnamese forces in Pleiku Province took rocket and mortar fire on Route QL-19 from Le Trung to Mang Yang Pass. Fire Support Bases 92, 93, and 94 were hit, and several outposts overrun. General Phu, ARVN II Corps commander, sent two battalions of 4th Ranger Group to join 2nd Armored Cavalry Brigade to clear Route QL-19, to proceed toward Mang Yang Pass. Before this was underway, FSB 94 was overrun. Meanwhile, NVA rockets hit Pleiku air base, causing heavy damage.
While these events deceived General Phu into thinking Pleiku was the main NVA goal, Communists interdicted Route QL-21, by blowing two bridges and overrunning an outpost between the Darlac boundary and Khanh Duong, thus isolating the Central Highlands battlefield.
At II Corps HQ, the G-2, Col. Trinh Tieu insisted that Ban Me Thuot was the main NVA objective, based on signs that 320th Division shifted south. But, General Phu still believed it was Pleiku, based on current enemy attacks, and would not weaken this front to reinforce Ban Me Thuot.
Main Attack on Ban Me Thout
The first direct Campaign 275 blow came when elements of 9th Regiment struck Buon Blech. The 45th ARVN Regiment made contact, and fighting ensued, but Route QL-14 was now blocked.
The NVA 10th Division attacked south of Ban Me Thout, and although repulsed by Rangers at Kien Duc, and territorials at Duc Lap, they drove the 53rd ARVN Regiment from the Dak Song crossroads.
Now convinced Darlac was the main battlefield, General Phu asked JGS for an additional Ranger group, but was turned down. He pulled 72nd and 96th Ranger Battalions from Chu Pao Pass and Kontum, and flew them to Buon Ho, where they were to be trucked 35 km to Ban Me Thuot.
Rocket and artillery fire fell on Ban Me Thuot on 10 March, and by midmorning, 320th NVA Division elements penetrated the city. Fighting at the airfield destroyed two dozen aircraft. Rocket attacks on Pleiku and Kontum caused streams of refugees to flee south. Long lines at Kontum’s air terminal formed, as residents sought tickets to Pleiku and points south. By nightfall, the NVA had a firm hold on Ban Me Thuot, while remaining ARVN remnants held outlying positions to the south.
The ARVN 23rd Division command post fought along with 53rd Infantry to 11 March, even though province chief Nguyen Cong Luat was captured.
On 14 March, General Phu flew to Cam Ranh to meet with President Thieu, who outlined a last-ditch concept to retake Ban Me Thuot, using troops at Kontum and Pleiku, and 22nd Division from Binh Dinh.
Already, ARVN General Tat was ordered to evacuate Kontum and Pleiku, down Route 7B to the coast at Tuy Hoa.
23d Division’s counterattack was thrwarted by 10th NVA Division, when they intercepted and shattered 45th ARVN Infantry, short of its planned link-up. Withdrawing survivors of the 23rd Division were pushed eastward to Khanh Duong
The evacuation of all South Vietnamese forces from the highland provinces had begun on 19 March.
Campaign Series Vietnam will feature a scenario titled: Battle of Ban Me Thuot – March 3 – 18, 1975
The Final Offensive in the North
On 8 March, the NVA attacked in three northern provinces of MR-1, Quang Tri, Thua Thien, and Quang Nam. In Quang Tin, attacks began two days later, and the offensive was delayed in Quang Ngai.
The strongest attacks were in Quang Tri Province against outposts and hamlets of the coastal lowlands. The 110th ARVN RF Battalion held its ground in the southwest, but the NVA gained control of seven hamlets in southern Quang Tri and northern Thua Thien, sending refugees streaming southward to Hue. But, with tanks and armored personnel carriers, an ARVN task force composed of the 8th Airborne, 112th. and 120th RF Battalions drove the enemy from these areas by afternoon on 9 March.
The North Vietnamese also infiltrated the coastal lowlands of Thua Thien. Southeast of Hue, the NVA 324B Division began attacking, swarming over the surrounding hills. ARVN held on Hill 121, but 1st Battalion, 1st Infantry was shattered and driven from Hill 224, and Hill 50 southwest of Nui Bong was lost. Brig. Gen. Nguyen Van Diem, commander of 1st ARVN Division, dispatched the 15th Ranger Group to reinforce the line. The next day, a POW explained that 325th NVA Division moved south to join attacks in Phu Loc District, just a few km south of the Phu Bai Airbase.
NVA troops supported by 20 tanks attacked the Marine Division in the Song Bo corridor, northwest of Hue. In two days of heavy fighting, the 147th Marine Brigade killed more than 200 enemy, and destroyed two tanks.
NVA sappers penetrated Da Nang on 8 March, firing RPGs into Hon Yang District offices. Rockets hit the air base destroying a new F-5E. NVA infantry assaults against ARVN 3rd Infantry Division, and the Airborne Division were repelled, but sappers got through, and blew the Route 540 bridge north of Dai Loc.
The Quang Tin Province situation was serious, with NVA 2nd Division attacks on Tien Phuoc and Hau Duc, and overunning 102nd RF Battalion on 10 March. Refugees surged into Tam Ky, the provincial capital, which was hit by 122-mm rockets. General Nhut, commanding 2nd ARVN Division, organized a relief column, pushing out from Tam Ky to protect the withdrawal of territorials and refugees from Tien Phuoc.
In addition to the 37th and 39th Ranger battalions in the relief column, General Nhut sent the 5th Infantry Regiment, plus two RF battalions, the 115th and 135th, and the 21st Ranger Battalion to postions west of Tam Ky. This totals eight combat-ready battalions there.
Airborne Division Transfer to Saigon
General Truong, I Corps commander was now faced a more serious problem. On 12 March, he was ordered to send the Airborne Division to Saigon. He called General Vien to protest, but was informed that President Thieu wanted it for the offensive to retake Ban Me Thuot. General Vien suggested that a new Marine Brigade might be sent north to replace the Airborne Division.
Truong decided to pull the Marine Division out of Quang Tri, and shift it south to cover Phu Loc and Da Nang. The 14th Ranger Group would move north to relieve the marines. Also, one regiment from Nghia Hanh was sent to reinforce Tam Ky.
General Truong flew to Saigon on 13 March for a secret meeting with President Thieu, Prime Minister Khiem, and General Vien. He was told about the highlands evacuation, and ordered to plan for eventual evacuation of Military Region I. Thieu considered Da Nang the most important, but the rest could be sacrificed.
More bad news came as NVA overran overrun two RF strongpoints of the My Chanh Line. Farther south, Marines fought off attacks, while around Hue, 1st ARVN Division’s troops regained FSB Bastogne after NVA troops grabbed it. Heavy fighting continued southwest of Tam Ky, with NVA tanks joining the fight, and Rangers locked in close combat, and in danger of being overrun.
On 14 March, Truong explained to General Thi, and General Lan, the Marine Division commander, plans to pull all combat forces into Quang Nam, and defend Da Nang with Marines. Rangers at Song Ba and Tra Bong were given evacuation orders.
The 14th Ranger Group began relieving Marines in Quang Tri on 15 March, while one marine brigade remained at the Song Bo defenses. They anticipated mass mass civilian exodus from Quang Tri. The 369th Marine Brigade was deployed to Quang Nam.
The NVA attacked strongly throughout Quang Ngai on 14 and 15 March, overrunning outposts all around the province capital. 6th Infantry Regiment remained Nghia Hanh protect Quang Ngai City.
Only 70th Ranger and 3/4 Battalions remained south of Mo Duc. On 16 March, NVA attacks destroyed five PF platoons north of Binh Son and closed Route 1.
A collapse was imminent in Quang Tin and Quang Ngai Provinces, while shifting units in Quang Tri continued. The Marine Division command post was set up at Marble Mountain Airfield at Da Nang on 18 March. 175-mm guns and a M48 tank company begin moving south to Da Nang.
On 18 March, Prime Minister Khiem flew to Da Nang, and explained to Truong plans for a new national strategy, since evacuation from Pleiku and Kontum had begun. The goal was a truncated Vietnam anchored in the north at Ban Me Thuot. This required salvaging forces now under savage attack. It had to be done quickly, as already the NVA offensive in Tay Ninh was gathering momentum.
No additional troops would be sent to MR-1, and the promised marine brigade would remain in Saigon. The Prime Minister left for Saigon, and next day General Truong went there as well. He was directed to defend Hue, Da Nang, Chu Lai, and Quang Ngai City. When forced, he could surrender Chu Lai and Quang Ngai. But, he must defend Hue and Da Nang at all costs.
The 175-mm guns were halted in the Da Nang relocation, as was ammunition evacuation from Hue.
General Thi was put in charge of Hue’s defenses with Marines under Col. Tri defending the northern sector and 1st Division commander. Brig. Gen. Nguyen Van Diem, in the south. The 147th Marine Brigade was at the Song Bo corridor.
Tam Ky was struck by heavy rocket fire on 21 March. 4th Infantry Regiment moved to reinforce it from Quang Ngai, where the situation was becoming desperate, despite ARVN re-opening Route 1. Truong gave General Nhut authority to consolidate anyway he could.
NVA tanks and infantry crossed the cease-fire tine in Quang Tri, and rolled against the disintegrating resistance, reaching the My Chanh Line, and pausing for the next phase. 324B and 325th NVA Divisions assaulted ARVN positions from the Bo Corridor to Phu Loc. Heavy artillery fire fell on Hue.
The final NVA assault on Tam Ky was 24 March. Sappers breached the perimeter, and by mid morning were in the city center, blowing up the power plan!. General Truong also ordered evacuation of forces in Quang Ngai, to assemble for defense of Chu Lai. On 24 March, General Truong ordered General Thi to evacuation Hue. By then, the population of Hue was streaming toward Tan My to take any available boat or ship.
While these withdrawals were underway, General Truong was visited by a JGS delegation with orders to release the Marine Division to defend Saigon. General Truong objected. JGS suggested giving up Chu Lai, and sending 2nd Division to Da Nang. By the time he recovered remnants of the 1st and 2nd Divisions, neither were combat effective.
The situation in Da Nang on 26 March was chaotic, but 3rd ARVN Division still held in Dai Lac and Duc Duc districts against mounting pressure. NVA rockets struck a refugee camp near Da Nang.
Soon it was evident that 3rd Division could not contain NVA attacks in Quang Nam. General Truong ordered withdrawal to a shorter line within artillery range. Attempts to hold that line failed as ARVN soldiers deserted to save their families. With defeat imminent, General Truong shipped all forces, mostly marines, to Saigon. And then, he and his staff left to the rescuing fleet of boats. Da Nang, the last enclave in Military Region I, belonged to the NVA by nightfall on 30 March.
The Last Act in the South
The 1975 coordinated Communist offensive struck first at Tri Tam, seat of Dau Tieng District near Michelin Plantation. West of Tri Tam, Route 239 joined local Route LTL-26, which ran northwest into Tay Ninh. The ARVN Khiem Hanh base lay to the southwest. All traffic to Tri Tam had to pass over Routes 26 and 239 past territorial outposts. Tri Tam was defended by three RF Battalions and nine PF platoons. III Corps anticipated the attack, when 9th NVA Division was observed concentrating norlh.
The Tri Tam attack began on 11 March, with intense artillery, followed by infantry and T-54 assaults. Success was assured by severing communication lines earlier.
With Tri Tam in its possession, the NVA now controlled the Saigon River corridor from Tong Le Chon, to the ARVN outpost at Rach Bap. The ARVN base at Kheim Hanh was within artillery range. ARVN’s Khiem Hanh’s mission was preventing NVA from closing Routes QL-22 and QL-1 near the critical junction at Go Dau Ha. But, on the eve of the Tri Tam assault, three NVA battalions closed Highway 22 between Go Dau Ha and Tay Ninh. The 75th Artillery Division operated in Tay Ninh for this campaign, and the 377th NVA Antiaircraft Division provided direct infantry support.
General Toan, commanding III Corps, reacted by reinforcing at Khiem Hanh, and deployed the ARVN 3rd Armored Brigade, two Ranger battalions, and 48th Infantry. While 48th Infantry attacked west out of Go Dau Ha, 46th Infantry attacked north along Route 22. Heavy anti-aircraft fire prevented General Toan from landing his helicopter at Go Dau Ha on 13 March.
The Eastern Front
While General Toan committed a half-corps to the west, an NVA offensive erupted in the east and center. Available ARVN forces were inadequate to cope with the attacks. Since enclaves at An Loc and Chon Thanh were of no further military or political value, ARVN forces could be withdrawn. Furthermore, a new NVA division was discovered near Chon Thanh, the 341st. An Loc and Chon Thanh evacuations began on 18 March. 155-mm howitzers were destroyed, as VNAF lacked heavy-lift helicopters. Despite appearance of the 341st Division, the most critical threat developed in the east.
Just before the NVA attacked, 18th ARVN Division was spread in several areas: Xuan Loc, Dinh Quan, Hoai Duc, and Bien Hoa. The Long Khanh-Binh Tuy campaign began along two principal Highways, QL-1 and QL-20, striking outposts east of Xuan Loc. On 17 March, 7th NVA Division initiated one of the bloodiest battles of the war, the battle for Xuan Loc. Anticipating the attack, General Dao, commanding 18th Division reinforced La Nga bridge the day before, but intense fire forced a withdrawal. With repeated assaults, NVA Inrantry penetrated Dinh Quan, and ARVN 43rd Infantry was forced to withdraw.
An RF company, sent to reinforce Ong Don., ran into strong resistance on Route QL-1. North of Ong Don, Gia Ray on Route 333 was attacked by 6th NVA Division elements. General Dao realized
that two NVA divisions, the 6th and 7th, were committed in Long Khanh. Sappers blew a bridge on Highway 1 on each side of the Route 332 junction, isolating all ARVN forces east or Route 332 from Xuan Loc.
Hoai Duc and Gia Ray were overrun by 6th NVA Division. General Toan responded to the expanding threat by sending 5th Armored Cavalry Squadron and a battalion from Tay Ninh to Long Khanh.
ARVN 48th Infantry was still heavily engaged near Go Dau Ha. The outer defenses of Tay Ninh and Hau Nghia began to crumble rapidly after the fall of Cau Khoi. The eastern prong of the NVA offensive in Tay Ninh was still pressing against the vital position at Khiem Hanh. On 23 March, ARVN soldiers and tanks made contact with NVA forces near Truong Mit.
A major battle on the 24th caused heavy casualties on both sides. 7th ARVN Infantry lost over 400 men, and the attacking 271st Regiment left nearly 200 dead. Artillery, tank, and automatic weapons fire was intense. The 271st was supported by a battalion of 37-mm antiaircraft guns. General Toan asked General Vien for an Airborne brigade to counterattack at Truong Mit, but Vien refused.
Withdrawal from its two enclaves in Binh Long Province was still under way.The 9th and 341st NVA Divisions attacked at Chon Thanh on 24 March. A battalion of T-54 tanks accompanied, but seven were destroyed by VNAF and defending Ranger Groups. Chon Thanh held firm, and by 27 March, the withdrawal from An Loc was complete.
As Communist forces tightened around Military Region 3, the flow of assistance was slowed by events in Washington. A House caucus resolution opposed more military aid for either Cambodia or Vietnam. Their argument was why did the Vietnamese withdraw from the highlands? The Ford administration tried to convince Congress that assistance was essential for Vietnam’s survival. At any rate, the US 7th Fleet provided huge resources in evacuation efforts.
Reorganization and Redeployment
The 48th Infantry was returned the 18th Division, and the 7th Infantry back to its division at Lai Khe. The 25th ARVN Division, elements of 3d Armored Brigade, Rangers, and territorials were responsible for defense of Tay Ninh Province. General Khuyen approved a plan for reconstitution of units from Military Regions I and 2. As of 11 April, about 40000 troops from these areas reported to camps, or were reassigned to Military Region 3.
South Vietnamese fought well at Xuan Loc, but the NVA used the battle as a “meat grinder,” sacrificing its units to destroy irreplaceable ARVN forces. Meanwhile, I Corps could slip to the west and prepare for an assault on Saigon. After the first allempt to seize Xuan Loc was repulsed, the 341st NVA Division began a second assault on 9 April.
On the 12 April, 52nd ARVN Infantry were fighting north of Xuan Loc, but the town was still held by 43rd ARVN Infantry. Two resupply missions were flown, and the VNAF reactivated some A1-Es, and used a C-130 transport to drop 15000-pound bombs, while facing intense antiaircraft fire. But, this took a heavy toll on the NVA. The NVA assault resumed 13 April, with the 6th, 7th, and 341st Divisions committed. But, the 43rd, with heavy VNAF support, held. And, for a short time, it appeared that ARVN might prevail at Xuan Loc.
The NVA continued sending additional forces into Military Region 3. I Corps set up its headquarters in Phuoc Long, but sent the 320B and 325th to Long Khanh, where Ihe 325th entered the battle on 15 April. The 10th and 304th Divisions were also on the march toward Saigon.
The approaches to Saigon were anchored at Long Binh by a marine brigade. The exhausted 18th ARVN Division fell back from Xuan Loc toward Bien Hoa by 15 April, and Long Binh would soon become the eastern front line.
Organizing Saigon Defenses
JGS and ARVN III Corps augmented Saigon defenses battles continued elswhere. General Sa, commanding the 25th ARVN Division, put 50th Infantry Regiment at Go Dau Ha. Tay Ninh City had the 49th Infantry, and 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 reconstituted. Three Ranger groups were on the western approaches.
Final Battles in Ninh Thuan and Bin Thuan Provinces
Far to the northeast of the capital, battles for Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan Provinces were fought. Attacks by the 3d NVA Division began on 14 April against 2d ARVN Division. These were repulsed on the 14th and 15th, but defenders wereoverwhelmed on 16 April, and Phan Rang was lost.
The Last Week
An uneasy quiet set in between 20 and 26 April while the NVA planned 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. On the 20 April, it began a full-scale evacuation of personnel, dependents, and Vietnamese civilian employees.
Hope that the North Vietnamese might stop the offensive and negotiate, President Thieu resigned office on 21 April. But, removal of this long-trumpeted obstacle to reconciliation had no discernible effect.
The NVA resumed attacks on 26 April, with focus on Bien Hoa, east of Saigon. After heavy artillery fire, the NVA began moving toward Bien Hoa. Route 15 was interdicted, isolating Vung Tau, and Da Ria fell. The NVA in Long An and Hau Nghia Provinces renewed attempts to dislodge ARVN defenses in the west.
On 27 April, Vice President Tran Van Huong, Thieu’s successor, failed to form a government with which the Communists would negotiate. He resigned, and was succeeded by Duong Van “Big” Minh.
On 29 April, heavy bombardment of Tan Son Nhut airfield began. Cu Chi was under attack, and NVA sappers and infantry were in Go Vap, just north of Tan Son Nhut.
By 30 April, the American evacuation was complete. That morning, Duong Van Minh surrendered the country to the North Vietnamese Army.
Truong’s Tragic Trail is the latest series of articles by David Galster that provides an overview of the events in Vietnam from 1973 until the end in 1975. The articles provide some interesting background information for the upcoming release of Campaign Series: Vietnam.