Paratroopers, check your static lines!
After the Paris Accords, the US no longer helped defend South Vietnam. This series of articles covers the period from Ceasefire to the fall of Saigon, 1973 – 75. The first provides an overview.
First Half Year 1973
Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho signed the Paris Accords on 27 January 1973. All US forces withdrew, and a cease-fire began. Introduction of war materials further military personnel were banned.
Prior to the cease-fire, both sides sought to bring in additional equipment. The US had “Project Enhance”, which supplied equipment to the South Vietnamese armed forces, RVNAF.
The NVA had 15 Divisions in South Vietnam in January 1973, with approximately 148000 troops, while ARVN had an assigned strength of 450000. About 152000 were in 13 infantry divisions and another 10000 were in Ranger groups. The missions were different. Communist forces were solely offensive, acting against fixed bases, villages, and communication lines. ARVN forces were mostly on the defensive. The comparison is rather meaningless.
The NVA planned general attacks throughout most of South Vietnam immediately before the expected date of the cease-fire. These were known as “Landgrab 1973”, and occurred between 23 January and 3 February 1973. The area around Hue was particularly affected as the Tri-Thien-Hue Front wanted to gain a political presence and get VC legitimacy.
The NVA strategy was similar in the four military regions: Hold ARVN in place, isolate the cities, and interdict the main highways. The North Vietnamese used the landgrab for propaganda. Capture as much populated area as possible just before the cease-fire. Show the flag, and rely on NVA main forces to contain ARVN while local forces entered villages. Declare legitimacy of newly-won areas to arriving ICCS teams.
North Vietnam began a transportation effort of unprecedented size, headed south through Laos. With this, the numbers of anti-aircraft guns and artillery were greatly increased.
In MR-2, both sides developed strong positions around Kontum City. In MR-3 the NVA concentrated against Tong Le Chon, an isolated ARVN post deep in northern Tay Ninh Province. South Vietnamese conserved artillery and air power in defending outposts and communication lines.
“Cease Fire II”
On 13 June 1973 the four-party Joint Military Commission, (US, SVN, DRV, PRG), met in Paris and issued a communique calling to observe provisions of the 28 January cease-lire. This was followed by a decline in combat activity, reaching the lowest level since the “Landgrab.”
President Thieu felt the Communists were not likely to attack in strength during 1973, but would wait until the end of President Nixon’s term to launch offensives. He believed that President Nixon would intervene in such a situation.
Combat levels in Military Region 1 were relatively low, because the NVA’s northern Quang Tri and western bases and logistical routes were neither seriously threatened nor interfered with. At the close of 1973, the situation in MR-1 was such that ARVN regulars had control of major population centers and key lines of communication.
In MR-2 the situation was much hotter, as the NVA wanted to expand its hold on territory to control roads and logistics bases that approached Kontum. There were actions at Trung Nghia, and around Kontum. The NVA strove to extend its logistics corridor south along the western highlands, resulting in combat at Plei Djereng-Le Minh.
In MR-3 there were no major terrain losses for either side, but there were some areas of contact. The NVA exerted strong pressure against the Tay Ninh·Saigon corridor, with the most significant action along Highway LTL-1A between the Song Be River and Saigon. The NVA intentions were to deny roads, isolate garrisons north of the bridge, and screen movement of artillery and supplies.
The Mekong Delta had been an annual contest for the rice harvest. Most Communist rice requirements, coming from South Vietnam, were obtained from the delta. The South Vietnamese strove to interdict communication lines to prevent rice shipment to NVA delta base areas as well as Cambodian collection points, where much of it was transferred to the other military regions.
One of three principal NVA infiltration routes, corridor 1-A crossed the Cambodian frontier near the border between Kien Phong and Kien Tuong Provinces, traversed the maze of canals through the Plain of Reeds, and ended in the watery wasteland called the Tri Phap.
The Military Assistance Service Funded program for Vietnam became obsolete with the departure of American forces in January 1973. The Congress, particularly the Senate, led by Senator Kennedy of the Armed Services wanted to reduce the amount of US aid. This led to shortages for important items such as ammunition, medical supplies, and purchase of more amphibious ships like LSTs.
The critical decisions in 1974 were made in Washington and Hanoi. The US Congress reduced assistance to South Vietnam, undermining their combat power and will to continue fighting. Hanoi was encouraged by the political fall of Richard Nixon. They foresaw 1975 as the year of victory.
Hanoi’s leaders knew of declining US support, and were emboldened. In early 1974, Hanoi’s military leaders studied the resolutions of the Lao Dong Party Central Committee’s 21st Plenum. The plam was to continue political and economic actions, and develop militarily for eventual victory. General Van Tien Dung described the situation: “Our forces must grasp the concept of strategic offensive.”
NVA orders went to the various fronts, with training and maintenance preparations in the North, and offensive operations in the South. Only in the Mekong delta, and Svay Rieng Province did the RVNAF emerge victorious.
Svay Rieng and sizable NVA forces was a serious threat to their adjacent provinces. A two-pronged attack by ARVN 10th Infantry Regiment was to clear the southern edge of Tri Phap. NVA casualties were heavy, and ARVN captured tons of ammunition.
Svay Rieng has two minor prominences, Elephant’s Foot and Angel’s Wing. The NVA 5th Division assembled forces in Svay Rieng. Lt. Gen. Pham Quoc Thuan, III Corps Commander, decided to reduce the threat to his western flank. Three armored task torces drove west from Go Dau Ha, sweeping through Cambodian NVA bases. The threat to the vital road junction at Go Dau Ha was substantially reduced. ARVN was in complete control of the battlefield.
In spite of ARVN successes at Tri Phap and Svay Rieng, the North Vietnamese pressed ahead with their “strategic raids” campaign against the crucial defensive perimeter north of Saigon. The first to fall was unimportant outpost of Chi Linh. Ultimately, the NVA would attack a dozen locations in MR-3.
The NVA 141st Regiment overran the Chi Linh base. Tong Le Chon had been under siege since the cease-fire, and finally ARVN 92nd Ranger Battalion had to abandon it.
Two 7th Division NVA regiments attacked at Phu Giao, but ARVN 5th Division and the 318th Task Force thwarted this effort.
The 9th NVA Division pressed into the Iron Triangle taking Ben Cat and Rach Bap, and pushing deeper toward Saigon. But the ARVN 18th Division eventually recovered all lost ground in a several month campaign. This may have caused a major ARVN command shakeup in October.
As NVA forces conducted strategic raids north of Saigon, forces of the B·3 Front and the NVA Military Region 5 embarked on a campaign to eliminate isolaled ARVN outposts in the Central Highlands, and move into the coastal lowlands of MR-1 and 2. A successful NVA thrust was at Chuong Nghia east toward Quang Ngai.
The NVA strategic raids campaign accomplished three things that placed their forces in an excellent position for a major offensive. 1) Despite high losses, they severely depleted ARVN forces of experienced leaders and soldiers. 2) COSVN command, staff, logistics, and communications had been greatly expanded. 3) NVA gained ground on the edge of the coastal plain, and were within artillery range of major South Vietnamese installations and population centers.
The Tightening Noose
In early 1974, the NVA maintained pressure on ARVN defenses south of Hue. These skirmishes eroded the ARVN 1st Division, which protected the Phu Bai Airbase, coastal Route 1, and the Ta Trach River corridor.
The NVA infiltrated the Hai Van Ridge in October 1973, but ARVN still held on the defensive ring protecting Phu Bai and Hue. After a new II Corps HQ was formed, the NVA 324B Division now controlled five regiments that attacked th hills south of Phu Bai.
Heavy fighting continued into September, with strong NVA attacks and Bloody skirmishing against the ARVN 1st Division elements.
By making timely and appropriate deployments, General Truong was able to hold the NVA forces at bay around Hue. But, the ring was closing on the Imperial City.
The 1974 NVA campaigns were stalemated at Thua Thien and around Saigon, but had overrun isolated bases in the Central Highlands, and penetrated the Quang Nam lowlands. In the highlands, NVA forces captured Thuong Duc, a district capital, and protracted paratrooper division counterattacks were repulsed. This victory and numerous others showed the North Vietnamese high command that it was time for a bolder strategy.
General Van Tien Dung related how the “General Staff reported to the Central Military Party Committee that the combat capability of our mobile main force troops was now altogether superior to that of the enemy’s, and the war had reached its final stage, and the balance of forces had changed in our favor.” Phuoc Long would be the first test of this assessment.
Phuoc Long Province’s capital was Phuoc Binh on the Song Be River. The 301st NVA Corps ran the Phuoc Long campaign using the 3rd and 7th Divisions, a tank battalion, an artillery and anti-aircraft regiment, and several sapper units. This formidable force concentrated against four dispersed RF battalions and PF platoons. One by one, isolated garrisons came under attack and were overrun.
ARVN defended Phuoc Binh with a couple RF battalions and eventually the 7th Infantry Regiment and the 81st Airborne Rangers. But as NVA tanks rolled through the streets, and fired at ARVN positions, NVA sappers followed, mopping up bypassed positions. NVA artillery was devastating, as structures, bunkers, and trenches collapsed, and casualties mounted.
The NVA had captured the first province capital since the 1973 cease-fire. ARVN losses were staggering. The few province, village, and hamlet officials captured were summarily executed.
As expressed by one Vietnamese driver, ” . . .even the gods were weeping for Phuoc Long.”
The conquest of Phuoc Long Province was clearly the most blatant breach of the cease-fire agreement thus far. On 13 January, the US State Department released an official protest.
However, President Ford made no mention of Vietnam in his State of the Union message on 15 January. In a later press conference, he said that he could foresee no circumstances in which the US would re-enter the Vietnam War.
The dramatic Phuoc Long victory, vs the passive US response, confirmed earlier North Vietnamese estimates that the time for a major offensive was at hand. Plans for the spring offensive were made in a conference in Hanoi.
Fall of Saigon
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 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.
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.
Rocket and artillery fire fell on Ban Me Thuot on 10 March, and by midmorning, 320th NVA Division elements penetrated the city. Already, ARVN General Tat was ordered to evacuate Kontum and Pleiku, down Route 7B to the coast at Tuy Hoa. The evacuation of all South Vietnamese forces from the highland provinces had begun on 19 March.
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. General Truong, I Corps commander wasordered to send the Airborne Division to Saigon. A collapse was imminent in Quang Tin and Quang Ngai Provinces, while shifting units in Quang Tri continued.
On March 18, Truong 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 Marine Division, defending Da Nang was ordered to Saigon.
The defense of Hue was a confusing command and communication blunder. At first Thruong was told to withdraw, then later to defend Hue at all costs. But, the citizens there began fleeing once it was being hit by NVA artillery, and its defenses withdrew
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.
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.
Last act in the South
The 1975 coordinated Communist offensive struck first at Tri Tam, and in its possession, the NVA now controlled the Saigon River corridor from Tong Le Chon, to the ARVN outpost at Rach Bap.
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. Enclaves at An Loc and Chon Thanh were of no further military or political value, and ARVN forces were withdrawn.
Just before the NVA attacked, 18th ARVN Division was spread in several areas: Xuan Loc, Dinh Quan, Hoai Duc, and Bien Hoa. that two NVA divisions, the 6th and 7th, were committed in Long Khanh and the main combat was at Xuan Loc.
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.
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, to join the fight at Xuan Loc.
JGS and ARVN III Corps augmented Saigon defenses battles continued elswhere. General Sa, commanding the 25th ARVN Division, and deployed it at key strongpoints around the the city. Three Ranger Groups were set up west of Saigon, and the inner city would be defended by territorials, and a few regular formations.
Far to the northeast of the capital, battles for Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan Provinces were fought. 3rd NVA Division attacked on 14 April against 2d ARVN Division. These were initially repulsed, but defenders were overwhelmed on 16 April, and Phan Rang was lost.
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 discemable 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.
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.
“Vietnam from Cease-Fire to Capitulation”, Col. William E. Le Gro, CMH Publication 90-29
” Our Great Spring Victory”, General Van Tien Dung