Paratroopers, check your static lines!
The year of 1974 was very decisive, and the South Vietnamese won some important battles. But, as this article explains, the NVA gained several strategic advantages portending the final 1975 outcome.
1974, Year or Decision
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.
The American DAO in Saigon believed that North Vietnam had three options to conquer South Vietnam: A political one, which would create a recognized and competitive government in South Vietnam, or starting a limited military offensive creating situations the South could not handle, or a major military offensive causing immediate collapse of the Saigon government.
Hanoi’s leaders knew of declining US support, and were emboldened. The DAO assessed that the political option would be indecisive, as VC infrastructure was too weak. Also, the NVA was not yet ready for a major offensive, because some NVA units were far understrength. So they were expected to continue political and economic actions, and develop militarily for eventual victory.
In early 1974, Hanoi’s military leaders studied the resolutions of the Lao Dong Party Central Committee’s 21st Plenum. Indeed, strategic concepts stated by this council paralleled remarkably to the DAO assessment. General Van Tien Dung described the situation as viewed from Hanoi: “. . . revolution may develop through various transitional stages. It can only achieve success by way of military violence with political support. . .If the war resumes on a large scale, a revolution will be waged to win total victory. Our forces must grasp the concept of strategic offensive. . .”
Tri Phap and Svay Rieng Campaigns
NVA orders went to the various fronts, with training and maintenance preparations in the North, and offensive operations in the South. Major events occurred in each military region. Only in the Mekong delta, and Svay Rieng Province did the RVNAF emerge victorious.
Cambodia’s Svay Rieng Province extends into South Vietnam 97 km to Parrot’s Beak, 48 km west of Saigon. The NVA controlled most of this area. From the South Vietnamese perspective, Svay Rieng and sizable NVA forces was a serious threat to their adjacent provinces. Also, it was a source of NVA infiltration into the delta. The RVNAF maintained outposts close to this border.
However, the South Vietnamese immediate concern was in Kien Tuong Province, south of Svay Rieng. The NVA Z-18 and Z-I5 regiments occupied an area called Tri Phap. They operated major infiltration corridors, and a logistical system there.
In January 1974, ARVN intelligence indicated that elements of the NVA 5th were ordered to Dinh Tuong Province, south of Kien Tuong. Time was critical. If the 5th were allowed to occupy Tri Phap, it would be extremely difficult for ARVN to dig out, and the threat to Route 4 would become intolerable. Maj. Gen. Nguyen Vinh Nghi, commander of ARVN IV Corps and MR 4, decided to drive Z-18 and Z-15 out, and reinforce Tri Phap before 5th NVA elements arrived.
On 12 February, ARVN 12th Infantry Regiment, 7th Division attacked through Tri Phap from the east and advanced to the Kien Phong-Dien Tuong boundary. Three days later, ARVN 14th Infantry Regiment, 9th Division attacked east from My An, and linked up with 12th Infantry.
This two-pronged attack was followed on the 19th by an attack by ARVN 10th Infantry Regiment from Hau My to the north to clear the southern edge of Tri Phap. NVA forces were enveloped, and suffered heavy losses. The NVA 6th Battalion, 174th Infantry was also identified in the pocket. It was a 5th Division element.
NVA casualties were heavy, with over 500 killed. ARVN captured tons of ammunition and 200 weapons, while their own losses were light. Fighting flared until the end of March, as ARVN kept up the pressure. In successive weeks, ARVN killed another 250 NVA.
After the loss in Trip Phap, COSVN ordered the NVA 5th division to assemble forces in Svay Rieng. From the Chi Phu base, it could direct forces against southern Tay Ninh, Hau Nghia, and Kien Tuong.
Svay Rieng has two minor prominences, whose shapes suggest their names. On the southwest side was the so-called Elephant’s Foot. Opposite this, bordering Tay Ninh and Hau Nghia Provinces, was the Angel’s Wing spread toward Go Dau Ha. Two battalions of the 6th Regiment, and divisional artillery assembled there.
On 27 March, these NVA battalions attacked the RVNAF Duc Hue base. NVA 105-mm howitzers and heavy mortars also fired at the garrison. The ARVN 83rd Ranger Battalion repulsed this assault.
The NVA battalions continued a loose siege of Duc Hue, assisted by the local sapper battalion. They blocked the only land access, and continued artillery bombardment.
The ARVN 25th Division committed a task force to break the siege. This consisted of a battalion each from the 46th and 50th Regiments, and a tank company. Fighting raged several days, while VNAF provided effective air support. The ARVN task force command post was hit by 107-mm rocket fire, and the commander was also killed.
As April wore on, the threat of renewed assaults on Duc Hue remained. The situation was dangerous because the 7th and 9th NVA Divisions probed aggressively in the eastern part of MR-3. Lt. Gen. Pham Quoc Thuan, III Corps Commander, decided to reduce the threat to his western flank, and the Tay Ninh corridor while there was an opportunity.
Phase I began with 45 sorties striking NVA bases in Cambodia. This continued to 28 April, and included two RF battalions sweeping into Angel’s Wing. Meanwhile, the 49th Regiment and 7th Ranger Group advanced westward, past Duc Hue to the Cambodian frontier. Three RF battalions provided security in northern Long An Province.
Another Phase I supporting maneuver was an ARVN thrust into Svay Rieng Province south of Elephant’s Foot by two MR-4 battalions. They advanced from Moc Hoa, and established blocking positions at local Route 1012.
While ARVN Phase I was ongoing, the NVA struck Long Khot in Elephant’s Foot. The defenders held against the NVA’s 275th Regiment and 25th Sapper Battalion. 100 sorties were flown against NVA positions in Svay Rieng, and many in support of Long Khot. Numerous enemy weapons were captured, and 75 NVA soldiers killed.
Phase II involved armored sweeps through Cambodian NVA bases. Three Task Forces drove west from Go Dau Ha, and penetrated 15 km Svay Rieng before wheeling south down into Hau Nghia Province.
Each of the Task Forces, TF 315, 318, and 310, consisted of an armored cavalry squadron and an infantry or Ranger battalion. TF 322 was a strong reserve, ready to exploit any opportunities, and had a tank battalion, cavalry troop, infantry battalion and howitzer battery. The 18th and 25th Infantry Divisions, and 7th Ranger Group provided units for the task forces.
By 29 April, TF 315 penetrated 7 km into Cambodia. TF 318 experienced similar success, killing nearly 60 and capturing 5. The following morning, TF 315 continued the attack, killing 40 more. Meanwhile, the VNAF pounded NVA positions with nearly 200 sorties. Many lucrative enemy contacts were also made by TF 310 maneuvers.
Task Force 322 was committed, and advanced 4 km into the center of Angel’s Wing. Infantry battalions of the 25th ARVN Division continued their sweep between Duc Hue and Go Dau Ha. By 6 May, the land route to Duc Hue was secure. 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.
On 5 April the NVA 3rd Battalion, 141st Regiment, with the division’s 28th Sapper and 22nd Artillery Battalion supporting, overran the Chi Linh base, defended by the ARVN 215th RF Company with a two 105-mm howitzers.
Tong Le Chon had been under siege since the cease-fire. By March 1974, the situation was becoming desperate for the defending 92nd Ranger Battalion. Resupply was by parachute drop only. Morale was deteriorating.
Rescue was not practical. After all, how could an ARVN division be expected to punch through from An Loc to Tong Le Chon when repeated efforts to attack even a few miles north of Lai Khe had failed?
Shortly after midnight, the defenders began burning sensitive papers, and later the breakout of 277 soldiers there. Their march to An Loc, several kilometers to the northeast through jungle and enemy lines, resulted in 268 reaching friendly lines.
However, larger and more critical attacks were in Binh Duong Province. The NVA’s strategic raids campaign began on 16 May with coordinated attacks by the 7th and 9th NVA Divisions on Phu Giao and Ben Cat.
The NVA main objective was the bridge at Phu Giao, spanning the Song Be. Capture of this bridge would isolate 5th ARVN Division’s base at Phuoc Vinh, and provide positions for subsequent attacks toward Phu Cuong, and Bien Hoa air base.
Two 7th Division NVA regiments prepared for the May offensive at Phu Giao: the 165th and the 209th. The 165th crossed the Song Be, and moved into position to attack at Bo La, south of Phu Giao, and to block Route IA. The 209th moved north to positions close to the bridge.
The 322nd RF Battalion defended Phu Giao, while 7th and 8th Regiments, ARVN 5th Division, and the 318th Task Force were in position to provide support. 8th Infantry attacked assembly areas of the 209th NVA Infantry on 15 May, and disrupted them to the extent that the 209th made a very poor showing.
7th Infantry Regiment and TF 315 moved north to break the block on Route IA. Casualties on the ARVN side were light, but the NVA lost heavily; the 209th was especially hard hit.
The 9th NVA Division was west of Route 13, and north of the Iron Triangle. Its artillery often shelled the ARVN 5th Division base at Lai Khe. But, its May campaign objectives were to strike into the Iron Triangle, sever Route 13 at Ben Cat, and open the Saigon River corridor down to Phu Hoa. By accomplishing this, its artillery could reach Tan Son Nhut Air Base, and it could put pressure on the ARVN 25th Division at Cu Chi. Cutting Route 13 at Ben Cat would isolate the Lai Khe ARVN base, and in coordination with 7th Division, threaten Phu Cuong and eventually Saigon.
The strategic Iron Triangle is enclosed on the west by the Saigon River and on the east by the Thi Thinh River. These join near Phu Hoa, at the southern point of the Triangle. The northern boundary is the parallel through Ben Cat. North of that line is heavy jungle.
The attack began with heavy artillery, rocket, and mortar concentrations falling on Rach Bap, Base 82, and An Dien on 16 May. The RF company at Base 82 abandoned its bunkers. Rach Bap held out until 0300 the following morning, and its defenders withdrew toward An Dien. Fighting was fierce in An Dien, but by the night of 17 May, NVA forces held the village and its defenses.
The NVA 272nd Regiment overran Rach Bap, and moved south into the Triangle along Route 14, while the 95C Regiment attacked Base 82 and An Dien. The 271st Regiment was held in reserve.
ARVN TF 318 arrived in Ben Cat on the 16th, and the next day reinforced the RF holding the bridge. And then began moving against NVA blocking positions west of the bridgehead.
Meanwhile TF 322 moved from Tay Ninh Province to Phu Cuong. They prepared to attack into the Triangle along Route 14 opposing the NVA 272nd Regiment, which was moving south from Rach Bap.
Six months passed before the original situation would be restored in the Iron Triangle. Operations progressed in four phases. The NVA captured the northern edge of the Triangle, and launched a column southeast to eventually approach Phu Cuong. In the second phase, 18 May to 5 June, ARVN counterattacked, and regained control of An Dien. On 4 October, ARVN completed the third phase by reoccupying Base 82. Finally, on 20 November, ARVN recaptured Rach Bap, concluding the 1974 Iron Triangle campaign.
Campaign Series Vietnam will feature a scenario titled: Iron Triangle Campaign – May- November, 1974
ARVN Command Shakeup
A major ARVN command change was made 30 October. Presidenl Thieu relieved General Thuan of MR-3 and III Corps, and replaced him with Lt. Gen. Du Quoc Dong. The II Corps Commander, Lt. Gen. Nguyen Van Toan was replaced by Maj. Gen. Pham Van Phu, and Maj. Gen. Nguyen Khoa Nam became the new commander of IV Corps, in place of Lt. Gen. Nguyen Vinh Nghi. Only I Corps was untouched, where Lt. Gen. Ngo Quang Truong retained command.
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.
Perhaps the most successful NVA thrust was at Chuong Nghia east toward Quang Ngai. As the NVA B-3 Front prepared attack Chuong Nghia, ARVN II Corps HQ moved the 254th RF Battalion to Chuong Nghia. By the end of September, the garrison had 600 defenders, comprised of the 254th, one RF Company, and nine PF platoons.
The NVA attacked the outposts on 30 September. Two 105-mm howitzers in Chuong Nghia could not adequately support the widely scattered platoons and companies. One by one, the outposts were overrun by the 28th NVA Regiment.
The final NVA assault began 3 October with heavy artillery concentrations falling on the 254th command post. The barrage was followed by an assault by a battalion of the 28th Regiment, against the 254th RF Battalion. Defensive positions were quickly overrun. Chuong Nghia was lost.
The demands for reinforcements for adjacent provinces spread ARVN very thin in Quang Ngai Province. The 2d ARVN Division, under Brig. Gen. Tran Van Nhut, had conducted successful pacification and security operations in Quang Ngai. But, the vast territory was vulnerable to guerilla attacks. Further, several ARVN outposts were far away in the hills beyond supporting or quick reinforcing distance.
ARVN’s principal Quang Ngai adversary was the 52nd NVA Brigade, with four infantry battalions, a sapper battalion, and supporting artillery. It was deployed west of National Highway 1, and south of Nghia Hanh. From there it could threaten populated areas of Mo Duc and Duc Pho, and mountain district seats at Son Ha, Tra Bong, and Minh Long, and the frontier outpost of Gia Vuc.
Augmenting 2nd ARVN Division were 12 RF battalions and 3 battalions of the 11th Ranger Group.
Unfortunately, a critical situation in Quang Nam impelled General Truong to order Maj. Gen. Le Van Nhut to send 4th Infantry Regiment to defend Que Son Valley.
Minh Long was the first district headquarters to fall during the NVA offensive. Elements of the 52nd NVA Brigade overran two RF Companies on 17 August. Outposts held by 15 local PF platoons collapsed quickly under the weight of NVA artillery.
Artillery fire on Gia Vuc began 19 September, followed by ground assaults. Five outposts fell, but Rangers moved quickly and retook three of them. But, without artillery support or air strikes, the 70th Ranger Battalion was unable to hold. The camp fell on 21 September.
The NVA strategic raids campaign accomplished three things that placed their forces in an excellent position for a major offensive. 1) Despite high losses, the campaign severely depleted ARVN forces of experienced leaders and soldiers. NVA replacements were now copious, and free from interference. 2) COSVN command, staff, logistics, and communications had been greatly expanded. The new 3rd Corps gained valuable experience in a major offensive. 3) They also held ground on the edge of the coastal plain, and were within artillery range of major South Vietnamese installations and population centers.
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.