Paratroopers, check your static lines!
Which Military Region do you think gave North Vietnam its most encouragement? This article explains how their successes in MR-2 in the Central Highlands, and American weakness led to a test of wills and strategy in Phuoc Long Province.
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 to Nui Mo Tau, Nui Bong, and Hills 144, 224, 273 and 350 to the south, which formed the defensive ring protecting Phu Bai and Hue.
General Truong viewed see-saw contests for hills south of Nui Mo Tau as mere training exercises, so long as the NVA did not extend within range range of Phu Bai. But, when this occurred, protecting Hue’s air and land links with the south became urgent.
In spring 1974, 1st Division held Nui Mo Tau, Nui Bong, and Hill 144. But, Hills 273 and 350 were lost. Ammunition shortages resulted in artillery firing restrictions, so other means to soften objectives were found. In recapturing Hill 350, 3rd Infantry isolated the defenders. A few days later, the NVA 5th Regiment soldiers were out of food and supplies. When revealed by radio, the ARVN commander ordered an assault, which succeeded on the first try.
After a new II Corps HQ was formed, the NVA 324B Division now controlled five regiments: 803rd, 812th, 5th, 6th, and 271st. Meanwhile, ARVN General Truong made major adjustments, which were detrimental for Hue, moving 54th Infantry from Thua Thien to Quang Nam Province. This eliminated 1st Division’s reserves.
While General Truong shifted forces to Quang Nam, the NVA 2nd Corps moved new forces in, like the 271st Independent Regiment, which marched north from the A Shau Valley. On 28 August, NVA attacks on Nui Mo Tau and Hill 350 began. ARVN 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry held, but an adjacent position, manned by the 129th RF Battalion, collapsed. The other two battalions of ARVN 3rd Infantry were driven from their positions by the 6th and 812th NVA Regiments. In only a few hours, all ARVN summer accomplishments were erased. NVA 324B Division casualties were high, but they controlled terrain overlooking the lowlands around Phu Bai.
Heavy fighting continued into September, with strong NVA attacks against the ARVN 3rd Battalion, 51st Regiment, and 1st and 2nd Battalions of 3rd Regiment. The 6th and 803rd NVA Regiments lost 300 men and over 100 weapons, but 3rd ARVN Infantry was badly crippled.
Immediate reinforcements were needed, and General Truong ordered the 54th Infantry Regiment, and 37th Ranger Battalion to Thua Thien Province. General Thi took command of ARVN forces there, and moved 7th Airborne and 111th RF Battalions to Phu Bai. These deployments and skillful artillery fire dampened further NVA initiatives.
In a diversion to draw ARVN forces northward from Phu Loc, the NVA strongly attacked in Phong Dien, north of Hue, on 21 September. However, the South Vietnamese held firmly. The next week, renewed assaults by the 803rd NVA Regiment carried it to Nui Mo Tau, and by the end of September, the NVA consolidated its control over the high ground overlooking Phu Bai. The NVA 2nd Corps exploited this by moving 85-mm field guns to fire on Phu Bai Air Base, forcing the VNAF to suspend operations.
ARVN attempted to retake Nui Mo Tau and Nui Bong, but Typhoon Della reduced air support, and little progress was made. However, heavy ARVN artillery fire forced 6th Battalion, 6th NVA Infantry to abandon position on Hill 312, and the 803rd’s trenches were torn up. The 803rd and 812th NVA Regiments were depleted, and withdrew. 6th and 271st NVA Regiments replaced them on Nui Mo Tau and Nui Bong.
In November, heavy rains inhibited movement, and the ARVN offensive slowed considerably. For a new assault on Nui Mo Tau, General Truong authorized the reinforcement of the 54th Infantry Regiment by the 15th Ranger Group. NVA forces resisted, but on 10 December, the 1st Battalion of the 54th took one of the twin crests of Nui Mo Tau, and captured the other the following day.
Bloody skirmishing continued for weeks, and the NVA replaced the 6th Regiment with the refitted 812th. Although the NVA remained entrenched on Nui Bong, lines of communication were frequently interdicted by ARVN units in his rear. The VNAF resumed flights into Phu Bai on 13 December.
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. Reinforced NVA battalions equipped with new weapons, and replacements were in contact with ARVN outposts. Behind these, new formations of tanks were assembling, and large logistical installations constructed, protected by antiaircraft, and supplied by improved roads.
Although the state of affairs around the Imperial City of Hue were indeed foreboding, a greater tragedy emerged in Phouc Long Province.
The Last Christmas: Phuoc Long
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.”
General Dung, the Party Committee, and General Staff agreed their superiority should be exploited in a new strategy to liberate populated areas, and move from jungles and mountains into the lowlands. US aid reductions made it impossible for the puppet troops carry out their combat plan. The South Vietnamese were “forced to fight a poor man’s war,” with 60% reduced firepower from ammunition shortages, and reduced mobility from lack of aircraft, vehicles and fuel.
Would the US intervene in these new initiatives? The North Vietnamese did not think so, given the Watergate scandal and resignation of President Nixon, coupled with economic recession, inflation, and the oil crisis. Phuoc Long would be the first test of this assessment.
Phuoc Long Province was far north of Saigon on the Cambodian border, and several important COSVN tactical and logistical units were in the Be Duc/Bu Dop village complexes. NVA forces were not sufficient to threaten Phuoc Long, although they interfered with ARVN movements on major roads to Song Be and Route 14 from Quang Duc. These interdictions required ARVN to mount road clearing operations when convoys were scheduled, so they stocked enough ammunition to last a week of combat, and were supplemented by VNAF C-130s.
Phuoc Long Province’s capital was Phuoc Binh on the Song Be River. (Shown on map as Phuoc Long City) Song Be was also the name of the airfield there.
Anticipating a resupply convoy, Colonel Nguyen Tan Thanh placed the 362d RF Ballalion, reinforced with four PF platoons, and two RF companies at Duc Phong, about about halfway between Kien Duc and Phuoc Binh on Route 14. Kien Duc is about 55 km northeast of Phuoc Binh. In a brief encounter, they killed four soldiers from the 201st NVA Regiment. Although a success, presence of an NVA regiment so close to Phuoc Binh was a bad omen.
Colonel Thanh also controlled the 341st RF Battalion at Don Luan, and the 363rd RF Battalion at Bunard. 34 PF Platoons were scaltered about the hamlets around Song Be, while 14 PF platoons defended eight hamlets in the Duc Phong Subsector. At New Bo Duc, there were nine PF platoons, and a similar number were in hamlets and posts around Don Luan.
Suddenly, in December 1974, major enemy threats appeared in Tay Ninh, Long Khanh and Binh Tuy Provinces. A skirmish at Xuan Loc netted a secret document describing plans to attack Gia Ray. Attacks in Binh Tuy were made by the 812th NVA Regiment.
The ARVN III Corps ordered the 18th Infantry Division, plus the 7th Ranger Group from Xuan Loc to reinforce Binh Tuy Province.
The Last Days of Phuoc Long
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.
The first blow fell on Don Luan on 13 December 1974. NVA Assaults on Duc Phong and New Bo Duc succeeded in overrunning these posts, while Don Luan held. The Bunard post was lost next. Phuoc Binh was also under artillery attack.
Three ARVN reconnaissance companies augmented the 340th RF Battalion at Phuoc Binh, and the VNAF flew six 105-mm howitzers, ammunition, and other supplies into Song Be airfield. But, the NVA did not allow this long. Artillery fire damaged a C-130 upon landing and destroyed another.
While fighting raged at Song Be and New Be Duc, the ARVN 341st RF Battalion beat back assaults at Don Luan. The battalion lost the airstrip, but counterattacked and took it back. In the north, the only positions still in ARVN hands were the Song Be airstrip, Phuoc Binh, and the crest of Nui Ba Ra.
The crises at Phuoc Long, Tay Ninh, and Binh Tuy presented ARVN General Dong with tough choices. He had to stop NVA advances toward Tay Ninh, and hold Binh Tuy, but he well knew the political fallout of losing a provincial capital. He ordered 2d Battalion, 7th Infantry to Song Be.
On 23 December, General Dong told President Thieu’s National Security Adviser that III Corps needed part of the Airborne Division to save Phuoc Long. President Thieu refused. More grim news reached III Corps Headquarters, as the NVA 7th Division finally overran Don Luan.
Meanwhile, refugees poured into Song Be. ARVN tried to resupply, but airdrop attempts failed as none of the bundles could be recovered. Although enemy tanks had been destroyed in prior attacks, more were approaching. The ARVN 81st Airborne Rangers were sent into the battle.
As 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. ARVN artillery was out of action.
With no artillery and shattered communications, and under attack from approaching T-54 tanks, Colonel Thanh and his staff withdrew. The NVA had captured the first province capital since the 1973 cease-fire.
Pitiful little bands of Montagnards treked through the jungles to Quang Duc. Helicopters rescued about 200 men Rangers, 7th Infantry. A few members of the command group eventually reached the Bu Binh outpost. ARVN losses were staggering. Of 5400 ARVN defenders, less than 850 survived. 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.”
Campaign Series Vietnam will feature a scenario titled: Battle of Phuoc Long – December 12, 1974 – January 6, 1975
On the Second Anniversary of the Cease-Fire
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.
The complaints included:
Buildup of North Vietnamese army.
Tripled armor strength.
Extended logistics system through Laos and Cambodia.
Refused to pay share of ICCS expenses.
Increased military pressure, overrunning several areas.
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.
Military Region 1
ARVN I Corps pulled 2nd Airborne Brigade out of the line west of Hue, and placing it in reserve in Phu Lac. The Marine Division pulled two battalions out positions northwest of Hue to make a stronger reserve. 1st Division troops regained important terrain features: Hills 273, 350, 303, and Nui Bong.
Near the Nghia Hanh/ Mo Duc district border, the 2nd ARVN Division seized the high ground. and inflicted serious casualties against the 52nd NVA Brigade. 3d ARVN Division made a successful foray into in Duy Xuyen and Que Son Districts of Quang Nam, causing high casualties.
The battered forces of 324th NVA Division withdrew to their base areas southwest of Phu Loc to reorganize. 325th NVA Division was relieved on the My Chanh, and moved into Thua Thien Province. The 341st NVA Division was transformed from a training to a line infantry division, and crossed the DMZ into Quang Tri Province.
All indicators pointed to a major offensive, as the 304th and 2nd NVA Divisions conducted reconnaissance, and moved ammunition and artillery forward.
Military Region 2
In coastal Binh Dinh province, the 22d ARVN Division was seriously hurting the 3rd NVA Division at the entrance of the An Lao Valley. Later, it held all key hills at the entrance to the An Lao Valley, and repelled repeated attacks by 141st Regiment, 3d NVA Division.
The 23rd ARVN Ranger Group had reached positions 10 km north of Kontum City along Route 14. The objective, Vo Dinh, however, was beyond reach, as NVA resistance stiffened.
More significant deployments were made by NVA’s B-3 Front. The 968th Infantry Division moved from southern Laos with its 19th and 39th Regiments into Kontum. It replaced the experienced 320th NVA Division defending the Duc Co logistical center, to employ the 320th in offensive operations.
Heavy fighting flared in Kontum and Pleiku Province. For the first time since the 1972 offensive, Kontum City on 28 February, received artillery fire. The 44th ARVN Regiment and 25th Ranger Group came under strong attack in Thanh An District.
The principal ARVN infantry formations in the highlands on 3 March were:
23rd Division – HQ at Ham Rong, 12 km south of Pleiku City.
4th Ranger Group – near Pleiku
6th Ranger Group – northeast of Kontum City
21st Ranger Group – around Kontum
22rd Ranger Group – 95th Bn in Truong Nghia, 88th Bn in Ngoc Bay, 62nd Bn in Kontum
23rd Ranger Group – north of Kontum along Route 14
24th Ranger Group – 63rd Bn at Gia Nghia, 81st and 82nd Bn at Kien Duc
25th Ranger Group – in Thanh An, Pleiku
Military Region 3
18th ARVN Division’s counterattack in the Hoai Duc District progressed slowly, fully supported by VNAF air strikes, and 274lh NVA Regiment was forced to give way as casualties climbed.
General Toan tried to keep the enemy off balance with periodic spoiling attacks, and in one operation the 5th ARVN Division began to clear Route 13 from Lai Khe, to link up with the RF and Rangers at Chon Thanh.
Rangers and Regional Forces in northern Bien Hoa Province made raids to prevent NVA rocket artillery batteries getting in range of the airbase, and to disrupt 7th NVA Division operations in Tan Uyen.
In January, the 25th ARVN Division launched an operation to retake Nui Ba Den, but the airmobile assault faltered under withering anti-aircraft fire, and it became apparent that retaking Nui Ba Den was beyond III Corps resources.
To deal with the formidable threat on his western flank, General Toan changed dispositions to make 25th ARVN Division more mobile, and assigned responsibility for static posts to Tay Ninh Regional Forces, which placed 8 RF battalions and 7 separate RF companies along lines of communication and approaches to the city.
To the southwest, at Tan An in Long An Province, astride Highway 4, the newly organized 4th Marine Brigade was deployed.the 5th NVA Division, three local battalions, and a separate regiment concentrated to the southwest, ready to cut Routes I and 22 at Go Dau Ha.
The 6th and 7th NVA Divisions conducted reconnaissance in prepartion for combat in Long Khanh and Bien Hoa.
The new 3rd NVA Division, fresh from its victory at Phuoc Long, was north of Go Dau Ha, while the veleran 9th Division was near the Michelin Plantation, preparing to assault Tri Tam.
Military Region 4
Consistent with the NVA’s program to consolidate independent ballalions and regiments into larger formations, they created 4th Division in Chuong Thien Province, and 8th Division in Kien Tuong and Dinh Tuong Provinces.
ARVN held on tenaciously to Tri Phap bases against attacks launched by the Z-18 and 24th NVA Regiments of the 8th Division.
In January, the 5th NVA Division suffered high casualties, and gained very little against the 7th ARVN Division in Kien Tuong Province, along the Cambodian Svay Rieng border.
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.