Chapter 14 On The Second Anniversary of the Cease-Fire
Reaction to the NVA's Winter Campaign
The conquest of Phuoc Long Province was clearly the most blatant breach of the cease-fire agreement thus far. Anticipating its fall, the U.S. Department of State on 3 January 1975 asserted that the offensive "belies Hanoi's claims that it is the United States and South Vietnam who are violating the 1973 Paris truce agreements and standing in the way of peace." The PRG promptly rejected the accusation, and North Vietnam's Communist Party newspaper claimed that the offensive was "a legitimate right of riposte" in defense of the Paris agreements. On 13 January, the State Department released the text of an official protest, dated 11 January, delivered to the non-Vietnamese participants in the International Conference on Vietnam and to members of the International Commission of Control and Supervision:
The Department of State of the United States of America . . . has the honor to refer to the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Viet-Nam signed at Paris January 27, 1973, and to the Act of the International Conference on Viet-Nam signed at Paris March 2, 1973.
When the Agreement was concluded nearly two years ago, our hope was that it would provide a framework under which the Vietnamese people could make their own political choices and resolve their own problems in an atmosphere of peace. Unfortunately this hope, which was clearly shared by the Republic of Viet-Nam and the South Vietnamese people, has been frustrated by the persistent refusal of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam to abide by the agreement's most fundamental provisions. Specifically, in flagrant violation of the Agreement, the North Vietnamese and "Provisional Revolutionary Government" authorities have:
--built up the North Vietnamese main-force army in the South through the illegal infiltration of over 160,000 troops;
--tripled the strength of their armor in the South by sending in over 400 new vehicles, as well as greatly increased their artillery and antiaircraft weaponry;
--improved their military logistics system running through Laos, Cambodia and the Demilitarized Zone as well as within South Viet-Nam, and expanded their armament stockpiles;
--refused to deploy the teams which under the Agreement were to oversee the cease-fire;
--refused to pay their prescribed share of the expenses of the International Commission of Control and Supervision;
--failed to honor their commitment to cooperate in resolving the status of American and other personnel missing in action even breaking off all discussions on the matter by refusing for the past several months to meet with U.S. and Republic of Viet-Nam representatives in the Four-Party Joint Military Team;
--broken off all negotiations with the Republic of Viet-Nam including the political negotiations in Paris and the Two Party Joint Military Commission talks in Saigon answering the Republic of Viet-Nam's repeated calls for unconditional resumption of the negotiations with demands for the over throw of the government as a pre-condition for any renewed talks; and
--gradually increased their military pressure, overrunning several areas, including 11 district towns, which were clearly and unequivocally held by the Republic of Viet-Nam at the time of the cease-fire. The latest and most serious escalation of the fighting began in early December with offensives in the southern half of South Viet-Nam which have brought the level of casualties and destruction back up to what it was before the Agreement. These attacks - which included for the first time since the massive North Vietnamese 1972 offensive the overrunning of a province capital (Song Be in Phuoc Long Province) - appear to reflect a decision by Hanoi to seek once again to impose a military solution in Viet-Nam. Coming just before the second anniversary of the Agreement, this dramatically belies Hanoi's claims that it is the United States and the Republic of Viet-Nam who are violating the Agreement and standing in the way of peace.
The United States deplores the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam's turning from the path of negotiation to that of war, not only because it is a grave violation of a solemn international agreement, but also because of the cruel price it is imposing on the people of South Viet-Nam. The Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam must accept the full consequences of its actions. We are deeply concerned about the threat posed to international peace and security, to the political stability of Southeast Asia, to the progress which has been made in removing Viet-Nam as a major issue of great-power contention, and to the hopes of mankind for the building of structures of peace and the strengthening of mechanisms to avert war. We therefore reiterate our strong support for the Republic of Viet-Nam's call to the Hanoi "Provisional Revolutionary Government" side to reopen the talks in Paris and Saigon which are mandated by the Agreement. We also urge that the . . . [addressee] call upon the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam to halt its military offensive and join the Republic of Viet-Nam in re-establishing stability and seeking a political solution.
While the staffers in the State Department were putting together this carefully worded note, the North Vietnamese were claiming that the U.S. was flying reconnaissance over South Vietnam to assist the "Saigon administration to intensify its bombing and landgrabbing operations against the PRG-controlled areas." Defense Department spokesmen defended the appropriateness of U.S. aerial reconnaissance in Indochina in view of the extreme provocation by the North Vietnamese. The photography was of some intelligence value to the South Vietnamese but it was rarely, if ever, useful for targeting. U.S. reconnaissance over Laos was stopped on 4 June 1974, and a good part of the timely, detailed evidence of the flow of men and equipment into the South from North Vietnam terminated at that time.
Significantly, the President made no mention of Vietnam in his State of the Union message delivered to Congress on 15 January. In a press conference on 21 January, he said that he could foresee no circumstances in which the U.S. might actively re-enter the Vietnam War.
North Vietnamese leaders carefully analyzed the U.S. reaction to Phuoc Long, General Van Tien Dung reporting it this way:
It was obvious that the United States was in this position: Having withdrawn from Vietnam, the United States could hardly return. All the conferees [at the Politburo Conference 18 December to 8 January] analyzed the enemy's weakness which in itself heralded a new opportunity for us. To fully exploit this great opportunity we had to conduct large-scale annihilating battles to destroy and disintegrate the enemy on a large scale. [FBIS Daily Report. Asia and Pacific Vol. IV, No. 110, Sup. 38, p. 7.]
The dramatic and conclusive victory in Phuoc Long, and the passivity with which the United States reacted to it, confirmed the earlier North Vietnamese estimates that the time for the decisive blow had arrived. The concepts for the spring offensive were discussed and sharpened during this midwinter conference in Hanoi.
Military Region 1
Following the long struggle over commanding terrain south of Phu Bai, a lull in combat came to northern Military Region 1. The monsoon rains and flooding compelled both sides to limit movement, and the VNAF flew no combat sorties between 17 December and 10 January. General Truong, commanding I Corps, took advantage of the temporary calm to pull the 2d Airborne Brigade out of the line west of Hue, placing it in reserve in Phu Loc District. Although the 147th Marine Brigade assumed responsibility for the sector vacated by the 2d, the defenses west of Hue were dangerously thin. The Marine Division itself pulled two battalions out of forward positions northwest of Hue to constitute a heavier reserve and, further thinning the force, sent one company from each battalion to Saigon. These companies formed a new marine brigade for the JGS reserve. Later in the month, marine positions in Quang Tri were taken over by RF battalions, and three marine battalions were shifted south to Thua Thien Province.
By thinning out the line in northern Thua Thien, General Truong not only built up local reserves and contributed to the JGS reserve, but he also concentrated more combat power in the hills south of Phu Bai. The long campaign there continued through the month, and by 29 January, ARVN 1st Division troops were on all important terrain features: Hills 273, 350, 303, and Nui Bong. The battered forces of the 324th NVA Division withdrew to their base areas southwest of Phu Loc to reorganize and await orders for the next campaign. Meanwhile, security around Phu Bai was such that Air Vietnam, the civil airline, resumed regular flights.
After Tet the uneasy quiet that had settled over the battlefields north of the Hai Van Pass showed signs of being shattered. The 324th NVA Division concentrated south of Hue, giving up its positions in the Song Bo corridor, but even more threatening, the 325th NVA Division was relieved on the My Chanh line by local units and was apparently moving into Thua Thien Province. As if this were not enough to concern South Vietnamese commanders, the 341 st NVA Division, having been converted from a territorial and training unit to a line infantry division, crossed the DMZ from Quang Binh Province, North Vietnam.
Southern Military Region 1 was more active. After a clearing operation in the Batangan Peninsula of Quang Ngai Province, four RF battalions and a battalion of the 5th Infantry, 2d ARVN Division, lost their effectiveness, and the remainder of the 2d ARVN Division had to be moved into the Province.
Near the border of Nghia Hanh and Mo Duc Districts a 2d ARVN Division clearing operation met with greater success. In six weeks of combat against the 52d NVA Brigade, the division seized the high ground, and inflicted serious casualties.
In late January, the 3d ARVN Division conducted a successful six-day foray into contested ground in Duy Xuyen and Que Son Districts of Quang Nam, again causing high casualties. In the week after Tet, enemy attacks increased markedly in Duc Duc and Dai Loc Districts of Quang Nam, and the ARVN responded with heavy artillery concentrations and air strikes. All indicators in forward areas pointed to a major offensive as the 304th and 2d NVA Divisions, opposing the 3d ARVN Division and the 3d Airborne Brigade, conducted reconnaissance and moved ammunition and artillery forward.
Military Region 2
Ground activity was light in the Central Highlands of Military Region 2 but heavy in coastal Binh Dinh province where the 22d ARVN Division was seriously hurting the 3d NVA Division at the entrance of the An Lao Valley. These attacks were designed to preempt offensive operations by the 3d NVA Division in northern Binh Dinh.
In early January, the 40th and 42d Infantry Regiments, 22d ARVN Division, held all key hills at the entrance to the An Lao Valley and successfully repelled repeated attempts by the 141st Regiment, 3d NVA Division, to dislodge them. The 141st suffered heavy casualties and soon had to pull back. Attacks against ARVN positions diminished in intensity during February and were limited to artillery. But high casualties alone had not caused the lull; rather, a new mission had been assigned to the 3d NVA Division. The first indications of this reached General Niem, commanding the 22d ARVN Division, in early January when a prisoner of war from the 18th Signal Battalion, 3d NVA Division, disclosed the presence of a 3d Division reconnaissance party along Route 19 in the vicinity of An Khe and Binh Khe.
The Vinh Thanh Valley - sometimes called the Song Con Valley for the river which flowed south through it - ended at Binh Khe where the river turned eastward toward the sea and formed the broad fertile delta above Qui Nhon. The valley, which began in the rugged, forested highlands north of Binh Khe, was the natural avenue of approach for the 3d NVA Division to attack ARVN positions along Route 19. RVNAF reconnaissance had discovered in late February and early March that the NVA had improved and extended a road, up to eight meters wide with underwater bridges, from southern Kontum Province through the Kim Son region of Binh Dinh where it joined interprovincial Route 3A. Branches fed the base areas in the northern Vinh Thanh Valley, and heavy truck traffic was flowing into this critical area. Furthermore, a new NVA artillery regiment, the 68th, was discovered moving guns and ammunition south toward Binh Khe through the valley. It was also about this time that fresh evidence appeared that the 3d NVA had shiftedmajor elements into the Vinh Thanh region.
Fully recognizing the threat to Route 19, General Niem conferred with the Binh Dinh province chief on measures to secure the route and protect Pleiku bound convoys. General Niem had had his 47th Infantry Regiment probing north into the Vinh Thanh Valley since early February, and contacts were becoming frequent and sharp. Meanwhile, the enemy increased pressure against Phu My and Phu Cat Districts along Highway 1 with terrorist attacks in the hamlets and by rocketing Phu Cat air base on 18 February for the first time since mid-1974. The focus of NVA activity had clearly shifted from northern Binh Dinh to the passes on Route 19.
General Phu, Commanding II Corps, was particularly concerned about the threat to his principal line of communication. On 2 March, he directed General Niem to pull the 42d Regiment from positions along Highway 1 and to constitute a mobile reserve to be ready to reinforce the 47th Regiment in the An Khe Pass. The security of Highway 1 was turned over to Binh Dinh territorials.
Despite the clear indications that the enemy was shifting his center of gravity southward, General Niem kept fully half of his division in the north, opposite the An Lao Valley. On 3 March, the 22d ARVN Division command post was near Qui Nhon; the 40th Infantry Regiment was in the Phu Cu Pass on Highway 1, just south of Bong Son, and holding the high ground above and east of Hoai An; the 41st Infantry was in Bong Son, covering the entrance to the An Lao Valley, with one battalion north at Landing Zone English on Highway l; the 42d Infantry was in reserve in Phu My District, along Highway 1, while the 47th Infantry was on Route 19 with two battalions in the An Khe Pass and its 2d Battalion pushing north in the Vinh Thanh Valley. At this time the 22d Division G-2's estimate of the 3d NVA Division dispositions - which later proved to be accurate in all its essential elements - held that two battalions of the 2d Regiment and one battalion of the 141st Regiment were in the hills just north of Route 19 at the entrance of the Vinh Thanh Valley; the 12th Regiment was on the high ground south of Route 19 in the An Khe Pass, about midway between An Khe and Binh Khe; one battalion of the 2d Regiment was in the base area north of Vinh Thanh; while the other two battalions of the 141st Regiment were securing the An Lao base area in northern Binh Dinh. These were the dispositions in Binh Dinh on the eve of the final offensive.
While ground action in January in Kontum and Pleiku was limited to probes, patrols, and attacks by fire, the VNAF was busy daily striking the surge of truck convoys rolling south along new NVA logistical corridors. In one attack in early January, north of Kontum City, 17 loaded trucks were destroyed, an experience frequently repeated throughout the month and into February. Meanwhile, Arvn Ranger teams conducted several raids against the NVA pipeline. Despite the teams' tactical success, the cuts in the line were only temporary inconveniences. On the other hand, an NVA sapper raid on 9 January in Pleiku destroyed 1,500,000 gallons of assorted fuel, a heavy loss to the RVNAF's already severely strained logistics.
By 10 January, spoiling attacks by the 23d ARVN Ranger Group had reached positions 10 kilometers north of Kontum City along Route 14. The objective, Vo Dinh, however, was beyond reach, as NVA resistance stiffened. Meanwhile, in Pleiku Province, along Route 19 east of Le Trung, an NVA attack overran outposts of the 223d RF Battalion. The ARVN 45th Regiment of the 23d Division counterattacked and within a few days recaptured the original positions.
Recognizing a diminished threat in Quang Duc Province, the 271st NVA Regiment having left to participate in the Phuoc Long campaign, General Phu ordered the 53d Infantry Regiment to terminate operations there and return to the 23d Division's base at Ban Me Thuot in Darlac Province. But more significant deployments were under way in the NVA's B-3 Front. The 968th Infantry Division which had sent its 9th Infantry Regiment to Pleiku the previous January, moved from southern Laos with its 19th and 39th Regiments into Kontum and Pleiku. Although the combat effectiveness of the 968th was considered low because it had been relatively idle in the Laos panhandle for the past two years, it replaced the experienced 320th NVA Division in the defense of the Duc Co logistical center, thus permitting the B-3 Front to employ the 320th in offensive operations.
In mid-January the 320th NVA Division was noticed moving south toward Darlac, and a buildup near Ban Me Thuot was detected. On 30 January, air strikes damaged three NVA tanks in a base area north of Ban Me Thuot, and the 53d ARVN Infantry launched an operation into the area, meeting light resistance. General Phu sent the 2d Battalion, 45th Infantry, south from Pleiku to reinforce the security along Route 14 near where the Pleiku, Darlac, and Phu Bon Province boundaries met. On 4 February, near the mountain village of Buon Brieng, the battalion picked up an NVA rallier from the 48th Regiment, 320th NVA Division, who confirmed that the 320th was moving to Darlac. He said that the 320th left Duc Co about 12 January and that reconnaissance parties from both the 10th and 320th Divisions had been in Quang Duc and Darlac Provinces, respectively, in recent days.
In Darlac Province in early February, the ARVN had a forward command post of the 23d Division in Ban Me Thuot, two battalions of the 53d Infantry, one battalion of the 45th Infantry, and six of the seven Regional Force battalions belonging to the province. While the seventh RF battalion was deployed in Kontum Province, the six in Darlac were widely separated and in isolated areas. Two were around Ban Don, northwest of Ban Me Thuot; one was patrolling local Route 1 between Ban Me Thuot and Ban Don; one was in an outpost north of Ban Me Thuot on Route 430; another was securing a resettlement village on National Route 21 close to the Khanh Hoa boundary; while the sixth was south in Lac Thien District.
General Phu responded to the growing threat to Darlac Province by committing the entire 45th Infantry to the Darlac-Phu Bon border area, attempting to find and destroy the elements of the 320th NVA Division. While these operations were going on north of Ban Me Thuot, the enemy in the last two weeks of February ambushed three ARVN convoys on Route 21 east of the capital. On the last day of the month, an ARVN unit ambushed an enemy reconnaissance patrol only 12 kilometers north of Ban Me Thuot, and the G-2 of II Corps, as well as the J2 of the JGS, insisted that a major attack on Ban Me Thuot was imminent.
Heavy fighting, meanwhile, had flared in Kontum and Pleiku Province. For the first time since the 1972 offensive, Kontum City on 28 February, and again on 4 March, received an enemy artillery attack. In western Pleiku, the 44th ARVN Regiment and the 25th Ranger Group came under strong attack in Thanh An District. Sensing that the main enemy attack would be in Kontum and Pleiku, and believing that the fighting at Ban Me Thuot was a deception, General Phu recalled the 45th Regiment from Darlac to Pleiku. He also directed the 23d Division to pull its forward command post out of Ban Me Thuot and return it to Pleiku. Further, on 4 March he ordered General Niem to alert his 42d Infantry Regiment for movement to Pleiku.
These orders issued and deployments completed, General Phu settled back to await the enemy onslaught in Kontum and Pleiku. His principal infantry formations in the highlands were, on 3 March, deployed as follows:
The 23d Division - Headquarters at Ham Rong, 12 kilometers south of Pleiku City.
44th Infantry Regiment - 20 to 25 kilometers west of Pleiku City in Thanh An District.
53d Infantry Regiment - Headquarters and 1st and 3d Battalions 20 kilometers north of Ban Me Thuot; 2d Battalion at Dac Song in Quang Duc.
The II Corps Ranger Command - Headquarters at Kontum City.
4th Ranger Group - 44th Battalion near Pleiku City in reserve; 42d Battalion at Plei Bau Can (on Route 19 west of Route 14); 43d Battalion attached to the 23d Division at Ham Rong.
6th Ranger Group - 35th and 36th Battalions east and northeast of Kontum City; 51st Battalion attached to the 25th Ranger Group in Thanh An.
21st Ranger Group - with its 96th Battalion in the Chu Pao Pass between Kontum and Pleiku; 72d Battalion in reserve in Kontum; 89th Battalion attached to the 6th Ranger Group southeast of Kontum.
22d Ranger Group - 95th Battalion in Truong Nghia west of Kontum; 88th Battalion in Ngoc Bay Mountain northwest of Kontum; 62d Battalion in reserve in Kontum.
23d Ranger Group - 11th, 22d, and 23d Battalions north of Kontum along Route 14.
24th Ranger Group - 63d Battalion at Gia Nghia; 81st Battalion south of Kien Duc; 82d Battalion in Kien Duc, Quang Duc.
25th Ranger Group - 67th, 76th, and 90th Battalions in Thanh An, Pleiku.
Military Region 3
In Military Region 3, the 18th ARVN Division's counterattack to drive the NVA out of Hoai Duc District progressed slowly but steadily, amply supported by VNAF air strikes, and the 274th NVA Regiment was forced to give ground as casualties mounted. Meanwhile, leaving a small occupying force in Thanh Linh, the 812th NVA Regiment, battered by air strikes, pulled back into the safety of the deep jungle between Thanh Linh and Hoai Duc. The 33d NVA Regiment, its ranks also depleted during an intense, month-long campaign, still held roadblocks along Route 333 in mid-January but was feeling the pressure of the 18th ARVN Division battalions pushing in both directions along the road. During the last week of January 1975, the RVNAF had the road cleared from Gia Ray to Hoai Duc and by February had reoccupied the village of Vo Xu. The Binh Tuy campaign was over. Losses had been high for both sides, and the remote eastern sector of the province remained in NVA control. The RVNAF still controlled the most populous area ofthe province and had prevented the NVA 6th Division from permanently closing the provinces two major highways, National Routes 20 and 1, which passed Binh Tuy Province on the north and south.
To forestall any NVA attempt to reassert control in the recovered areas, the new III Corps commander, Lt. Gen. Nguyen Van Toan, ordered the 18th ARVN Division to maintain a sizable force in Binh Tuy, but to prepare for employment elsewhere as the corps reserve. As of mid-February, the 43d Infantry of the 18th Division was along Route 333 between Hoai Duc and Gia Huynh; the 52d Infantry headquarters with its 2d Battalion was at the division base at Xuan Loc while its 1st and 3d Battalions operated in Dinh Quan and Gia Ray, respectively; and the 48th Infantry was in corps reserve at Long Binh in Bien Hoa Province. The famine in available forces in Military Region 3 was such that even the few major elements designated as corps reserve were nearly always engaged. But this did not deter General Toan from attempting to keep the enemy off balance through periodic spoiling attacks into contested areas. One such operation was an attempt in February by the 5th ARVN Division to clear Route 13 from Lai Khe and link up with the RF and Rangers at Chon Thanh. After an auspicious beginning, however, the attack stalled, as all previous efforts had on Route 13, well short of its goal. The enemy was clearly determined to keep Route 13 closed and his own rear area intact; further, the 5th ARVN Division obviously lacked either the offensive power or will to succeed in this ambitious undertaking. (General Toan had been in the wings as Commanding General of the Armor Command since his relief from command of II Corps. Despite alleged participation in corrupt practices, he enjoyed a seemingly well-deserved reputation as a skilled and courageous commander. The fall of Phuoc Long Province sealed the fate of Lieutenant General Du Quoc Dong as III Corps Commander. Military Region 3, with Saigon at its heart, required the services of an experienced, decisive campaigner, and General Toan, no matter how tainted, was the best man available.)
III Corps Rangers and Regional Forces conducted less formidable attacks in northern Bien Hoa Province to prevent NVA rocket artillery batteries from locating within range of the airbase and to disrupt 7th NVA Division operations around Tan Uyen District. These forays met with moderate success but did not permanently affect enemy capabilities.
On 17 January, III Corps launched an operation, using the 25th ARVN Division, to retake Nui Ba Den. While artillery, helicopter gunships, and VNAF fighter-bombers pounded the NVA position, ARVN Ranger patrols searched for enemy artillery positions in the jungles north of the mountain. An airmobile assault was attempted, but NVA antiaircraft artillery and small arms fire were effective in preventing the landing. By 26 January it was apparent that retaking Nui Ba Den was beyond the resources available to III Corps. The 46th ARVN Infantry Regiment, which had moved to the base of the mountain, was withdrawn to Tay Ninh City and the operation was terminated. Aided by the excellent observation that Nui Ba Den afforded, NVA artillery continued to shell Tay Ninh City with heavy rockets and 130-mm. guns until the end of the month when the center of the province capital was virtually deserted.
A lull settled over Tay Ninh Province as the soldiers and civilians of South Vietnam prepared for Tet, which began on 11 February. But although combat declined, the enemy was very actively preparing for a major offensive in Tay Ninh and in adjoining Binh Duong and Hau Nghia Provinces. Elements of three NVA divisions, two separate infantry regiments, and a number of separate battalions, all supported by up to 10 battalions of medium and heavy artillery, moved to positions around Tay Ninh City. The 6th Regiment of the 5th NVA Division and at least three local battalions and a separate regiment, were concentrated to the southwest, ready to cut Routes 1 and 22 at Go Dau Ha. The new 3d Division, fresh from its victory at Phuoc Long, was north of the city, while the veteran 9th Division was around the Michelin Plantation, preparing to assault Tri Tam on the Tay Ninh-Binh Duong boundary. Large convoys of trucks were seen moving supplies and ammunition forward.
Faced by a formidable enemy on his western flank as he assumed command in Military Region 3, General Toan in characteristic fashion set about making decisive changes in dispositions and concepts to deal with the threat. To make the 25th ARVN Division, which covered an immense front from the Cambodian frontier nearly to the western outskirts of Saigon, more mobile, he gave responsibility for all static posts to Tay Ninh Regional Forces. Eight RF battalions and seven separate RF companies were placed along lines of communication and major approaches to the city, while the three regiments of the 25th Division conducted mobile operations in the forward areas. The 46th Infantry was east and southeast of the city; the 49th Infantry was north of the city, with battalions around Nui Ba Den; while the 50th Infantry was near Khiem Hanh, to the southeast. A company of M-41 light tanks and two troops of armored personnel carriers were in reserve near Tay Ninh City, and a reinforced company of the 81st Airborne Rangers conducted deep patrols on Nui Ba Den and into the jungle of War Zone C, north of the mountain. The division commander, Brig. Gen. Ly Tong Ba, like General Toan had a background in armor and was exercising vigorous, personal leadership in the forward areas, urging his troops to patrol more aggressively into the contested area north of the city.
Tet was over and the first days of the Year of the Cat passed into March. In the east of his sector, General Toan watched the 6th and 7th NVA Divisions conducting reconnaissance and preparing for combat in Long Khanh and Bien Hoa. In the center, his 5th Division persisted, without much success, in pushing north out of Bau Bang to link up with the Rangers, who had attacked south from Chon Thanh along Route 13. The situation was becoming tense in western Binh Duong, at Tri Tam and throughout Tay Ninh Province, but General Toan's fresh approach renewed the confidence of the 25th Division and the Tay Ninh territorials. To the southwest, at Tan An in Long An Province, astride Highway 4, the newly organized 4th Marine Brigade was deployed. Inexperienced but seasoned with a few veteran campaigners, this brigade stiffened the defenses of the Long An territorials.
Military Region 4
Consistent with its country-wide program of consolidating independent battalions and regiments into larger formations more suited to sustained conventional combat, the NVA in late 1974 organized the 4th Division in Chuong Thien Province and 8th Division in Kien Tuong and Dinh Tuong Provinces of South Vietnam's Military Region 4.
From 6-26 December 1974 Communist forces in the Mekong Delta had conducted the most widespread and intense attacks thus far in the war. They struck with greatest force in the Elephant's Foot area of Kien Tuong Province, but strong attacks also occurred along lines of communication in Dinh Tuong, Chuong Thien, Ba Xuyen, Vinh Binh, Vinh Long, and An Xuyen Provinces. Casualties on both sides were heavy; the RVNAF had over 500 killed in action, and total casualties, including wounded and missing, exceeded 3,000. On the enemy side, the best estimates placed total losses - killed, captured, and permanently disabled - at over 3,500. Despite the generally effective defense put up by the RVNAF, security in the hamlets and countryside of the southern delta deteriorated as a result of widespread attacks against isolated, lightly defended regions.
Up until the end of January 1975, the new 8th NVA Division had been largely uncommitted - only its Z-15 Regiment in northern Dinh Tuong Province had engaged in significant combat - while the veteran 5th NVA Division attempted to secure Svay Rieng border areas. During a flurry of activity in January, the 5th NVA Division suffered high casualties and gained very little, while the ARVN held on tenaciously to Tri Phap bases against probes and harassing attacks launched by the Z-18 and 24th NVA Regiments of the 8th Division.
During January violence spread throughout the delta in a pre-Tet spasm of NVA attacks on lines of communication, cities, villages and outposts. With regard to the latter, Maj. Gen. Nguyen Khoa Nam, upon assuming command of IV Corps and Military Region 4, continued to reduce the number of indefensible, isolated posts and to consolidate combat power in larger positions. Sixty-three posts in the delta were abandoned under this plan in January, while another 87 were either overrun or evacuated under pressure. Of the latter, ARVN counterattacks regained 24. The heaviest losses were in the far south, in Bac Lieu, where 23 posts were lost and only 4 retaken, and in An Xuyen, where 16 posts fell and only 2 were recovered. Half the posts voluntarily abandoned were also located in these two provinces, while the central provinces of Phong Dien and Sa Dec and the northern border sector of Kien Phong suffered very light damage. Even in the key central province of Chuong Thien, where the three regiments (D-2, 18B, and 95A) of the new 4th NVA Division operated, the ARVN lost very little; of the six posts lost to enemy attack, four were recaptured. As the second anniversary of the cease fire came and went, it was clear that the ARVN soldiers of the delta had won the January round, but at high cost. RVNAF casualties in Military Region 4 were very high.
The enemy also lost heavily, but nowhere were his casualties heavier than in the battle between the 5th NVA Division and the 7th ARVN Division in northern Kien Tuong Province along the Cambodian-Svay Rieng border. By the end of January only two ARVN positions remained in Tuyen Binh District; Long Khot outpost was overrun by elements of the 6th and 174th NVA Regiments using captured M-113 armored personnel carriers. But capturing that outpost was the last significant success the NVA would enjoy in Kien Tuong before the final offensive. Toward the end of February, the 5th NVA Division withdrew the battered 6th Regiment from action and sent it into Cambodia to receive replacements and thereafter to southern Tay Ninh Province. Replacements flowed into the 5th NVA Division in great numbers during the month while the 7th ARVN Division kept up the pressure against the 174th Regiment around Moc Hoa.
Although the ARVN was successful against NVA main forces in most of the central and northern delta, security in the southern provinces - especially in An Xuyen and Bac Lieu - continued deteriorating. Territorials were not competent to deal with the threat, and not enough regulars were available. To strengthen Military Region 4 territorials, the JGS authorized the corps commander to deactivate 16 RF battalions, 5 RF companies, and 76 PF platoons to fill the ranks of other depleted territorial units.
The Navy in the delta was in similar difficulty. Budgetary limitations had cut the number of operational units from 44 to 21, and the riverine forces could no longer provide adequate security on several major canals.
In mid-February another security problem, one with tragic overtones, arose in the northern delta. The collapse of the forces of the government of Cambodia had caused thousands to seek refuge in Chau Doc Province. More than 7,000 people, including at least 500 military, streamed across the border.
Over on the western edge of the delta, north of Rach Gia District town, ARVN regulars intercepted two NVA battalions moving down Infiltration Corridor 1-C and inflicted heavy casualties; more than 350 were killed and a large quantity of ordnance was captured.
Signs of the coming NVA offensive did not go unobserved. The Defense Attache Office, Saigon, and the American Embassy each reported in their own channels events which presaged the approaching campaign, and both were occupied with furnishing information to Washington to support the supplemental appropriation for Vietnam military assistance requested by the Ford administration. To see first-hand the situation which the White House said justified at least the $300 million requested, several members of Congress and their staff aides journeyed to Vietnam.
The first congressional visitor of the new year was Senator Sam Nunn, a member of the Armed Services Committee. His advance man was Don L. Lynch, a member of the committee staff, who arrived in Saigon on 7 January and stayed until the senator's two-day visit was over on 14 January. They were given detailed briefing by the Embassy and DAO and by General Khuyen, Chief of Staff of the JGS and Chief of the Central Logistical Command, who explained the military situation and the problems the RVNAF was facing due to the reduction of American assistance. Senator Nunn returned to the United States convinced, as was Representative Leo J. Ryan, who had visited Vietnam in late December 1974, that military aid reductions had seriously weakened the RVNAF.
President Ford requested an additional appropriation of $522 million for Vietnam and Cambodia on 28 January, $300 million of which would be for Vietnam. Accordingly, the Senate and the House of Representatives put together a joint bipartisan group to fly to Vietnam and return to report on the appropriateness of the administration's request. Two of the Congressmen, Senator Dewey F. Bartlett and Representative Paul N. McCloskey arrived in Saigon on 24 February, three days in advance of the main party, which included Representatives William V. Chappell, Donald N. Fraser, Bella Abzug, John P. Murtha, and John J. Flynt. These visiting Congressmen were accompanied by Mr. Philip C. Habib, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs; Mr. Eric von Marbod, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense; and a dozen staff aides and escorts.
Preoccupied though they were with the critical military situation, the South Vietnamese leaders prepared and presented eye-opening briefing and displays. No doors were closed to the delegation members; they were offered trips to any battlefront they wished to see. Bartlett, Murtha, and McCloskey were interested in extensive field trips. Others, particularly Abzug, wanted to see and talk to "political prisoners." The South Vietnamese arranged for such visits, although what constituted a political prisoner in this desperate, war-torn environment was a subject of no little dispute and misunderstanding.
Congressman Murtha went to Military Region 1 and, with General Truong, visited forward positions by helicopter. Congressmen Bartlett and McCloskey devoted their first two full days to extensive battlefield tours. They went first to IV Corps Headquarters at Can Tho where Representative McCloskey asked to see and was shown the compound for prisoners of war. At Dinh Tuong they visited the command post of the 12th Infantry, 7th Division. From there both Congressmen went to Da Nang and on to the headquarters of the 56th Infantry in Duc Duc, where they were briefed by General Hinh, the 3d Division commander. ARVN artillery was responding to a call for fires from a forward observer during this visit, and General Hinh explained the severe conditions imposed by the fuel and ammunition restrictions. The next day the Congressmen were given a close look at the Binh Dinh battle area, north of Bong Son, by the commander of the 22d ARVN Division. General Niem would have taken them to the crests of the hills his men held, but the road was swept by fire, and enemy shells were falling on these positions.
Back in Saigon, the JGS had prepared a display of captured enemy weapons, ammunition, and equipment, including the most modern weapons and fighting vehicles furnished by the Soviet Union and China. Only a few members of the delegation attended. Before leaving Saigon on 2 March, most of the delegation questioned the NVA and VC delegation at Tan Son Nhut about Americans missing in action.
When they departed, some members left with brief cases bulging with fact sheets prepared by DAO, the JGS, and the American Embassy on subjects they inquired about. DAO fact sheets discussed military data supporting estimates for the coming offensive.
The fact sheet on the NVA strategic reserve pointed out that since the January 1973 cease fire, North Vietnam had rebuilt and increased its strategic reserve from two divisions (the 308th and 308B) to seven, and this list did not include the 968th Division deploying from Laos into the Central Highlands. They had returned the 312th and 320B Divisions to the reserve from Quang Tri Province; brought the 31 6th back to North Vietnam from northern Laos; reconstituted the 341st Division in the southernmost province of North Vietnam; and converted the 338th Division from a training division. Furthermore, they had created a corps headquarters in Thanh Hoa Province for controlling three or more divisions plus corps armor, artillery, and air defense regiments. These changes were viewed as strong indicators of major offensive intent. The fact sheet also showed that the deployment times of these divisions were greatly shortened from those before the cease fire due to the new highways and the absence of U.S. interdiction. Within 15 days, for example, a division in North Vietnam could be moved to South Vietnam's Military Region 2 and committed to combat. Another fact sheet discussed how heavy infiltration customarily preceded and continued through major NVA offensives in the south and showed that infiltration was especially large during the first two months of 1975. More than half as many replacements would arrive in South Vietnam during the first three months of 1975 than arrived during all of 1973. Since the cease fire, 200,000 replacements had moved south, a clear sign that an offensive was in the offing.
The greatly increased size and strength of the regular NVA forces in South Vietnam was the subject of a number of fact sheets. One listed the major combat and combat support units that had entered South Vietnam or had been formed there from replacement groups since the cease fire. (It did not mention several divisions formed from independent regiments or new regiments built of previously separate battalions.) Most of them were air defense units. Although the 968th Infantry Division was on the way from Laos only its 9th Regiment (since integrated into the 320th Division) was counted among the two other known infantry regiments then new to the southern battlefield - the 36th and 41st in Quang Nam. Five other new regiments of armor, artillery, and sappers were also listed, along with four new sapper battalions.
Another fact sheet displayed DAO Saigon's estimate of the numerical strength changes that had taken place in NVA forces in South Vietnam since the cease fire. Combat units had gained 58,000 men and now had over 200,000. Combat and administrative support units had added about 30,000, for a new strength of over 100,000. Viet Cong were not included in these estimates. Armor vehicles, mostly tanks, had risen from about 100 to over 700, while the number of medium artillery pieces was over 400, up from about 100. The NVA now had twice as many tanks in South Vietnam (about 700) as did the RVNAF (352).
Papers on construction, lines of communication, supply level, and the pipeline showed that the NVA in the South had built a complex logistical system and had stockpiled enough supplies to support a major offensive for over a year. The NVA had never in the history of the war been in such a favorable logistical condition. Significantly, the RVNAF were, for the first time in the war, in an inferior position.
Besides these fact sheets, the DAO furnished the congressional delegation a paper called "Vietnam Perspective." This explained frequently unperceived influences on the relative power, flexibility, and tactical potential of the opposing armed forces. For example, although the NVA's expeditionary force in South Vietnam was less than half the size of the South's combat force, the enemy made up the difference in troops maintained in secure garrisons in North Vietnam, more than 70,000 of which were available for immediate deployment to South Vietnam. Furthermore, the NVA possessed the frequently decisive advantages of surprise and the ability to mass overwhelming force. The RVNAF, even when they were able to discover the enemy's intent in advance, were often unable to move sufficient reserves to the battle area in time to forestall defeat in detail. The NVA's advantages also accounted for its ability to accomplish its objectives through the expenditure of far less ammunition than the defenders. Through careful reconnaissance, registration, and siting of batteries in concealed locations, the attacker concentrated heavy fires on small targets, while the defender had to search great areas, cover many avenues of approach and suspected enemy positions, and use much larger amounts of ammunition in the defense. The requirements for defense of populated areas, thousands of bridges, and hundreds of miles of highway left the RVNAF with few forces available to use in deep or prolonged offensive operations.
Rounding out the set of documents furnished the delegation, the DAO presented its January 1975 threat assessment. Some pertinent paragraphs are quoted:
16. In early 1974, COSVN Resolution 12, based on resolution 21 of the Lao Dong Party which was adopted during the 21st Plenum of the Lao Dong Party in Hanoi, emerged as the basic Communist guidance relating to the South. Resolution 12 reiterated previous emphasis on strengthening revolutionary forces, stressing that, if the Communists remained strong, the GVN would be forced to implement the Paris Agreement. COSVN 12 thus reflected a somewhat conservative outlook which emphasized building Communist strength, rather than exercising it on the battlefield.
17. In August 1974 [President Nixon resigned on August 9], however, the Communists adopted a strategy envisioning a large scale offensive to defeat GVN pacification and bring about new negotiations. It called for an intense military campaign beginning in December 1974 and lasting until mid-1975. In defeating pacification, the Communist forces were to fulfill certain requirements (kill one third of the GVN's MF, RF and PF; neutralize one-half of the PSDF; and cut key LOC's) in order to accomplish certain missions: (1) liberate the bulk of the countryside; (2) increase the population in the Communist areas; (3) obtain rice; and (4) upgrade contested areas.
18. The 1974-1975 dry season campaign began dramatically in December with major attacks throughout MR-3 and MR-4, with the most visible result being the GVN loss of Phuoc Long Province. Major combat has since declined in those areas, but is expected to resume. In MR-1 and MR-2, the bulk of available intelligence indicates that major combat will soon be forthcoming. The campaign, thus, is expected to assume country-wide proportions and a number of indicators point to the introduction of strategic reserve divisions from NVN.
19. Thus, Communist strategy since the ceasefire has evolved from a rather cautious approach in the early stages, involving testing of the Paris Agreement and building up of rear areas, to one based primarily on battlefield victories to exploit the perceived weaknesses of the GVN. The COSVN resolution for 1975 heralds a return to major offensive activity as the primary means of advancing the Communist revolution to a successful conclusion. . . .
46. If reported plans are executed, the Communists will be crossing the threshold between the outpost war and an attempt to deal critical blows to RVNAF and the GVN. In the near term, the Communists will probably experience continued success, to include overrunning of some district towns; however, increased Communist losses may prove prohibitive in the long run.
47. In conclusion, despite the lack of clarity concerning a number of key indicators as regards both specific intent and timing, we anticipate a significant upsurge in combat in northern SVN, as poor weather gradually abates in late February and March, and a resumption of major attacks in MR-3, once Communists preparations are complete. The war in the Delta is expected to remain at the recent intensified levels and to reflect increasingly ambitious Communist attacks on populated areas.
The Congressional delegation's jet left Tan Son Nhut airport on 2 March. As if having waited for the delegation to depart, the NVA launched the final offensive two mornings later with attacks that severed Highway 19 between the highlands and the coast.
Note on Sources
Newspaper accounts were used for the reactions and statements of officials in the United States.
Generals Truong and Vien read this chapter and contributed valuable comments and corrections.
The final DAO Quarterly Assessment provided information concerning the visitors of early 1975, and DAO fact sheets were used to describe the prevailing situation. The January Monthly Intelligence Summary and Threat Analysis was also useful.
Finally, the author accompanied Representative McCloskey on his field trips and attended most of the briefing conducted for the congressional visitors. The author's notes and recollections were referred to in relating the events surrounding this visit.