Chapter 16 The Final Offensive in the North
The Offensive North of Binh Dinh
Campaign 275 in the Central Highlands was the main effort in a country-wide offensive coordinated by the North Vietnamese high command with considerable precision. Coincident with the start of the Ban Me Thuot campaign on 8 March, the NVA attacked the three northern provinces of South Vietnam's Military Region 1, Quang Tri, Thua Thien, and Quang Nam. In Quang Tin strong attacks did not begin until two days later. In Quang Ngai, the enemy's offensive was delayed, apparently by an aggressive RVNAF clearing operation, Quyet Thanh A-1-75 in Nghia Hanh District. The 4th Infantry Regiment, 2d ARVN Division, was involved in sharp fighting there on 6 and 7 March, and enemy casualties were substantial.
Initially, the strongest attack in Quang Tri Province struck territorial outposts and strong points in the foothills and the hamlets of the coastal lowlands. The 110th ARVN RF Battalion held its ground in the southwest sector of the province against a strong NVA infantry assault; moderate casualties were sustained by both sides. By 8 March, NVA and local VC were in control of seven hamlets in Hai Lang District and in southern Quang Tri and northern Thua Thien, and refugees streamed southward, until nearly the entire population of Quang Tri Province, as many as 100,000, travelled the road to Hue.
With tanks and armored personnel carriers, an ARVN task force composed of the 8th Airborne Battalion, the 112th and 120th RF Battalions, and the 921st RF Company, succeeded in driving the enemy from nearly all populated areas by afternoon on 9 March. Communist casualties were heavy and ARVN losses few in this opening phase.
The North Vietnamese infiltrated and attacked villages in the coastal lowlands of Thua Thien, as they had in Quang Tri, and vigorously assaulted RVNAF regulars protecting the approaches to Hue. Southeast of Hue regiments of the NVA 324B Division began the Thua Thien campaign attacking along an eight kilometer sector in the early morning of 8 March. Supported by intense artillery concentrations, enemy infantry swarmed over the surrounding hills. The 2d Battalion, 1st ARVN Infantry Regiment, held on Hill 121, but the 1st Battalion, 1st Infantry, was shattered and driven from Hill 224. The 2d Battalion, 54th Infantry, was initially forced to give ground but recovered its positions on Hill 144 on 9 March. The Reconnaissance Company of the 1st ARVN Division was forced from Hill 50 southwest of Nui Bong.
Brig. Gen. Nguyen Van Diem, commanding the 1st ARVN Division, reacted by dispatching the 15th Ranger Group with the 61st and 94th Ranger Battalions to reinforce the line and recover lost positions. The 61st was ambushed en route, sustained moderate losses, but recovered to join the 94th in a counterattack on 10 March. The next day, the first firm evidence (a prisoner of war) appeared that the 325th NVA Division had moved south and was in position to join the attack in Phu Loc District.
At least 20 tanks accompanied the NVA assault in the Song Bo corridor where the Marine Division had its 147th Brigade of five battalions - the 3d, 4th, 5th, and 7th Marines and the 130th RF Battalion. The attacks continued for two days and one marine position was lost but the 4th Marine Battalion recovered it on 11 March. In two days of heavy fighting, with moderate marine casualties, the 147th Brigade killed more than 200 enemy, destroyed two tanks and damaged seven, and captured many weapons.
Just as the attacks in the forward areas were stronger in Thua Thien than in Quang Tri, so were the invasions into the populated lowlands. A battalion of the 6th NVA Regiment infiltrated through Phu Loc, and two of its companies seized 12 fishing boats, which ferried them across Dam Cau Hai Bay to Vinh Loc District. There they attacked Vinh Hien Village on the southern tip of the island and swept north to attack Vinh Giang. Some of the battalion pushed into Phu Thu District east of Hue. The 8th Airborne Battalion, reinforced with two companies of the 1st Battalion, 54th Infantry, and a troop of armored cavalry, moved against the enemy battalion and badly mauled and dispersed it. On 16 March a unit of the 54th ARVN Infantry ambushed a remnant of the battalion south of Hue, killing the battalion commander, his staff, and 20 men. Five prisoners taken by the 54th Infantry said that the population gave them no support, and only 33 men, mostly wounded, remained alive in their battalion.
Other intrusions into the lowlands were made in Quang Dien and Phong Dien Districts northwest of Hue. Infiltrating NVA Troops, mostly from the 4th Independent Regiment, were also quickly eliminated by South Vietnamese counterattacks.
South of the Hai Van Pass, NVA sappers penetrated Da Nang on 8 March and fired rocket grenades into subsubsector offices of Hoa Vang District. A heavy rocket attack on Da Nang Air Base on 11 March destroyed a new F-SE fighter-bomber. Meanwhile, artillery-supported infantry assaults were launched against ARVN 3d Infantry Division, Airborne Division, and territorial positions from Dai Loc to Que Son. Nearly all NVA assaults were repelled with heavy enemy losses, but sappers were able to get through and blow the main bridge on Route 540 north of Dai Loc.
The situation in Quang Tin Province was more serious. Long-expected NVA blows against the hill districts of Tien Phuoc and Hau Duc finally fell on 10 March. Two battalions of the 31st NVA Regiment, 2d Division, attacked Tien Phuoc from the north and west, while elements of the 1st NVA Regiment struck from the south and southeast. In Hau Duc, another battalion of the 31st NVA Regiment, with supporting local forces, overran the 102d RF Battalion. Refugees from both districts began streaming into Tam Ky, the province capital, which itself was hit by NVA 122-mm. rockets on 11 March. The major RVNAF base at Chu Lai also received a rocket bombardment.
Remnants of the 116th and 134th RF Battalions, decimated in Tien Phuoc, also straggled eastward toward Tam Ky. The 135th RF Battalion left its positions on Ban Quan Mountain east of Tien Phuoc and withdrew toward Tam Ky, but left four howitzers to the enemy. The 3d Battalion, 5th ARVN Infantry, with the 115th RF Battalion, counterattacked at My Mountain, the last important high ground on Route 533 between Tam Ky and Tien Phuoc, and regained the position, only to be driven off again by intense artillery fire.
General Nhut, commanding the 2d ARVN Division, organized a relief column to push out from Tam Ky and protect the withdrawal of the territorials and civilians from Tien Phuoc. The enemy, however, held the high ground overlooking the column's approach, including a prominent hill called Nui Ngoc. On 11 March the RVNAF column, composed of the 37th and 39th Ranger Battalions and the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry, 2d ARVN Division, stalled short of Nui Ngoc.
On 12 March, General Nhut sent the 5th Infantry Regiment from Quang Ngai Province and deployed it west of Tam Ky. Its three battalions were in depth along Route 533, the forward elements just east of My Mountain. Two RF battalions, the 115th and 135th, were north of the 5th Infantry, between Route 533 and the Ranger task force below Nui Ngoc. The 21st Ranger Battalion was behind the 135th RF, west of Tam Ky. Thus, General Nhut had nine battalions west of Tam Ky, as a strong enemy was about to continue the attack toward that city. Furthermore, Tam Ky was now within range of the enemy's light artillery.
Meanwhile, in Da Nang, General Truong was facing an even more serious problem. On 12 March, he received the JGS order to pull the Airborne Division out of the line and start it moving to Saigon. The deployment was to begin on 17 March. General Truong immediately called General Vien to protest the decision but learned that President Thieu had personally directed the deployment so that the Airborne Division could participate in the offensive to retake Ban Me Thuot. General Vien told General Truong that, if possible, two battalions of the new 468th Marine Brigade and a Ranger group would be sent North to replace the Airborne Division.
To adjust to the loss of the Airborne Division, General Truong decided to pull the Marine Division out of Quang Tri and northern Thua Thien Provinces and shift it south to cover Phu Loc District and Da Nang. The 14th Ranger Group would move north to relieve the marines on 13 March. Only one marine brigade, the one in Phu Loc, would remain north of the Hai Van Pass. General Nhut would be ordered to pull one regiment out of the Quyet Thang operation in Nghia Hanh to reinforce the defense of Tam Ky. This order effectively cancelled the successful ARVN offensive in central Quang Ngai. Furthermore, General Nhut was told to defend Tam Ky at about the positions his forward battalions then occupied, such defense in effect ending the operation to return to Tien Phuoc. I Corps was to defend Hue and Da Nang, even if it had to give up Quang Tri, Quang Tin, and Quang Ngai Province. General Truong and General Thi agreed, however, that their ability to hold Hue after the Marine Division moved south was questionable indeed.
General Truong flew to Saigon on 13 March to participate in a secret meeting with President Thieu, Prime Minister Khiem, and General Vien during which Truong was told about the evacuation from the highlands and ordered to prepare a plan for the eventual evacuation of Military Region 1. He also was permitted to delay the first airborne brigade's departure to 18 March and the rest of the division until 31 March. The President's reasoning was that Da Nang was most important but that the rest of the region could be sacrificed. He would send the 468th Marine Brigade north to help defend Da Nang as soon as the Airborne Division arrived in Saigon. This division was vital to the defense of Military Regions 3 and 4, without which the Republic could no longer survive.
More disquieting news reached General Truong after his meeting with President Thieu. NVA attacks in southwestern Quang Tri Province had overrun two RF strongpoints on the western flank of the My Chanh Line. Farther south, in the Song Bo corridor, the 4th and 5th Marine Battalions fought off strong attacks in the 147th Marine Brigade's sector. In the 1st ARVN Division's sector, two battalions of the 3d Infantry were forced from the Fire Support Base Bastogne area but regained most of their positions in a counterattack the following day. Heavy fighting continued southwest of Tam Ky. RF positions were crumbling, and NVA tanks were sighted approaching from east of Tien Phuoc. The 3d Battalion, 5th Infantry, and the 37th Ranger Battalion were both locked in close combat and in danger of being overrun.
On 14 March, General Truong met with General Thi, commanding I Corps troops in Quang Tri and Thua Thien Provinces, and General Lan, the Marine Division commander, to explain his concept for the final defense of Da Nang. He would pull all combat forces into Quang Nam and defend Da Nang with the 1st, 3d, and Marine Divisions on line and the 2d Division in reserve. But this deployment would be approached gradually as divisional troops were relieved in Quang Tri and Thua Thien Provinces and terrain in the southern part of the region was abandoned. General Truong ordered the immediate evacuation of all military units, including the 68th Ranger Battalion at Song Ha and the 69th Ranger Battalion at Tra Bong, and all civilians in both areas who wanted to leave.
On 15 March, the 14th Ranger Group was to begin the relief of the 369th Marine Brigade in Quang Tri Province. While one marine brigade would remain in the Song Bo Valley for the defense of Hue, the 369th Marine Brigade would deploy to Dai Loc District in Quang Nam Province, and relieve the 3d Airborne Brigade for movement to Saigon. Generals Truong and Thi anticipated a mass civilian exodus from Quang Tri as soon as the people saw that the marines were leaving, and he directed his staff to prepare plans to assist the refugees.
Meanwhile, General Truong ordered General Nhut of the 2nd Division to keep his 6th Infantry Regiment south of Nghia Hanh town to protect Quang Ngai City. The NVA attacked strongly throughout Quang Ngai on 14 and 15 March, overrunning outposts all around the province capital. Quang Ngai territorials, never strong, had been weakened further by the departure of the 5th ARVN Regiment for Quang Tin Province and the shift of most of the 4th ARVN Regiment to 2d Division reserve in Chu Lai. Only two regular battalions, the 70th Ranger and the 3d Battalion of the 4th Infantry, remained south of Mo Duc; only three RF battalions between Mo Duc and the Binh Dinh boundary. In the northern sectors, on the night of 15-16 March, an NVA attack destroyed five PF platoons north of Binh Son and closed Route 1 to the Quang Tin boundary.
In Quang Tin, the NVA attacked north of Tam Ky close to National Route 1 and overran an RF company north of the city on 15 March. When the NVA also struck west of Tam Ky, the 5th ARVN Infantry Regiment and the 12th Ranger Group fell back and the 37th Ranger Battalion was routed.
While a collapse was imminent in the region's two southern provinces, the shifting of units in Quang Tri Province was proceeding on schedule. The 14th Ranger Group established its command post at Hai Lang and sent its 77th, 78th, and 79th Ranger Battalions forward to replace the 369th Marine Brigade, which began moving south to relieve the Airborne Division in Quang Nam. As the Marines left, they took the courage and morale of the territorials and civilians of Quang Tri with them, even though the last pockets of enemy infiltrators in the lowlands had been eliminated by 16 March.
While this relief was going on, a rallier from the 101st Regiment, 325th NVA Division, was being interrogated in Phu Loc. His testimony confirmed the presence of the entire 325th Division in southern Thua Thien Province, supported by the 85-mm. and 130-mm. guns of the 84th Artillery Regiment. At least two infantry regiments, the 18th and the 101st, were within easy striking distance of Phu Loc as of 15 March.
The 258th Marine Brigade pulled out of Quang Tri to relieve the Airborne brigade in southern Thua Thien on 17 March. The Marine Division command post was set up at Marble Mountain Airfield on the beach east of Da Nang on 18 March while the 2d Airborne Brigade moved to the Da Nang docks for shipment to Saigon.
To support the defense of Da Nang, General Truong ordered the 175-mm. gun batteries north of the Hai Van Pass to begin moving to Da Nang along with a company of M-48 tanks. These deployments, ordered on 18 March, would leave two companies of M-48 tanks of the 20th Tank Squadron in Thua Thien. The next day, NVA tanks attacked across the cease-fire line in Quang Tri.
The evacuation of Son Ha and Tra Bong got under way on 16 March as two CH-47 helicopters began lifting out civilians. The military - the 68th Ranger Battalion, 17 RF platoons, and over 400 PSDF soldiers - were flown to Son Tinh, north of Quang Ngai City. Many of the 12,000 residents of Tra Bong began moving along the road to Binh Son, protected by the 69th Rangers. Also in the column were a battery of territorial artillery, an RF company, 22 PF platoons and 600 PSDF militia. As the 25-kilometer trek began, the NVA attacked outposts north of Binh Son and severed Route 1 between that town and Chu Lai. NVA artillery shelled Binh Son causing light civilian casualties while enemy infantry wiped out several outposts south in Son Tinh District. Meanwhile, General Nhut moved the 2d Battalion, 6th Infantry, from Nghia Hanh to the western edge of Quang Ngai City.
North of the Hai Van Pass, in Phu Loc District of Thua Thien Province, the 15th Ranger Group continued to restore ARVN control in the Nui Bong sector on 17-18 March. General Thi moved two M48 tank companies of the 20th Squadron from north of Hue to south of the city.
On 18 March, Prime Minister Khiem flew to Da Nang. Drastic measures to adjust the country's defenses to conform to the new national strategy were under way in the highlands. The great, tragic exodus from Pleiku and Kontum had started, but calamitous events were rapidly overtaking the strategy. The goal was to hold a truncated Vietnam with its northern frontier anchored at Ban Me Thuot, but to do that required salvaging the nation's military strength now under savage attack from Phu Bon to Quang Tri. Tri Tam had fallen north of Saigon, and the NVA offensive was gathering momentum in Tay Ninh, Long Khanh, and Binh Tuy Provinces. I Corps had already given up one of its strongest divisions, the Airborne, to bolster the defense of Saigon, and Prime Minister Khiem's mission was to assess the impact of its loss, discuss the rapidly changing situation with General Truong, and advise President Thieu on what part of Military Region 1 could be defended with the forces available.
The Prime Minister made it clear to General Truong that no additional troops would be sent to his corps; the promised new marine brigade would remain in the defense of the capital. He told General Truong that the 3d Airborne Brigade had been diverted at Nha Trang and sent to block the NVA advance at Khanh Duong; the rest of the division would proceed to Saigon. He also promised to send a staff to Da Nang, representing all interested ministries, to assist in handling the monumental refugee problems that were developing in the region.
While in Da Nang, Prime Minister Khiem listened to briefings by the five province chiefs and the mayor of Da Nang. The mayor told him that civilian morale was very low, that many families had already gone to Saigon, and that the lack of support by the United States at this critical time was deeply felt by the people. The Quang Nam Province chief, Colonel Pham Van Chung, told him that morale among his troops was still good, but the people were very worried about the departure of the Airborne Division. The reports from Quang Ngai and Quang Tin, by Colonels Dao Mong Xuan and Le Van Ngoc, were grim; the territorials had all but given up, and were deserting in large numbers. Units were below half strength. The Quang Tri province chief, Colonel Do Ky, gave a similar report; almost all civilians had left the province, morale was low and the territorials could not be expected to offer serious resistance to an attack now that the stiffening presence of the marines had been removed. Colonel Nguyen Huu Due of Thua Thien, unduly optimistic, said that although people were beginning to leave Hue in large numbers his territorials were in good spirits and would fight.
The Prime Minister left for Saigon, and the next day General Truong returned the visit. He was directed to stop the evacuation of Hue and to defend enclaves at Hue, Da Nang, Chu Lai, and Quang Ngai City. He could, when forced, surrender Chu Lai and Quang Ngai, but he was to defend Hue and Da Nang at all costs.
When General Truong returned to his headquarters on 20 March, he turned around the displacing 175-mm. batteries moving to Da Nang and stopped the evacuation of ammunition from Hue. The Imperial City would be defended despite the fact that enemy artillery had, on 19 March, already struck inside the Citadel and Highway I was clogged with the southbound traffic of thousands of refugees.
The contracted organization for the defense of Hue, under the command of General Thi, was divided between the deputy commander of the Marine Division, Col. Tri, who was responsible north of Hue, and the 1st Division commander, Brig. Gen. Nguyen Van Diem, south of the city. Colonel Tri's outposts were just inside the Thua Thien-Quang Tri boundary, nearly 30 kilometers northwest of Hue. Here, under the direct command of the 14th Ranger Group, were the 77th Ranger Battalion, seven RF battalions, and a troop of armored personnel carriers of the 17th Armored Cavalry Squadron. The four marine battalions of the 147th Brigade were in the vital Bo Corridor, within light artillery range of the Citadel, while the 78th and 79th Ranger Battalions were on outposts 10 kilometers west of the marines. South of the marines, on the high ground at Fire Support Base Lion - also called Nui Gio - was the 51st Infantry, 1st Division, with two of its battalions.
General Diem's responsibility began southwest of his 51st Infantry, which was attached to Colonel Tri's command. The 3d ARVN Infantry Regiment, with two battalions, held the high ground around Fire Support Base Birmingham, above the Song Huu Trach, south of Hue. East of the 3d Infantry, the 54th Infantry with two of its battalions defended the Mo Tau sector, while the reinforced 1st Infantry Regiment extended the line southeast to the Nui Bong area. The 1st Infantry had, in addition to its own three battalions, one battalion of the 51st Infantry, a company of M-48 tanks, and a troop of armored personnel carriers. The 15th Ranger Group, with its three battalions and one battalion of the 3d Infantry, dug in on the hills above Highway 1 west of Phu Loc District Town. The 258th Marine Brigade, with two battalions, was also near Phu Loc Town, while the 914th RF Group of three battalions guarded the Hai Van Pass.
Shortly after General Truong returned from Saigon on 20 March he learned that the situation in northern Quang Tin, which had been bleak on 16 March when the enemy pounded Thang Binh District Town with artillery and overran outposts southwest of the village, now looked better. Two battalions of the 3d ARVN Division, sent from Quang Nam Province, joined two RF battalions in a counterattack causing high enemy casualties in tough fighting east of Thang Binh.
The prospects in Tam Ky, however, were not so favorable, despite the efforts of the 2d ARVN Division to concentrate forces there for its defense. The city was struck by heavy rocket fire on 21 March. On that day, the 4th Infantry Regiment moved its command post to Tam Ky from Quang Ngai, the 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry, moved in from Binh Son District, and the 916th RF Group headquarters moved down from Thang Binh with the 135th RF Battalion.
The situation in Quang Ngai Province was becoming desperate although elements of the 4th ARVN Infantry succeeded in opening Highway 1 in Binh Son District. But west of Binh Son, the NVA struck the long column of refugees and military fleeing from Tra Bong; the 69th Rangers were ambushed and dispersed. The NVA attack south of Duc Pho cut Highway 1, isolating Sa Huynh and the two battalions defending it, the 70th Ranger and 137th RF Battalions. The next day, General Truong gave General Nhut authority to consolidate his forces anyway he could to preserve combat strength.
After NVA tanks and infantry had crossed the cease-fire line in Quang Tri Province on 19 March, they rolled steadily south against the disintegrating resistance of the territorials until they reached the My Chanh Line at the boundary of Thua Thien Province. Here the advance halted while the attackers waited for the next phase to begin. It started west and south of Hue early on the morning of 21 March when the lead battalions of the 324B and 325th NVA Divisions, together with the independent Tri-Thien Regiment, with heavy artillery support, assaulted RVNAF positions from the Bo Corridor to Phu Loc. Heavy artillery fire fell on Hue.
The My Chanh line was quiet and the attacks against the Marines in the Bo Valley were repulsed with heavy enemy losses. But the Phu Loc sector, taking the brunt of the attack by the 324B and 325th Divisions, began to crumble early. In the area of the 1st ARVN Infantry, the 18th NVA Regiment, 325th Division, supported by the 98th Artillery Regiment, took Hill 350 and drove on to assault Nui Bong. Although the mountain changed hands three times that afternoon, the 2d Battalion, 1st ARVN Infantry, controlled it on 22 March. Other formations of the 325th, notably the 101st Regiment, forced the 60th Ranger Battalion, 15th Group, from Hill 500 west of Phu Loc, and supporting artillery interdicted Highway 1. A stream of refugees began piling up along the road northwest of Phu Loc. By evening, however, one lane was opened for traffic to Da Nang.
To the west, in the hills around Mo Tau, the 271st Independent Regiment and the 29th Regiment of the 304th Division, both operating under the 324th Division, attacked the 54th ARVN Infantry and were repelled. A prisoner from the 271st said that casualties in his regiment were very heavy, that the 9th Battalion was nearly destroyed.
NVA attacks continued all along the Thua Thien front on 22 March. An ARVN counterattack to recapture Hill 224, a key position in the Mo Tau sector, failed. The population of Hue had declined to only 50,000, and the Hai Van Pass was clogged with desperate people trying to escape. Da Nang was inundated by a tragic flood of humanity. City police on 21 March estimated more than 100,000 refugees, and they were still coming. The ministerial delegation promised by Prime Minister Khiem finally arrived on the 22d, but it could offer little help since there was not enough rice to be bought on the Da Nang market.
The official count of refugees in Da Nang, based upon police registrations, was 121,000 by nightfall on 23 March. The unofficial estimate by the U.S. Consul General was 400,000. All the necessities of life were missing or rapidly disappearing: food, sanitation, housing, and medical care. On 24 March, the government began moving refugees south on every available boat and ship. Thousands made it, but many more did not. Fortunately, NVA attacks in Quang Nam Province were largely blunted by the 3d ARVN Division and territorial troops; security, although relative, was better in Da Nang than anywhere else in Military Region 1.
Southwest of Tam Ky in Quang Tin Province, the 2d Battalion, 5th ARVN Regiment, had been in heavy combat since 12 March. Starting the campaign with 350 men, the battalion on 22 March was down to only 130, after heavy casualties and many desertions. General Nhut replaced it with the 2d Battalion, 4th Infantry, committing the 4th Infantry Regiment southwest of Tam Ky together with two battalions of the 5th Regiment and a company of tanks and sending the 1st Battalion, 6th Regiment, from Tam Ky to assist in the defense of Chu Lai. The 12th Ranger Group remained on Tam Ky's northwest perimeter.
The final NVA assault on Tam Ky began on 24 March. Sappers breached the perimeter and by mid-morning were in the center of the city, blowing up the power plant. Artillery fire was intense all along the line and by noon tanks and infantry broke through an RF battalion and the 3d Battalion, 5th Infantry. That afternoon the city was lost, and General Truong ordered General Nhut to pull his forces out of Tam Ky and assemble them for the defense of Chu Lai. By this time, however, General Nhut no longer had enough control of the situation or of his units to comply fully with these orders. He managed to get the headquarters and one battalion of the 4th Infantry, plus some scattered fragments of other 4th Regiment units, moving toward Chu Lai that evening. Two battalions of the 5th Regiment, scattered in the assault also, were assembling for the march south. Units on the northwest perimeter including the dispersed 12th Ranger Group and the staff of the deputy commander, 2d Division, were forced to withdraw north toward Quang Nam, making it to Fire Support Base Baldy just inside the Quang Nam boundary on Route 1.
General Truong also ordered the evacuation of all forces in Quang Ngai Province; they were also to assemble for the defense of Chu Lai. The feasibility of this task was strained by NVA sappers who blew an important bridge on Highway 1 between Quang Ngai and Chu Lai.
Meanwhile, north of the Hai Van Pass, territorials on the My Chanh Line withdrew without orders on 23 March. The front in the Nui Bong-Truoi River sector stabilized, however, and ARVN engineers blew the bridge on Highway 1 east of Loc Son to prevent NVA tanks from advancing toward Hue from Phu Loc. On 24 March, after receiving the report of the collapse of the My Chanh line, General Truong met with his commanders - General Thi, Maj. Gen. Lan, Maj. Gen. Hoang Van Lac, (deputy commander of Military Region 1), and 1st Air Division commander, Brig. Gen. Nguyen Duc Khanh.
The 913th RF Group had started the unauthorized withdrawal from the My Chanh, and the territorials refused to stop at the next delaying position near Phong Dien District Town. The 913th's pullout caused some panic among other forces, and a general rout developed. I Corps officers attempted to rally the troops at the Bo River. The mass desertion was not motivated by fear of the enemy but by the soldiers' overwhelming concern for the safety of their families in Hue.
General Lac reported that Da Nang was close to panic also, with more than 300,000 refugees jamming the streets. Air Vietnam had scheduled all the special flights it could, but its bookings were solid through June.
At 1800 on 24 March, General Truong ordered General Thi to begin the evacuation of all troops defending Hue. All forces north and west of Hue would assemble at Tan My, the port of Hue northeast of the city, cross the narrow channel to Phu Thuan and march southwest down Vinh Loc Island. Crossing the mouth of Dam Cau Hai Bay on a pontoon bridge to be constructed by ARVN engineers and moving along the beach to Highway 1, they would cross over the Hai Van Pass and on to Da Nang. No trucks, tanks, or guns could make this march; all would have to be disabled or destroyed. The 1st ARVN Division would protect the column by blocking in Phu Thu District.
By the time these orders were issued, what was left of the population of Hue was streaming toward Tan My to take any available boat or ship out of Thua Thien Province. I Corps Forward, commanded by General Thi, established its command post in Tan My, together with the command posts of the Marine Division and the 147th Marine Brigade. The 7th Marine Battalion deployed there to secure the port and the command posts. The 1st Division withdrew from the Troui-Nui Bong sector. The 15th Ranger Group, which had held the Troui River for the 1st Division, pulled back to Phu Bai with heavy casualties. The 54th Infantry Regiment withdrew from the Mo Tau sector to Camp Eagle, southeast of Hue near Highway 1. The 3d ARVN Infantry withdrew from its forward positions on the Son Hue Trach and assembled in Nam Hoa, south of Hue. The 51st Infantry pulled back and located just west of the city while the division headquarters and the 1st Infantry, which had suffered moderate casualties in the Nui Bong sector, were around Hue.
Just as the withdrawal was well under way, General Truong was visited by a delegation of officers from the JGS, carrying orders to release the Marine Division immediately for the defense of Saigon. Pointing out that he could not defend Da Nang without the marines, General Truong objected. The JGS suggested giving up Chu Lai and sending the 2d Division to Da Nang. General Truong issued the order to the 2d Division but still insisted that Da Nang could not be held without the Marine Division; by the time he recovered what was left of the 1st and 2d Divisions, neither would be combat effective.
The sealift from Chu Lai would begin after dark on 25 March on LSTs (landing ship tank) en route from Saigon. Boats committed to the withdrawal of forces in Thua Thien Province would also assist at Chu Lai. While the shipping converged on Chu Lai, the battered 6th Infantry, 2d ARVN Division, was fighting its way toward Chu Lai from Quang Ngai. The Quang Ngai province chief and his staff, unable to break through the NVA units on the road to Chu Lai, went by boat to Ly Son Island.
As an embattled column of soldiers and refugees struggled north on Highway 1 north of Quang Ngai City, dead and wounded littered the road, a scene reminiscent of the carnage on the same highway in Quang Tri during the 1972 offensive. Once the sealift from Chu Lai began, panic took over as soldiers fought for places on the first boats. Sufficient order was restored, however, to move about 7,000 soldiers up to Da Nang. The remnants of the 4th Infantry and the almost nonexistent 6th Infantry were regrouped on Ly Son Island while the 12th Ranger Group, down to only 500 men, and the few remaining soldiers of the 5th Infantry, were assembled near Da Nang.
The situation in Da Nang on 26 March was approaching chaos, but the 3d ARVN Division still held in Dai Loc and Duc Duc Districts against mounting pressure. Early that morning, 14 NVA heavy rockets struck a refugee camp on the edge of Da Nang Air base killing and wounding many civilians, mostly women and children. Morale in the 3d ARVN Division was plummeting, and distraught soldiers deserted to save their families in Da Nang. Population control was almost totally absent in the city; more than 2,000,000 people were in the streets trying to gather their families and escape. Police desertions mounted, and those who remained found it nearly impossible to function while bands of armed soldiers, beyond the control of military police, roamed the streets. There were even some instances of shooting between soldiers and police.
The withdrawal from Thua Thien Province began in a rather orderly fashion. The 258th Marine Brigade linked up with the 914th RF Group on Vinh Loc Island to cross the narrow channel over to Loc Tri in Phu Loc District. But the bridge to be installed by ARVN engineers never got there; engineer boats were evidently commandeered by other military units attempting to escape. The withdrawing forces crossed anyway, using local fishing boats. General Truong flew over the column making its way down the long stretch of Vinh Loc Island and noted that the only apparent disciplined, cohesive units were marines. The rest was a mob.
Delayed by heavy seas on 25 March the 147th Marine Brigade left Tan My the next day for Da Nang. Also on 26 March, the marine battalion of the 258th Brigade holding the Phu Gia Pass - a short, twisting defile about 15 kilometers east of Phu Loc District Town - came under attack. With the enemy approaching the Hai Van Pass from the north and Vietnamese Navy boats breaking down faster than they could be repaired, General Truong stopped the sea movement of forces and equipment from Hue. Further, because he had been unable to reinforce Da Nang with adequate strength from the 2d ARVN Infantry Division, he elected to concentrate the recoverable elements of the Marine Division at Da Nang.
On the afternoon of the 27 March, VNAF pilots destroyed four enemy tanks attacking near Fire Support Base Baldy. Although the NVA broke off the attack, and the 3d Division battalions held their positions, it was apparent that the 3d Division would not be able to contain NVA attacks in the outlying districts of Quang Nam. General Truong therefore ordered a withdrawal to a shorter line within artillery range of the center of Da Nang. Attempts to hold that line failed as large numbers of 3d Division soldiers deserted to save their families. With defeat imminent, General Truong shipped all organized forces, mostly marines, out of Da Nang toward Saigon. Then he and most of his staff left; some of them, General Truong included, had to swim through the surf to the rescuing fleet of boats. Da Nang, the last enclave of South Vietnam presence in Military Region 1, belonged to the NVA by nightfall on 30 March.
While the furious battle raged in Darlac Province, and three NVA divisions attacked the out-gunned and out-manned 23d ARVN Division, the 22d ARVN Division, under Brig. Gen. Phan Dinh Niem, continued to fight in Binh Dinh Province. Although the 22d was unable to break the hold of the 3d NVA Division on terrain controlling Highway 19 through the An Khe Pass, ARVN soldiers and artillery and VNAF air strikes inflicted heavy losses on the enemy. In the early days of the engagement, General Niem expected the high casualties would sooner or later cause the 3d Division to withdraw. He did not, however, anticipate the precipitous turn of events in the rest of Military Region 2, which, in effect, made futile the gallant performance of his division in Binh Dinh.
The initial onslaught of the 3d NVA Division at the An Khe Pass and against Binh Khe succeeded in driving ARVN defenders, primarily territorials, from positions overlooking the pass and guarding the bridges. In some cases territorials withdrew without putting up much resistance. By the time General Niem had enough battalions in position to counterattack, the enemy had exploited his early gains and had major elements of all three regiments of the 3d NVA Division - the 2d, 12th, and 141st - plus sappers, artillery, and supporting local units, concentrated at the mouth of the Vinh Thanh Valley, between the An Khe Pass and Binh Khe.
On 10 March, as the 320th NVA Division entered Ban Me Thuot, General Niem had three of his four regiments committed between An Nhon, where Highway 19 leaves Highway 1, and the eastern end of the Anh Khe Pass. The 1st and 2d Battalions, 47th Infantry, at the eastern entrance of the An Khe Pass, fought off repeated attempts by battalions of the 2d and 141st NVA Regiments to drive them from the field. On 11 March the 3d Battalion, 47th Infantry, was airlifted to Binh Khe District Town, completing the deployment of this regiment. The 927th RF Group still held positions inside the pass but could not control the road. Its 209th RF Battalion was overrun on 11 March, and its 21 8th RF Battalion, with its companies spread thinly through the pass, was extremely vulnerable.
The 42d ARVN Infantry, with its command post in Binh Khe, was attacking west along Highway 19 to attempt a link-up with the two beleaguered battalions of the 47th. The 41st ARVN Infantry, having moved from Bong Son on 8 and 9 March, to An Son on Highway 19, was to secure the line of communication west toward Binh Khe and to protect Phu Cat Air base.
The fourth regiment of the 22d ARVN Division, the 40th, remained in northern Binh Dinh Province, holding the entrance of the An Lao Valley and guarding the Phu Ku Pass on Route 506 north of Phu My.
By 11 March, the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 2d NVA Regiment had been badly hurt by ARVN artillery and VNAF air strikes. The 7th Battalion, 141st NVA Regiment, had been driven across the confluence of the Con and Dong Pho Rivers with two of its companies virtually annihilated. The 3d Battalion, 2d Regiment, and the 5th Battalion, 12th Regiment, were also hit hard. But truckloads of ammunition and replacements kept rolling down the Vinh Thanh Valley and the dead and wounded made the return trip to the NVA base areas north of Vinh Thanh.
On 13 March, a representative of the Defense Attache Office visited forward positions of the 22d ARVN Division. His report reflected the general confidence and optimism in General Niem's command. Heavy attacks of five NVA battalions against the 1st and 2d Battalions, 47th Infantry, had been repulsed, though four successive commanders of the 2d Battalion had been killed in action since 4 March. Now commanded by a captain, the battalion was down to half strength and was withdrawn to the division base camp for refitting. Without its 2d Battalion, the 47th Infantry was to attack the enemy in the eastern portal of the An Khe Pass, and link up with the RF still in the pass. The 927th RF Group, under the operational control of the 47th Infantry, had its command post west of the pass at An Khe and companies of its understrength battalions, the 209th, 217th, and 218th, on outposts through the pass. When the command post of the 218th RF Battalion and one of its companies were overrun on 12 March, the 47th Infantry appeared unlikely to break through to the pass in time to find any RF positions intact. The 218th reorganized, and maintained some positions at the west end of the pass, but on 17 March it was again under attack by the 5th Battalion, 12th NVA Regiment.
The fighting was intense between the eastern end of the pass and Binh Khe during the period between 15 and 17 March. The 42d ARVN Infantry was attempting to dislodge three battalions of the 3d NVA Division which were occupying the high ground near the eastern end of the pass. Despite killing nearly 500 enemy in two days, the 42d made no real progress. Its commander was wounded twice but remained on duty. Meanwhile, the 41st ARVN Infantry moved up to south of Binh Khe District Town.
General Niem withdrew the two remaining battalions of the 47th Infantry and sent them to northern Binh Dinh Province to relieve the 2d and 3d Battalions, 40th Infantry, which General Phu had ordered to Khang Duong in Khanh Hoa Province. After the 2d Battalion, 47th Infantry, finished refitting at the division base camp, he planned to send it north to replace the 1st Battalion, 40th Infantry, which would then become division reserve.
With only two regiments available and no reserve, General Niem decided on 17 March he could not open the An Khe Pass and ordered his battalions to hold in place. Although several thousand civilians and several hundred territorial troops at An Khe were cut off from Qui Nhon, there was no longer any compelling military reason to pursue the attack. The exodus from the highlands was already under way along the jungle track called Route 7B.
By 19 March, the NVA controlled the pass westward nearly to the outskirts of An Khe. By 22 March, the 5th Battalion, 12th NVA Regiment, was inside An Khe; all ARVN resistance there ended, and over 5,000 people were struggling south over rural roads and trails, trying to escape to Qui Nhon. On 24 March, the 42d ARVN Infantry pulled back along Route 19, east of Binh Khe, and the 41st Infantry assumed the defense of Binh Khe.
That same day, the long-expected NVA assault on Binh Khe began, and the 41st and 42d ARVN Regiments were cut off. The 3d NVA Division then pushed its 141st and 12th Regiments (except for the 5th Battalion still at An Khe) eastward toward Phu Cat. Meanwhile, the B3 Front's 95B Regiment, having marched east from Pleiku along Route 19, joined the 2d NVA Regiment for the continuation of the attack on the 42d ARVN Infantry east of Binh Khe.
But the 41st and 42d ARVN Regiments did not wait for the reinforced attack. Instead, on 27 March, they broke out and attacked eastward toward Qui Nhon, taking with them over 400 territorials rescued by helicopter the day before from the An Khe area. As the 41st and 42d Regiments dug in for the defense of Qui Nhon, orders arrived from Saigon to evacuate what remained of the 22d Division. Military Region 2 was virtually lost.
As NVA attacked Phu Cat Air base on 31 March, the VNAF flew out about 32 aircraft, leaving about 58, mostly disabled or destroyed, on the ground. On 1-2 April, about 7,000 troops of the 22d Division and Binh Dinh territorials boarded Vietnamese Navy craft at Qui Nhon and sailed for Vung Tau. Enemy tanks and infantry were in the streets of Qui Nhon.
Khanh Hoa - the End in MR 2
The 23d ARVN Division counter-attack from Phuoc An had been decisively defeated when General Dung committed his 10th Division, up from Quang Duc. Survivors of the 23d Rangers, territorials, and civilians who escaped from Darlac streamed eastward across the plateau along Route 21. The military men were assembled at Khanh Duong, the last district on the high plain before the highway twisted down through the Deo Cao (M'Drak) Pass to the coastal hills and lowlands of Khanh Hoa Province.
The Deo Cao Pass was the obvious place for a defensive stand to protect Nha Trang, the site of the headquarters of Military Region 2, II Corps, the headquarters of the Navy's Second Coastal Zone, and 2d Air Division. Nha Trang also held the ARVN Noncommissioned Officer Academy, and Lam Son, a major national training center, was nearby. North of Nha Trang, Route 21 joined National Route 1 at Ninh Hoa. West of Ninh Hoa, midway between the ocean and the hills of Khanh Duong District, was the large training center of Duc My, site of the Ranger Training Center and the ARVN Artillery School. Thus, with its military concentration and population, the Nha Trang-Ninh Hoa area was the last vital enclave in Military Region 2. Without it, a return to the highlands was virtually impossible. If it could be held, NVA divisions could be prevented from rolling down Highway 1 to Saigon.
Most of the survivors from Darlac were moved on past Khanh Duong by road and helicopter, the Rangers to Duc My for regrouping, the 23d Division soldiers to Cam Ranh and Lam Son. A forward headquarters of the 23d Division was established at Khanh Duong to command the forces assigned to defend the pass: the 3d Airborne Brigade, pulled from its ships at Nha Trang after being dispatched for Saigon from Quang Nam, and the headquarters and two battalions of the 40th Infantry, 22d Division, from Binh Dinh Province.
The 10th NVA Division took up the pursuit after Phuoc An and closed rapidly on Khanh Duong. The 40th ARVN Infantry pushed west of the town to meet the advancing 10th NVA Division. The 3d Airborne Brigade dug in on the high ground in the pass, behind the 40th Infantry. On 22 March, the leading battalions of the 10th NVA Division, with tanks supporting, blasted into Khanh Duong and the two battalions of the 40th ARVN Infantry were forced to withdraw through the 3d Airborne Brigade.
A network of logging roads traversed the dense, steep forests of western Khanh Hoa Province. If blocked by the 3d Airborne in the pass on Route 21, the NVA could send a large force south, bypassing the Airborne, and approach Nha Trang from the west through Dien Khanh District. To guard against this threat, the 40th was withdrawn to Duc My, then sent south to eastern Dien Khanh to prepare positions generally astride local Route 420, which led due east into Dien Khanh and on into Nha Trang. The 40th was reinforced with one RF battalion and supported by one 155-mm. and two 105-mm. howitzers.
Long range reconnaissance patrols were sent into the forest south of Khanh Duong to try to detect any significant enemy force moving south toward Dien Khanh. Nothing of any size was detected, although some ominous signs of recent heavy traffic were reported.
In the Deo Cao Pass, with forward positions at Chu Kroa Mountain, a prominent peak over 3100 feet, the 3d Airborne Brigade dug in to await the 10th NVA Division, whose 28th Infantry Regiment and tanks were already in Khanh Duong. A local RF battalion was in the pass south of the Airborne Brigade. The 34th Ranger Battalion, 7th Ranger Group, which had fought its way through the gauntlet of fire on Route 7B, was protecting the northern approach to Ninh Hoa at the Deo Ca Pass.
With the Airborne still holding on Route 21, General Phu announced on 29 March new command responsibilities in what was left of his military region. General Niem, commanding the 22d Division, was responsible for Binh Dinh and Phu Yen Provinces. Qui Nhon, the last enclave in Binh Dinh, fell on 2 April. He controlled for a brief period the 96th Battalion, 21st Group, which had fought at Ban Me Thuot and regrouped to fight again at Tuy Thoa in Phu Yen Province.
The mountain provinces of Tuyen Duc and Lam Dong Districts were the responsibility of Maj. Gen. Lam Quang Tho, commandant of the Military Academy, Vietnam's West Point, at Dalat. In addition to the territorials, General Tho had some of the survivors of the 24th Ranger Group who had marched through the mountains after the fall of Quang Duc.
Brig. Gen. Le Van Than, the Deputy Commanding General of Military Region 2, was sent to Cam Ranh. He would defend the Cam Ranh Special Sector, Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan Provinces. He was also to re-form the 23d Infantry Division out of the 4,900 troops mustered at Cam Ranh.
The most critical mission, the defense of Khanh Koa Province, fell to Brig. Gen. Tran Van Cam, in command the 3d Airborne Brigade, the 40th Infantry, the 34th Ranger Battalion, and territorials. But before General Cam could move from Phu Yen Province, where he was controlling the eastern end of the exodus on Route 7B, the 10th NVA Division attacked the 3d Airborne in the Deo Cao Pass on 30 March. Supported by the 40th Artillery Regiment and with two company of tanks attached, elements of the 28th and 66th Regiments the next day surrounded the 5th Airborne Battalion, at that time reduced by casualties to 20 percent strength.
The 3d Airborne Brigade was deployed in depth from Chu Kroa Mountain south for about 15 kilometers along the high ground over the highway. Heavy enemy fire knocked out 5 of 14 armored personnel carriers supporting the brigade, and the three 105-mm. howitzer batteries in the force had to move to the rear, setting up near Buon Ea Thi where, unfortunately, they were beyond supporting range of the forward Airborne positions. The collapse of the Airborne defense proceeded very rapidly afterwards. At Buon Ea Thi elements of the 10th NVA Division outflanked Airborne positions along the road and struck the 6th Airborne Battalion. Although the troopers knocked out three T-54 tanks, they could not hold. With the brigade split at Buon Ea Thi, a rapid withdrawal was imperative to conserve what was left of the decimated force.
The 3d Airborne Brigade, less than one fourth of its soldiers still in ranks, marched back through Duc My and Ninh Hoa and stopped in a narrow defile where National Route 1 edged along the beach below Hon Son Mountain, just north of Nha Trang.
The 10th NVA Division was close behind. On 1 April, NVA tanks rolled through Duc My and Ninh Hoa and headed for Nha Trang. The American Consul General and his staff left Nha Trang by air for Saigon, the II Corps staff drove south to Phan Rang, the defeated remnants of the Airborne, Rangers, territorials, and 40th Infantry followed. The VNAF evacuated Nha Trang Air Base at 1500 and all flyable aircraft were flown out. On 2 April, NVA tanks entered the city.
The momentum of the NVA advance was such that a defense at Cam Ranh was no longer feasible. Recognizing this, the JGS authorized the immediate evacuation of all that remained of II Corps through that port, and by 2 April, the evacuation was in full swing.