Chapter 11 The Highlands to the Hai Van
Just as the COSVN forces in South Vietnam's Military Region 3 were conducting the strategic raids campaign to reduce the defenses around Saigon, so the forces of the B-3 Front and the NVA's Military Region 5 were embarked on their campaign to eliminate the isolated ARVN outposts in the Central Highlands and move into the coastal lowlands of South Vietnam's Military Regions 1 and 2. Heavy fighting lay ahead in the vast region from the high plateau of Darlac to the narrow coastal plain of Quang Nam.
In the spring of 1974, South Vietnam still had two district seats deep in the highlands of Quang Tin Province but controlled only shallow perimeters around the towns, Tien Phuoc and Hau Duc, and maintained a tenuous hold on the lines of communication into them. The enemy still held Hiep Duc with elements of the 2d NVA Division (reorganized and redesignated from the old 71 1th NVA Division) and protected the headquarters area of NVA Military Region 5 between Tien Phuoc and Hau Duc.
The population was sparse in the mountain districts of Quang Tin, and its requirements for products from outside the region were relatively small. But after the NVA moved in with large troop units and commerce with the coast became restricted, shortages and hardships grew. The local Communists, striving to recruit a larger following among the villagers, were finding it difficult to provide incentives since the people knew that conditions were better around the South Vietnamese communities of Tien Phuoc and Hau Duc where infrequent but adequate convoys brought rice and other commodities from the province capital, Tam Ky. Part of the Communist strategy thus was to improve NVA lines of communication from southwestern Quang Tin Province to the coast near Tam Ky and to block South Vietnamese access to Tien Phuoc. If the NVA could succeed in these objectives, the mountain population would be impelled to shift to e areas under Communist control.
In 1973 the NVA engineers had improved the channel and constructed docks on the Song Tranh vest of Hau Duc, thus providing a secure water route to the NVA base at Hiep Duc. The NVA engineers also widened the road southeast to Tra Bong District in Quang Ngai. The next steps were gain access to the coast south of Tam Ky and block local Route 533 west from Tam Ky, thus , Tien Phuoc. The first target was the sprawling village of Ky Tra, a minor road junction in the hills west of Chu Lai. Outside the village was an outpost called Nui Ya. On 4 May, after a battalion of NVA infantry overran Nui Ya, the attack quickly shifted to Ky Tra as mortar, rocket, and artillery fire fell on the defending 931st RF Company, two PF platoons, and about 60 People's Self-Defense Force militia. While Ky Tra was under attack, all four ARVN fire support bases within range came under heavy mortar and rocket fire. Contact was lost with the defenders on 5 May as the NVA's 1st Infantry Regiment, 2d Division, occupied Ky Tra. This maneuver placed a major NVA force in position to support attacks against the line of communication to Tien Phuoc and to block overland movement to Hau Duc.
The attack on Ky Tra signalled the eruption of attacks by fire and ground attacks on ARVN bases and outposts throughout Quang Ngai and Quang Tin Provinces. A relief column headed by the 1st Battalion, 4th ARVN Infantry, 2d Division, was stopped by heavy enemy mortar and rocket fire nine kilometers from Ky Tra. A battalion of the 6th Regiment, 2d ARVN Division, also failed to reach Ky Tra. Meanwhile, the 31st Regiment, 2d NVA Division, launched an attack on outposts protecting Tien Phuoc, and one ARVN position, held by the 131st RF Battalion, was lost. The attacks continued on 16 and 17 May, but two RF battalions at Tien Phuoc repelled the 31st NVA Regiment attacks with heavy losses.
The fighting around Ky Tra continued. On 19 May, the 1st NVA Regiment again attacked the 1st Battalion, 4th ARVN Infantry. The understrength ARVN battalion broke and lost nearly 200 weapons and 13 field radios, impossible to replace, in the rout. While the infantry fought in the hills, the NVA pounded the 2d ARVN Division Headquarters at Chu Lai and the city of Tam Ky and its airfield with 122-mm. rockets.
Brig. Gen. Tran Van Nhut, commanding the 2d ARVN Division, sent the 12th Ranger Group, under his operational control, to reinforce Tien Phuoc. Although the NVA 31st Regiment continued to attack, it was unable to break through to Tien Phuoc. In early June, the 12th Ranger Group was relieved by the 5th Regiment, 2d Division, and the ARVN infantrymen succeeded in holding Tien Phuoc and keeping the road open to Tam Ky. Losses on both sides were heavy, and by mid-June, three battalions of the 2d ARVN Division - the 1st battalion of the 4th Infantry and the 2d and 3d Battalions of the 6th Infantry - were considered by General Nhut to be ineffective due to casualties and equipment losses. The 5th Regiment had also suffered moderate losses since 1 June on the Quang Tin battlefield, mostly along the Tam Ky-Tien Phuoc road, and was only marginally effective. Likewise, the 12th Ranger Group, which had distinguished itself in the defense of Tien Phuoc, was badly understrength because of high casualties. General Nhut had two other Ranger groups, the 11th and 14th, committed to forward positions in the hills and kept his 4th Armored Cavalry Group as division reserve.
All during the Tien Phuoc-Ky Tra battle, General Nhut had to contend with serious threats to the security of coastal Quang Ngai. There the 52d NVA Brigade maintained pressure against lines of communication and population centers, defended largely by RF and PF units whose usual performance under main-force enemy attacks was desultory at best. Occasionally, however, responding to unusually strong leadership, territorials of Quang Ngai turned in a stunning performance. For example, on 5 May south of Nghia Hanh, the 9th Battalion of the 52d NVA Regiment reinforced by the 15th NVA Engineer Battalion, 52d NVA Brigade, attacked the 117th RF Battalion, but the attack was repelled, leaving 21 dead and a number of weapons at the RF defensive position. NVA soldiers in this battle were disguised in RVNAF uniforms, a tactic frequently seen. The increase in enemy attacks during May was not confined to the coast, however. In southwest Quang Ngai, on the boundary of Kontum Province, the 70th ARVN Ranger Battalion engaged in heavy fighting with an enemy force east of Gia Vuc in mid-May. Although these inconclusive struggles typified the early summer of 1974 in Quang Tin and Quang Ngai, events of a more decisive nature were occurring in the western highlands.
By the early summer of 1974 three totally isolated outposts remained in the mountains north and northeast of Kontum City. Astride Route 14 (QL-14) in the far northwestern tip of Kontum Province was Dak Pek, occupied by the 88th Ranger Battalion with 360 men and 10 PF platoons with about 300. All contact with the camp was by air, and no artillery outside the camp itself was available to provide support for the subsector headquarters or the camp. About 3,200 people, nearly all Montagnards, lived under the protection of Dak Pek outpost, which interfered with enemy logistics along the north-south line of communication.
In fighting near the camp on 27 April, a document was captured indicating that an attack to capture Dak Pek was imminent; in early May, Ranger patrols detected the presence of an enemy regiment near the camp and discovered a cache of 60 105-mm. artillery rounds. Unknown to the Rangers then, the 29th Regiment of the 324B NVA Division had been trucked south from the A Shau Valley of Thua Thien Province. The deployment of the 29th Regiment exemplified the remarkable flexibility and newly developed mobility of the NVA, the latter attributable to its road network and to antiaircraft defenses that prevented effective interdiction. In order to assign the Dak Pek mission to the 29th Regiment, the NVA had to move it secretly 75 miles and place it under the command of B3 Front.
The commander of the 88th Ranger Battalion had sealed orders to be opened in the event Dak Pek were overrun. He was to lead the survivors through the mountains to Mang Buk, some 60 kilometers southeast. It is doubtful that Major Di ever got around to opening the orders; certainly he had no opportunity to execute them.
The Rangers had a series of encounters with NVA patrols beginning on 10 May. Two days later, following artillery, rocket, and mortar bombardments, the NVA attacked the outpost and subsector headquarters. The defenders were able to hold the enemy infantry at bay until the morning of the 16th, when, following an intense concentration of fire support, the 29th NVA Regiment, supported by tanks, closed in on the camp and subsector. Major Di maintained contact with the VNAF, flying over 70 bombing and strafing sorties during the morning and destroying at least one tank in a futile effort to save the camp. Using 37-mm. antiaircraft guns, the enemy reduced the effectiveness of South Vietnamese air support. At noon Major Di's radio fell silent under the rain of enemy fire, over 7,000 rounds of artillery, mortar, and rocket hitting the camp in the 12 hours before capitulation.
Months later, at the end of November, 14 survivors of Dak Pek escaped from NVA work camps in the jungle where they had been held since their capture on 16 May and reported to an ARVN Ranger outpost northeast of Kontum City. They said that Major Di and his executive officer had both been captured along with the survivors, that both had escaped during VNAF air strikes, but that Major Di had been recaptured the following day.
Tieu Atar was a frontier post manned by two companies from a battalion of Montagnard RF, stationed north of Ban Me Thuot, the capital of Darlac Province. Close to the Cambodian border, it interfered in a minor way with the NVA line of communication south of Duc Co. Beginning on 18 May 1974 Communist propaganda teams entered the Montagnard settlement around Camp Tieu Atar, telling the people of an impending attack and urging them to leave. About 1,200 took the warning and began a long trek south.
The attack began on 27 May when the NVA slammed 60 rounds of 82-mm. mortar into the camp. On 30 May, a concentration of 1,000 rounds began to fall on the camp. Radio contact with the 211th RF Battalion was lost when the battalion commander's bunker was destroyed by a direct hit. One to two infantry battalions attacked before noon and overran the camp. Effective VNAF support was not possible because of bad weather and lack of communications. For the NVA, the way was now clear from its major logistical center at Duc Co all the way to Ban Don.
While the enemy was toppling the few remaining ARVN outposts in the remote reaches of the Central Highlands, an NVA offensive of major proportions was taking shape farther north. Its focus was the Quang Nam lowlands.
Two major rivers entered Quang Nam Province from the south and formed a fertile delta, which, except for a narrow coastal strip on the south, was enclosed by steep mountains rising to 4,000 feet. The Province capital, Da Nang, rested at the northern edge of the delta on the beach of the strikingly beautiful crescent of Da Nang Bay. Da Nang was the most important South Vietnamese city north of Saigon and the site of a major port, a major air base, and the headquarters of I Corps and Military Region 1. National Highway 1 (QL-1) passed through Quang Nam close to the sand dunes along the coast and continued through the Hai Van Pass to Hue in Thua Thien Province. The national railway operated daily trains between Da Nang and Hue on a roadbed, much subjected to Communist harassment and sabotage, that generally paralleled the highway. The delta of Quang Nam had been a contested area before the cease-fire, but by the spring of 1973, the ARVN 3d Infantry Division and the Quang Nam territorials had established control in the flatlands up to the hills of Duc Duc District in the southwest and Thuong Duc District in the west.
Local security in Quang Nam's nine districts - which in the military chain-of-command were subsectors, subordinate to the sector chief who was also the province chief - varied from poor in the mountainous regions to good in the area of Da Nang. Hoa Vang District, the most populous, surrounded Da Nang. Its least secure villages were in the southwest corner of the district, centered on Hoa Hai Village, close to the major line of communication, Route 530, between Da Nang and the forward positions of the 3d ARVN Division in Dai Loc and Duc Duc Districts. That part of Dai Loc District which was south of the Song Vu Gia was for many years a VC stronghold - the Americans who operated there named it the Arizona Territory - but the ARVN had cleared it about the time of the cease-fire. North of the Song Vu Gia, the mountains of Dai Loc, where the ARVN could maintain no continuous presence, offered the Communists access to the lowlands.
The Communists exploited this situation frequently and interdicted from time to time the one road linking Thuong Duc District with the rest of the province. This road, local Route 4 (LTL-4), followed the north bank of the Song Vu Gia, passed through a narrow defile between the hills and the river just west of an ARVN artillery base on Hill 52, and then entered the district town of Thuong Duc. The valley of the Song Vu Gia was only 3,000 meters wide here; steep hills overlooked the district seat of Thuong Duc on the north, west, and south. There were no villages outside the district town itself secure enough for South Vietnamese officials to spend the night, and only three villages in the district had government administration by day. NVA lines of communication from the northwest and southwest reached Thuong Duc via National Route 14, which terminated there, and Route 614, which began in the large NVA logistical complex south of the A Shau Valley and joined Route 4 west of Thuong Duc. This district, therefore, was a key entrance to the Quang Nam lowlands.
Southwest of Dai Loc District was the vast mountain district of Duc Duc. Only in the extreme northeast region of Duc Duc did South Vietnamese officials maintain full-time residence. The area west of the Song Thu Bon, which included part of the Arizona Territory, was insecure and sparsely populated, as were the southern and western reaches of Duc Duc. ARVN influence extended south to the Nong Son coal mines in the narrow canyon of the Song Thu Bon, about 10 kilometers from the district seat. Here at a place called Da Trach, not far north of the major operating base of the 2d NVA Division, the ARVN maintained a garrison with outposts manned by RF units and PF platoons. Duc Duc was the other principal entrance to the Quang Nam lowlands from the NVA-held highlands of Quang Nam and Quang Tin.
The ARVN 3d Infantry Division was responsible for the defense of Quang Nam and that part of Quang Tin Iying within the Que Son Valley. In June of 1974, General Hinh, the division commander, had his 57th Infantry Regiment, reinforced by the attached 3d Battalion, 56th Infantry, defending in the Que Son Valley. His 2d Infantry Regiment was operating in the Go Noi and Duc Duc areas, while the 56th Infantry, minus its 3d Battalion, was in division reserve. The 56th's 1st Battalion was in training, and its third was at Fire Support Base Baldy at the northern entrance of the Que Son Valley. The 14th Ranger Group, which had been under the operational control of the 3d Division in Quang Nam, had been sent south to operate with the 2d ARVN Division to deal with the crisis that developed in Quang Tin. The 14th took along its 79th Ranger Battalion, which had been stationed in Thuong Duc. The 78th Ranger Battalion, which remained in Quang Nam to hold Da Trach, sent one of its companies to Thuong Duc to relieve the 79th.
Observing that matters were pretty well under control in Quang Nam and that the enemy had committed most of his 2d Division in the Quang Tin-Tien Phuoc battlefield, General Thuong, commanding I Corps, sent the 2d Infantry Regiment, 3d Division, into Tien Phuoc to eliminate elements of the 2d NVA Division and local main force units still threatening the district. Named Quang Trung 3/74, the operation included, in addition to the entire 2d Infantry, a troop of the 11th Armored Cavalry, a battalion of 105-mm. howitzers, and a battery each of 155-mm. howitzers and 175-mm. guns. The operation lasted from 2 until 15 July and was a remarkable success. The NVA was forced to withdraw from the Tien Phuoc with heavy losses; 315 of its soldiers were killed, and 150 weapons were captured. Its mission completed, the 2d Infantry began moving back to Quang Nam on 16 July but left its 3d Battalion to assist the territorials of Quang Tin Province with local security. The 1st and 2d Battalions settled into the division base camp at Hoa Khanh in the hills above Da Nang.
Meanwhile, the 79th Ranger Battalion and the 14th Ranger Group Headquarters moved back to Quang Nam Province. The 79th returned to Thuong Duc, relieving the company of the 78th Ranger Battalion, which then moved back to Da Trach. The 12th Ranger Group still had three battalions around Mo Duc in Quang Ngai Province, but rotated one battalion at a time back to Quang Nam for refitting and retraining. Two battalions had completed the cycle by 16 July.
Da Trach and Duc Duc
Da Trach, a battalion-sized camp, was a strong point situated on a prominent hill about 900 feet above the Song Thu Bong south of the subsector headquarters at Duc Duc. It had been quiet at Da Trach and around the outposts manned by one RF company and seven PF platoons. Three of these outposts were in the hills and along the river south of Da Trach, while the others were in the valley of the Khe Le stream - called Antenna Valley by the Americans who operated there before - which flowed into the Song Thu Bon northeast of Da Trach post. Also located in the valley was the 4th Company, 146th RF Battalion, which had its 80-man garrison in the Ap Ba hamlet group, along the road that twisted eastward over the Deo Le Pass to Que Son. Possession of the Khe Le Valley would give the NVA not only another flanking approach to the ARVN defenses in the Que Son Valley but would provide access to the several good trails into Duy Xuyen district, bypassing the defenses in Duc Duc.
The 78th Ranger Battalion at Da Trach, with about 360 men, was scheduled for retraining at the Ranger Training Center, and on 17 July 1974, the 3d Battalion, 56th Infantry, arrived to execute the relief. The infantry battalion pulled in on trucks just before dark. The relief was to take place at noon the next day, but the 78th had withdrawn most of its outposts and was bivouacked for the night in the village. Although unfamiliar with the layout of the camp defenses, the 3d Battalion, with three of its four companies, assumed the responsibility. Also assembled within the defenses were the drivers who had driven the 3d Battalion to Da Trach and who would take the 78th Battalion out the next morning.
The strength of the 3d Battalion, 56th Infantry, was only about 360 men, but its 2d Company was not in the camp; rather, it had set up outposts on two hills along the east bank of the Thu Bon. One rifle platoon was on Cua Tan directly across the river from Da Trach, and the rest of the company was at Khuong Que, to the north.
NVA Military Region 5 was responsible for all of Quang Nam Province to the Kontum boundary. Its campaign plan for the summer and fall of 1974 involved elements of three regular divisions, a separate infantry brigade, and several independent regiments. Objectives ranged from central Quang Nam to southern Quang Ngai. To cope with the tactical and logistical requirements of this offensive, the NVA leadership activated a new headquarters, the 3d Corps. Operational in June, the corps began concentrating resources for the Quang Nam campaign.
The 36th NVA Regiment was formed in the spring of 1974 from replacement groups sent from North Vietnam into the mountains of western Duc Duc District. It was a light regiment, having only two infantry battalions, an antiaircraft machine gun company, light artillery, and administrative support units. On 10 July, a week before the planned relief of the 78th Ranger Battalion at Da Trach, the 36th NVA Regiment moved undetected into assembly areas close to ARVN outposts around Da Trach. Also on the move toward Da Trach were elements of all three regiments of the 2d NVA Division, the 1st, 31st, and 38th, plus the 10th Sapper Battalion, division artillery, and batteries of Military Region 5 artillery.
Shortly after midnight on 18 July, the midsummer night's silence was shattered by NVA artillery, rockets, and mortar rounds exploding on the defenses and outposts of Da Trach. A relatively weak attack by the 2d Battalion, 36th NVA Regiment, on the camp's main defenses was beaten back with heavy losses to the enemy and light casualties to the defenders, but contact with the 2d Company, 3d Battalion, 56th ARVN Infantry, outposts at Khuong Que and Cua Tan was lost before daybreak. By that time, the 4th Company, 146th RF Battalion at Ap Ba had been attacked and overrun, and the survivors were trying to escape through the mountains toward Duc Duc headquarters.
Shelling of the main camp meanwhile had stopped, and the attackers regrouped for another assault. The 2d Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, and a battalion of the 31st Infantry Regiment, both of the 2d NVA Division, joined the two battalions of the 36th Regiment for the next attempt. As the reconnaissance platoon and the 4th Company, 3d Battalion, 56th ARVN Infantry, tried to retake a lost outpost south of the camp, they were stopped by intense artillery and automatic weapons fire, which killed the company commander and the battalion commander of the 78th Rangers. The enemy resumed infantry assaults on the camp, and the 3d Battalion commander, who had assumed command of the 78th Rangers as well, reported the situation critical. The camp's radio was knocked out before noon, and all contact was lost with whatever PF outposts remained in action.
Enemy tanks were sighted about 5,000 meters southwest of the camp, and the VNAF began to provide fire support to the defenders. Heavy artillery, rocket, and mortar fire continued, augmented by antiaircraft guns, up to 37-mm., used in direct fire.
Contact was also lost with the 4th Company, 78th Rangers, and the two-gun platoon of 105-mm. howitzers in the camp had been knocked out of action. At midafternoon, the five-battalion enemy assault which by this time included the 10th Sapper Battalion against the northern sector, had carried through the southwest defense line. With all bunkers and fighting positions demolished by a bombardment of more than 5,000 rounds, the survivors of the 3d and 78th Battalions withdrew, and the NVA rounded up civilians in the hamlets and villages; about 7,500 of them would be moved to Communist controlled regions of Duc Duc District.
General Hinh, from his 3d Division Headquarters above Da Nang, reacted quickly to the crisis in Duc Duc District. The subsector headquarters there had also received a heavy bombardment. General Hinh moved a forward division command post to Dai Loc and ordered the 2d Infantry Regiment to deploy immediately to Duc Duc and relieve the defenders at Da Trach. Operation Quang Trung 4/74 had begun.
Only the 3d Battalion, 2d Infantry, was immediately available; the 1st Battalion remained at Fire Support Base Baldy in the Que Son Valley, and the 2d was still in Quang Tin Province. Orders were sent to both battalions to move immediately to Dai Loc, in Quang Nam Province, and the 3d Battalion moved from Da Nang to Hill 55 in northwestern Dien Ban District to protect the deployment of artillery to support Duc Duc.
These deployments ordered, General Hinh saw as his first priority securing the bridge over the Song Thu Bon, north of Duc Duc subsector headquarters and over which all division elements would have to pass en route to the battlefield. He ordered the 1st Battalion, 2d Infantry, just arrived from FSB Baldy, with the 2d Troop, 111th Armored Cavalry, to secure the bridge and had the 3d Battalion, 2d Infantry, on 18 July move to Duc Duc District Town. His staff went to work immediately drafting the tactical plan for Quang Trung 4/74 with the objective of retaking Da Trach. The bridge secured, the 1st Battalion joined the 3d, and both moved south of Duc Duc, prepared to continue on toward Da Trach. By nightfall on the 18th, the 2d Battalion, 2d Infantry, had also moved to Duc Duc District Town, as had a battery of 155-mm. howitzers. Meanwhile a battery of 175-mm. guns moved into firing positions in the Que Son Valley, within range of Duc Duc. These ARVN artillery positions soon received heavy and accurate counterbattery fire. The commander of the 2d ARVN Infantry, Lt. Col. Vu Ngoc Huong, having assumed tactical command of all ARVN forces in the Duc Duc-Da Trach battlefield, had communications with only two platoons of the original Da Trach defense force by the evening of 18 July.
The NVA resumed its coordinated offensive in Quang Nam in the pre-dawn hours of 19 July. A salvo of 35 122-mm. rockets fell on Da Nang Air Base; damage to VNAF operations was slight, although 16 people died and over 70 were wounded - many of whom were civilians and military dependents. In the morning Duc Duc Subsector received 45 rocket and mortar rounds. NVA 130-mm. guns hit an ARVN 105-mm. battery and the 2d Infantry's command post. Meanwhile, north of Dai Loc on Route 540, the 370th RF Company repulsed a strong enemy attempt to interdict the ARVN line of communication, killing 30 of the attackers and capturing many weapons.
With the enemy's fire erupting in their rear, the 1st and 3d Battalions, 2d ARVN Infantry, advanced south from Duc Duc toward Da Trach and by noon reported securing their initial objectives without opposition. The 1st Battalion was on Ky Vi Mountain, southeast of subsector headquarters, and the 3d Battalion was on Hill 284, past Khuong Que and at the entrance of Khe Le Valley. The 2d Battalion was in reserve. The plan called for the 3d Battalion to continue the attack to Cua Tan Mountain, across the river from Da Trach, and for the 1st Battalion to attack south, first seizing Hill 454 and then descending into the Khe Le Valley at the village of Ap Ba. The feasibility of the plan came into question, however, when the last contact with the Da Trach defenders on 19 July revealed that the command group and two companies of the 78th Rangers were under heavy attack on the hill at Cua Tan.
After seizing Da Trach, the North Vietnamese placed infantry battalions and antiaircraft guns in the hills above the valley, awaiting the arrival of the 2d ARVN Infantry. The VNAF struck hard at these forces on the 18th and 19th and caused heavy casualties, but the NVA could not be dislodged. By the afternoon of 19 July, the 1st Battalion, 2d Infantry, was in contact with elements of the NVA 36th Regiment on Ky Vi Mountain and on Hill 238, to the west. The VNAF flew 18 attack sorties in support, killing 75 enemy infantrymen and destroying a mortar. But the ARVN advance had to be halted. Suspecting a trap in the Khe Le Valley, General Hinh ordered the 2d Infantry to stop and send reconnaissance patrols forward.
Correctly anticipating that the enemy's Quang Nam campaign had only begun and that more forces would be required to deal with it, General Truong on 19 July ordered the 12th Ranger Group to move from Quang Ngai to Quang Nam. The 37th Ranger Battalion, already in Da Nang for rest and retraining, moved to Hieu Duc District on 20 July. That day, the 6th Infantry, 2d ARVN Division, began relieving the other two battalions of the 12th Ranger Group in Duc Pho and Mo Duc in Quang Ngai Province, and the 12th began to move north.
By 22 July, the NVA command at Da Trach apparently discovered that the ARVN 2d Infantry Regiment was not advancing into the trap in the Khe Le Valley. Plans were accordingly changed; the rest of the 1st NVA Regiment was ordered to Da Trach to attack the ARVN 2d Regiment in the hills above Duc Duc, while the 38th Regiment was to move through the hills above the valley toward Go Noi and Dien Ban. On 24 July the 1st NVA Regiment began moving into the attack, and the 38th Regiment started deploying east. General Truong was gathering more forces also. He ordered the 29th and 39th Ranger Battalions, 12th Ranger Group, newly arrived from Quang Ngai Province, to displace west of Go Noi Island, and he directed that the 1st Division in Thua Thien and the 2d Division in Quang Ngai each prepare one regiment for deployment to Quang Nam on 24-hour notice.
On 24 July, the 2d ARVN Infantry established its command post 700 meters north of the first hill south of Duc Duc, Nui Song Su. The 2d Troop, 11th Armored Cavalry, was providing security for the command post. The 2d Battalion was moving past Hill 238 and advancing on Hill 284, which had been vacated by the 3d Battalion under strong enemy pressure. The 3d Battalion had withdrawn to the hill at Nui Duong Coi, above a lake between it and Duc Duc Subsector, where the 1st Battalion was in reserve. The 1st Battalion, 56th Infantry, attached to the 2d Infantry, was protecting the regiment's right flank west of the Song Thu Bon.
The attack of the 1st NVA Regiment met the advancing 2d Battalion, 2d ARVN Infantry, on the slopes of Hill 284. The two leading companies of the 2d Battalion broke under a withering attack. By early afternoon on 24 July, the 1st NVA's attack reached the 3d Battalion on Nui Duong Coi. The battalion held and with good air and artillery support inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy. But the assault continued, the 3d Battalion commander fell wounded, and the battalion began to break. By dusk, both forward battalions of the 2d Infantry were badly scattered and withdrawing toward Duc Duc. The NVA attack reached into the rear area of the 2d Infantry and forced the command post to drop back 1,000 meters. Seeing a disaster for the 2d Infantry in the making, General Hinh had his division reconnaissance company lifted in by helicopter to help defend the command post. Reaching the command post late in the afternoon, the reconnaissance company was soon joined by the 37th Ranger Battalion and two troops of the 111th Armored Cavalry which General Hinh had sent overland to reinforce the beleaguered 2d Infantry.
On the morning of 25 July, while an attempt was being made to regroup the scattered 3d Battalion, General Hinh ordered the 12th Ranger Group to bring its three battalions forward and relieve the 2d Infantry. As this relief was beginning, General Truong had the 1st Division send its 54th Infantry Regiment to Quang Nam for attachment to the 3d Division. Further, he cancelled all unit training in I Corps except for the 137th RF Battalion, soon to complete its training cycle.
The fighting in the hills south of Duc Duc took a heavy toll of the NVA 1st Regiment, and the 2d NVA Division had to withdraw it from action, just as the 3d ARVN Division had to relieve the 2d Infantry. The 38th NVA Regiment was ordered to stop its eastward movement and come to the relief of the 1st Regiment, while elements of the 31st NVA Regiment still around Hau Duc in Quang Tin Province were called forward to the division base at Hiep Duc to prepare to assist the 1st and 38th Regiments. The NVA plans for the 38th Regiment to move east into Go Noi were upset by the rapid ARVN deployment of the 12th Ranger Group. The battered 1st NVA Regiment was no longer equipped to protect the rear of the 38th or its line of communication against the expected counterattacks of the three Ranger battalions of the 12th Group. Further, the North Vietnamese soon learned of the movement of the 54th ARVN Regiment to Quang Nam, but they could not discover its mission or location. Considering these uncertainties, the NVA command suspended the attack and held its gains, replacing depleted battalions with fresh ones.
General Hinh had reached similar conclusions on 25 July. He declared the counterattack to retake Da Trach at an end; Quang Trung 4/74 was over and Quang Trung 8/74, an interim operation to defend the shallow positions south of Duc Duc Subsector, began. By this time, virtually all of the survivors of Da Trach had made their way back to friendly lines. Sixty-four were from the 3d Battalion, 56th Infantry; 79 from the 78th Ranger Battalion; 59 from the 4th Company, 146 RF Battalion; and 20 from the PF platoons. A few were village officials.
The 54th Infantry, 1st ARVN Division, arrived in Quang Nam on 26 July, put its headquarters at Dien Ban District Town, and immediately went into action. While the 1st Battalion took over a security mission in the Da Nang rocket belt near Hill 55, the 2d and 3d Battalions began clearing the area around Ky Chau Village on Go Noi Island. Both the 2d and 3d met heavy resistance and proceeded westward slowly, engaging an enemy force on 28 July and dispersing it with heavy losses.
Duc Duc and Dai Loc were struck on 25 July and again the next day by enemy rocket and artillery fire, but casualties were light. On 26 July, the Rangers completed their relief of the 2d Infantry and assumed responsibility for the sector. The 21st Ranger Battalion to the east was holding Nui Van Chi, the 37th Ranger Battalion was on Hill 238, just south of Nui Song Su, and the 39th Ranger Battalion was at Duc Duc Subsector in reserve. The shattered 2d Infantry moved west of Dai Loc District Town along Route 4 to protect the division right flank, while its 3d Battalion was being reformed at the division base near Da Nang. Meanwhile, the VNAF was trying its best to blunt the enemy attacks. The 1st Air Division flew 67 attack sorties on the 25th and 57 on the 26th, destroying a tank and several antiaircraft and mortar positions, striking large troop concentrations, and killing about 90 enemy soldiers.
The NVA continued to batter ARVN rear areas. Water-sappers reached the Nam O Bridge on Highway 1 north of Da Nang before dawn on 27 July and dropped one span, but ARVN engineers had the bridge open with a Bailey truss by early afternoon. On 29 July NVA gunners sent 70 122-mm. rockets into the inhabited area around Da Nang Air Base and its ammunition dump. Casualties and damage were light, however.
With the withdrawal of 2d Infantry, Quang Trung 8/74 was declared over on 29 July. Quang Trung 9/74 was to begin on 30 July. The troop list had the 12th Ranger Group in contact south of Duc Duc, the 2d Infantry on the flank west of Dai Loc, the 54th in the Go Noi east of Dai Loc, and the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 56th Infantry in reserve in Dai Loc District Town. The 3d Battalion, 56th Infantry, the battalion destroyed at Da Trach, was being reformed at Da Nang, while the 78th Ranger Battalion was undergoing the same process at the Duc My Ranger Training Center in Khanh Hoa Province.
When the 79th Ranger Battalion, 14th Ranger Group, returned from Quang Ngai to Quang Nam in mid-July of 1974 and assumed the defense of the post at Thuong Duc, the westernmost ARVN position in the province, the battle in the hills south of neighboring Duc Duc District Town was under way as NVA Military Region 5 committed all of its 2d Division there and in the Que Son Valley south of Duc Duc. Ranger and PF patrols and outposts around Thuong Duc reported little enemy activity, not unexpectedly since known enemy forces in Quang Nam were heavily engaged. Neither the Thuong Duc garrison nor, for that matter, the G-2 at I Corps Headquarters even suspected that the 29th NVA Regiment was rolling north to Thuong Duc following its mid-May conquest of Dak Pek.
The NVA shelling of Thuong Duc began on 29 July, while a volley of rockets fell on Da Nang Air Base. Infantry assaults on all outposts followed. Communication was quickly broken between Thuong Duc Subsector and three PF outposts. Contact was also lost with two Ranger outposts in the hills west of the town. ARVN artillery on Hill 52, near Dai Loc, gave effective support to the Thuong Duc defense, and enemy casualties were high.
Early on the morning of 30 July, the subsector commander was wounded by the continuing heavy bombardment, but all ground attacks were repulsed. Later that morning VNAF observers saw a convoy of tanks and artillery approaching along Route 4 west of Thuong Duc, and subsequent air strikes halted the column, destroying three tanks. As NVA attacks continued throughout the day, the Rangers of Thuong Duc took their first prisoner of war, and identified the presence of the 29th Regiment on the battlefield. Not apparent at the time, the 29th had been detached from the 324B NVA Division and was operating under NVA Military Region 5.
In an assault on 31 July, NVA infantrymen reached the perimeter wire of Thuong Duc. The Ranger battalion commander asked for artillery fire directly on his command post. With the NVA occupying the high ground above Route 4 east of Thuong Duc, the ARVN 3d Division and I Corps commanders believed that the forces available to them were inadequate to relieve Thuong Duc. To protect his flank, General Hinh had placed the battered 2d Infantry on the road west of Dai Loc, but it was not strong enough to move west along Route 4. More fire support for Thuong Duc was provided, however, when General Hinh moved a platoon of 175-mm. guns to Hieu Duc. Conditions in the Thuong Duc perimeter were serious but not yet critical. Most of the South Vietnamese bunkers and trenches had collapsed under heavy artillery fire, the enemy controlled the airstrip just outside the camp, and casualties were 13 killed and 45 wounded.
Although the intensity of the NVA bombardment dropped off between 31 July and 1 August, Ranger casualties continued to mount. NVA gunners shifted their concentrations to 2d Infantry positions and ARVN artillery batteries near Dai Loc, causing moderate casualties and damaging four howitzers. The Ranger commander at Thuong Duc asked for medical evacuation for his wounded, but the commander of the VNAF 1st Air Division advised that air evacuation would not be attempted until the NVA antiaircraft guns around Thuong Duc had been neutralized. Meanwhile, General Truong ordered one M-48 tank company to move immediately from northern Military Region 1 to Quang Nam for attachment to the 3d Division - he told General Hinh to keep the tank company in reserve and to employ it only in an emergency. General Hinh then formed a task force to attack west from Dai Loc and relieve the Rangers at Thuong Duc. The tank company from Tan My, in Thua Thien Province, arrived in Da Nang in good order on 1 August, and General Hinh's task force, composed of the 2d Infantry and the 11th Armored Cavalry Squadron, prepared for the march to Thuong Duc.
On 2 August, with only light attacks by fire striking the camp, the Ranger battalion resumed patrolling beyond its perimeter. On 4 August Ranger patrols discovered 53 NVA bodies killed by VNAF air strikes in the hills southwest of Thuong Duc, but attempts at air evacuation of ARVN casualties failed when VNAF sorties against six antiaircraft positions south of the camp were unable to silence the guns. The next day, the first indication of another committed NVA regiment was revealed when the 2d Battalion, 2d Infantry, captured a soldier from the 29th NVA Regiment east of Thuong Duc. According to the prisoner, the entire 29th Regiment was positioned in the hills overlooking Route 4 between Hill 52 and Thuong Duc, while a regiment of the NVA 304th Division had been given the mission to seize Thuong Duc. Events proved this interrogation to be accurate. The 2d Battalion had fought all afternoon in the rice paddies and hills north of Route 4. Slowly moving toward Thuong Duc, it was still four kilometers east of the ARVN fire base on Hill 52, which itself was under enemy artillery and infantry attack. By 5 August, the 2d Battalion was still struggling to move forward along the foothills north of Route 4, and the 1st Battalion, 57th ARVN Infantry, reinforcing the 2d Regiment, was stopped by heavy enemy machine gun fire from the hills west of Hill 52.
Back at Thuong Duc, the situation was rapidly becoming critical as ammunition and food supplies were being exhausted. The VNAF attempted a resupply drop on the camp on 5 August, but all eight bundles of food and ammunition fell outside the perimeter. The VNAF tried to destroy bundles that were within reach of the NVA, and one A-37 attack plane was shot down in the attempt.
The next day, while the relief task force was battling its way west against heavy resistance, General Truong, concerned about the critical threat to Da Nang from a large NVA force west of Dai Loc, ordered fresh reinforcements to Quang Nam. Appealing personally to General Vien at the Joint General Staff in Saigon, General Truong succeeded in getting the 1st Airborne Brigade released from the general reserve for deployment to Quang Nam and attachment to General Hinh's 3d Division. The brigade was ordered to reach Da Nang by 11 August with three airborne infantry battalions and one artillery battalion. Additionally, the 3d Airborne Brigade, then deployed in the defense of Hue, was told to prepare for movement to Da Nang. But none of these measures would save Thuong Duc; the NVA overran the small garrison on 7 August.
Thuong Duc had absorbed hundreds of artillery and mortar shells since the attack began, but the bombardment of 7 August was singular in its intensity. Over 1,200 rounds, including many from 130-mm. guns, landed inside the perimeter beginning on the night of 6 August. The first wave of infantrymen was repulsed that night, but the assault at dawn the next day penetrated the defense. At midmorning, the Ranger commander reported that he had started a withdrawal. Soon radio contact was lost. The gallant ordeal of another ARVN Ranger battalion was over. With Dak Pek and Tieu Atar lost in May, speculation at II Corps Headquarters in Pleiku held that Mang Buk would be next.
Perched on a hill above the Dak Nghe River, about 4,000 feet above sea level, Mang Buk was over 50 kilometers north of Kontum City and about 30 kilometers north of Chuong Nghia (Plateau Gi). A Communist supply route, locally known as A-16, connected Kontum with Quang Ngai and Binh Dinh Provinces and passed south of Mang Buk. The small garrison at Mang Buk, two RF companies and two PF platoons, had no capability to interfere with movement along this route. The subsector commander was under orders to keep one company in the camp and to patrol out to 2,000 meters. His firepower consisted of two 106-mm. recoilless rifles, two 81-mm. mortars, and some machine guns.
Realizing the threat to Mang Buk as well as its vulnerability, the Kontum province chief, Lt. Col. Mai Xuan Hau, ordered the evacuation of civilians from Mang Buk in June 1974. By the time the Communists began their siege on 25 July, all but 800 civilians had left.
Measured against other NVA sieges, the one at Mang Buk was light indeed; only 3,000 rounds hit the camp between 25 July and 4 August, while the subsector claimed 55 enemy killed. Other than 107-mm. rockets, the heaviest projectiles the enemy used were 82-mm. mortars. On 18 August, after a respite, the camp again came under heavy fire. The next day two battalions of the 66th Regiment of the 10th NVA Division, supported by artillery, overran the camp. Without artillery and denied air support by the low cloud cover, the defenders withdrew and headed for Chuong Nghia, the last remaining outpost in Kontum Province. The enemy was not far behind.
When II Corps Headquarters announced on 4 August 1974 that the first phase of the Mang Buk siege was over, the siege of Plei Me began. A well fortified position about midway between Pleiku City and the fallen outpost of Tieu Atar. Plei Me was defended by the 82d Ranger Battalion, which in April had been ejected from Fire Support Base 711 by an NVA assault. By early August FSB 711, an artillery base north of Plei Me, was back in ARVN hands and able to support the Plei Me defense.
From its base near Duc Co, the 320th NVA Division planned and executed the attack on Plei Me. Reconnaissance and deployments for the attack began in early June as the 48th Infantry Regiment, elements of the 64th Infantry Regiment, and an artillery battalion and an antiaircraft battalion of the 320th moved close to Plei Me. The ARVN II Corps reacted by reinforcing FSB 711 with the 42d Infantry of the 22d ARVN Division and striking enemy assembly areas with air and artillery attacks. The 320th delayed its attack but kept elements of its 48th Regiment near Plei Me. When ARVN II Corps moved the 42d Infantry back to Binh Dinh Province, the NVA B-3 Front saw an opportunity for a long-awaited assault on Plei Me.
The ARVN 82d Ranger Battalion at Plei Me, in addition to its four rifle companies, was reinforced by the 2d Company, 81st Ranger Battalion. The main defense was inside Plei Me Camp itself, with outposts in Chu Ho Hill and Hill 509. When the attack began, the 2d Company was patrolling outside the camp, and only 22 men were able to get back to the camp before the enemy closed off all access. The battalion headquarters was also outside the main defenses when the attack started, but the staff managed to dash in through the main gate before being cut off.
The 320th NVA Division employed at least four infantry battalions from its 9th and 48th Regiments, plus the 26th Independent Regiment of the B-3 Front, and later a battalion of its 64th Regiment, against the 410 men of the ARVN Rangers and the fire bases and relief columns supporting them. Artillery support included at least two 130-mm. guns and three 120-mm. mortars in addition to 85-mm. field guns, 82-mm. mortars, and recoilless rifles. At least 12 heavy antiaircraft machine guns (12.7-mm., equivalent to the U.S. .50-caliber) were in position to fire into the camp and at VNAF aircraft.
Vacating the bunkers bombarded by heavy Soviet mortars firing delay-fused projectiles, ARVN Rangers fought from their spider-web pattern of trenches. Two concentric fences of concertina barbed wire ringed the camp. The outer fence, six rows of concertina laced with mines, enclosed a 25-meter minefield strewn with claymores, trip grenades, and command-detonated 105-mm. howitzer projectiles.
Unlike Dak Pek and Tieu Atar, Plei Me was supported by artillery from outside the area under attack. ARVN batteries of 105-mm. and 155-mm. howitzers at Fire Support Base 711 provided excellent support. Artillery at Phu Nhon helped on the southern and eastern approaches, and 175-mm. guns covered the entire perimeter. The commander of the 82d Ranger Battalion and his deputy called and adjusted all fire missions, restricting radio traffic to themselves because the enemy monitored ARVN tactical nets.
Six days after the attack began, the outpost of Chu Ho fell on 10 August, followed five days later by Hill 509, but the main camp held on. Later, the battalion commander said that the outposts fell because they had run out of food. The main camp would have been defeated too if it had not rained, for there was no resupply of water during the 29-day siege. In any case, on 2 September the NVA 320th Division withdrew from the bloody field of Plei Me. It had launched 20 ground assaults, fired over 10,000 artillery and mortar rounds, and lost at least 350 soldiers in its attempt to overrun the 82d Ranger Battalion.
Duc Duc and Que Son
On 29 July 1974, when the NVA first attacked Thuong Duc, the ARVN 21st Ranger Battalion on the left flank of the Ranger positions protecting Duc Duc District came under heavy attack. Although they inflicted heavy casualties on the 36th NVA Regiment, the Rangers were forced back about 1,000 meters to the slopes of Nui Duong Coi. The NVA pursued, and fighting continued in the rough terrain in front of Nui Duong Coi for several days. Then on 3 August, the 36th Regiment launched a strong attack. Several Ranger positions collapsed, and the commander of the 12th Ranger Group ordered the 39th Ranger Battalion to assist the 21st. After an all-day battle, the enemy withdrew and the Rangers regained all lost ground. The VNAF contributed greatly to the ARVN success; although Ranger casualties were high - more than 35 killed, 100 wounded, and 25 missing - the NVA left over 200 dead on the field. While the infantry fought in the hills, the NVA artillery slammed 280 rounds of 122-mm. rockets and 100-mm. gunfire into the command post of the 12th Ranger Group. Casualties were light, however. Fatigued and badly depleted, the 12th Ranger Group was relieved by the 54th Infantry, 1st ARVN Division. With its battalions down to 200 men each, the group withdrew to the rear to receive replacements and a much-needed rest. Through August and early September, the ARVN 54th Infantry made major advances even though the NVA reinforced the 36th Regiment with the 1st Infantry.
Other reinforcements were on their way from North Vietnam. The 41st Infantry Regiment with three infantry battalions and a sapper battalion arrived in Thanh My, southwest of Thuong Duc, in mid-August and soon deployed between Thuong Duc and Duc Duc.
While central Quang Nam Province was quaking under the NVA offensive, ARVN forces defending the Que Son Valley also came under heavy attack. The first outpost to fall was a hill southwest of Que Son District Town defended by an RF company and one company of the 57th ARVN Infantry. When contact was lost with the defenders on 31 July, General Truong ordered major changes in r Corps dispositions that inevitably weakened the ARVN hold on contested regions of Quang Ngai Province.
On 1 August, the responsibility for the Que Son Valley was transferred from the 3d ARVN Division, heavily engaged in Thuong Duc and Duc Duc, to the 2d Division. The 57th Infantry, minus a battalion attached to the 2d Infantry in Duc Duc, was attached to the 2d Division in the Que Son Valley, and the 4th Infantry was deployed to the valley from Binh Son District in Quang Ngai Province to be the I Corps reserve south of the Hai Van Pass. To compensate for the 4th Infantry's departure, the 5th Infantry was moved to Binh Son, and the 6th Infantry took over the 5th Infantry's mission in Duc Pho. Only territorials and a few Rangers were left in the threatened Mo Duc District of Quang Ngai.
The 4th Infantry was immediately engaged by two NVA battalions between Fire Support Base Baldy and Que Son. Although no more important positions were lost, fighting continued sporadically for the rest of the year in the Que Son Valley. Da Nang air base was subjected to several rocket attacks during August, but casualties and damage were negligible.
In September, faced with a deteriorating situation north of the Hai Van Pass, General Truong returned troops to the 1st ARVN Division in Thua Thien. Since the 54th Infantry Regiment had pushed the forward defenses of Duc Duc south almost to the Khe Le Valley and the 56th Infantry had partially recovered from punishing summer battles, he ordered the 54th to return to its parent division. General Hinh relieved the 54th with his own division's 56th Infantry. Thus, in early September, the infantrymen of the 56th Regiment returned to the battle-scarred hills of Duc Duc. The 3d Battalion took up positions on the right, on Khuong Que Hill where its 2d Company had fought and lost the first engagement of the enemy's Duc Duc campaign. The 1st Battalion was on the left, on Ky Vi Hill, and the 2d Battalion was in reserve with the regimental headquarters near Duc Duc Subsector.
The 1st NVA Regiment, 2d Division, launched simultaneous, heavily supported assaults on both forward battalions of the 56th Regiment on 4 October. While mortar and artillery fire pounded the 3d Battalion command post, NVA sappers entered the headquarters perimeter and severed communications with the two forward ARVN companies. These companies, under infantry attack from the front, withdrew and were caught in a devastating crossfire from the rear and flanks. The 1st Battalion fared little better; its outposts were also overrun, but casualties were lighter. The NVA coordinated artillery fire with great skill in this assault; a steady rain of shells kept the 56th Regiment's headquarters and the 2d Battalion from reacting while the two forward battalions were being overrun. As soon as he was able, the regimental commander ordered the attached 21st Ranger Battalion back into the line to relieve the shattered 3d Battalion.
The 1st NVA Regiment had accomplished its mission, but casualties were heavy, and it lacked the strength either to pursue or to consolidate its gains. The ARVN defensive line south of Duc Duc remained virtually unchanged, but the 56th Regiment was nearly out of action. Only the 2d Battalion could put more than 300 men in the field, and the 3d Battalion had only 200. General Hinh had to relieve the regiment again with the 12th Ranger Group.
During the summer and fall of 1974, the 3d ARVN Division and attached Rangers had reached exhaustion. By any standards, casualties had been extremely high. More than 4,700 men had been killed, wounded, or were missing in the actions in and around Duc Duc in the three months since the Communist offensive began at Da Trach on 18 July. A disproportionate number were officers and noncommissioned officers for whom no experienced replacements were available.
The first contingent of the 1st Airborne Brigade was flown into Da Nang on 8 August 1974, the day after the 79th Ranger Battalion was driven out of Thuong Duc. Meanwhile the brigade's heavy equipment was moving up the coast from Saigon on Vietnamese Navy boats. On 11 August General Truong ordered the 3d Airborne Brigade to deploy with three airborne battalions to Da Nang. By 14 August, the brigade headquarters and the 2d, 3d, and 6th Battalions were in Quang Nam, their defensive sectors in Thua Thien having been taken over by the 15th Ranger Group under the operational control of the ARVN 1st Infantry Division. Brig. Gen. Le Quong Luong, commanding the Airborne Division, established his command post at Marble Mountain south of Da Nang. His 2d Brigade remained in Thua Thien attached to the Marine Division.
A steep ridge extended north from the Song Vu Gia and Route 4. The low hills at the southern foot of the ridge had been seized by the 29th NVA Regiment, which had blocked the ARVN task force's relief of the Rangers at Thuong Duc. The highest point on the ridge was about six kilometers north of Route 4 on Hill 1235, but Hill 1062, about 2,000 meters south of Hill 1235, offered the best observation of the road and Dai Loc. Having placed an observation post on Hill 1062, the NVA was delivering accurate artillery fire on ARVN positions in Dai Loc. Consequently, the first mission assigned to the Airborne Division was the capture of Hill 1062 and the ridge south to the road. To deal with the threat developing west of Da Nang, the 3d Airborne Brigade was assigned the secondary mission of blocking the western approaches in Hieu Duc District.
The 8th and 9th Airborne Battalions began the attack and made their first firm contact with elements of the 29th NVA Regiment on 18 August east of Hill 52, the same area in which the 3d ARVN Division Task Force had run into strong resistance. For an entire month, these battalions doggedly pressed forward along the ridge toward Hill 1062. In the meantime, having sustained heavy casualties, the 29th NVA Regiment brought in reinforcements. The NVA 3d Corps ordered the 31st NVA Regiment, 2d Division, to Thuong Duc to relieve the 66th Regiment, 304th NVA Division, so that the 66th could be deployed in support of the 29th, which was steadily giving ground to attacking Airborne troops. Additionally, the 24th Regiment, 304th NVA Division, arrived in the battle area in early September. Finally, on 19 September, the 1st Airborne Brigade reported that it had troopers on Hill 1062.
While the ARVN was taking nearly two weeks to consolidate the controlling terrain along this section of the ridge, the 66th NVA Regiment relieved the severely depleted 29th, and elements of the 24th NVA Regiment joined the fight against the 1st Airborne Brigade. By 2 October, the brigade was in possession of the high ground, and the 2d and 9th Battalions were digging in on the ridge to the south. About 300 enemy soldiers were killed in this phase of the battle on Hill 1062, and seven prisoners of war were taken. All were from the 304th - the Dien Bien Phu Division - one of the first regular units in the Viet Minh formed by General Giap in 1950.
During the weeks that followed, the 1st Airborne Brigade fought off repeated attempts by the 304th NVA Division to retake the ridge. Making skillful use of air and artillery support, the brigade managed to hold on despite the heavily supported assaults of superior numbers. In one incident, when the 24th NVA Infantry was allowed to penetrate the defenses on hills 383 and 126 and advance directly into a killing zone of preplanned artillery fires, nearly 250 of the attacking force was killed.
By mid-October, the 1st Airborne Brigade had also taken heavy casualties, and the four battalions in the hills above Thuong Duc were down to about 500 men each. Estimated enemy losses were over 1,200 killed during the first half of October, and 14 soldiers of the Dien Bien Phu Division were prisoners of war. The NVA, nevertheless, was determined to regain the dominating heights. On 29 October, the reinforced 24th NVA Regiment began another assault on Hill 1062, this time firing large concentrations of tear gas. This assault carried to the highest position on the ridge, forcing an airborne battalion to withdraw. On 1 November, Hill 1062 was again in enemy hands.
Meanwhile in Thua Thien Province, enemy pressure against the lightly held Hue defenses was becoming severe, and General Truong was receiving strongly phrased requests from his elements north of the Hai Van Pass to return at least some of the Airborne Division. General Truong resisted and ordered Brig. Gen. Le Quong Luong of the Airborne to retake Hill 1062. The attack began on 8 November, and three days later ARVN troopers were back on the ridge. They established new defensive positions on the slopes, leaving the furrowed, shattered crest to the dozens of NVA dead who remained there. Although heavy fighting continued in the hills and on the ridge for several more weeks as the Airborne Division expanded its control of critical terrain, the most violent phase of one of the bloodiest battles since the cease-fire was over. The Airborne Division had lost nearly 500 of its soldiers killed since its commitment in Quang Nam Province on 15 August. Nearly 2,000 had been wounded. Enemy casualties were estimated to be about 2,000 killed and 5,000 wounded. Seven of the nine airborne battalions had fought in the three month campaign, and by mid-November six of these were on Hill 1062. The enemy had observation of the airborne positions from the heights of Hill 1235, but General Luong could not muster enough force to take this peak and still defend what he had. Similarly, the enemy lacked the forces to counterattack in strength.
By the end of 1974, all but two airborne battalions were withdrawn from Hill 1062. The remaining 1st and 7th Battalions kept patrols there and depended on artillery fires to deny the terrain to enemy occupation, but placed their main battle positions near Dong Lam Mountain, about 4 kilometers to the east, and in the ridges above Hill 52.
The rainy season had reached Quang Nam Province in October and provided some respite from the intense and continual combat of summer. Both sides needed this time to recuperate and prepare for the next dry season and, although neither knew it then, the final NVA offensive.
While the first phase of the siege of Mang Buc was under way, the rest of Kontum Province was relatively quiet. On 2 August 1974, Brig. Gen. Le Trung Tuong, commanding the 23d ARVN Division and responsible for the security of the western Central Highlands (Kontum, Pleiku, Darlac and Quang Duc Provinces), moved his main headquarters from Kontum to a more central location in Pleiku. In Kontum he left a forward command post and a sizable force of infantry under the command of his deputy, Colonel Hu The Quang. The troops under Colonel Quang's command included the 45th ARVN Infantry Regiment, defending the northeast approaches to Kontum City and operating in the mountainous jungle between Route 5B (LTL-5B) and Outpost Number 4. About 15 kilometers northeast of Kontum, Outpost Number 4 was lost to an NVA attack during the summer and never recovered by the ARVN. It had provided a base for interdicting an NVA road, called Route 715, which the Communists were constructing from Vo Dinh, northeast of Kontum, toward Binh Dinh. North of Outpost Number 4, Outpost Number 5 served a similar purpose, but it was also lost to the NVA that summer.
Colonel Quang had the 40th ARVN Infantry Regiment, attached from the 22d ARVN Division, securing the northwestern approaches to the city. Two battalions of the 44th ARVN Infantry Regiment were in reserve behind the 40th northwest of Kontum, while the third battalion was retraining in Ban Me Thuot. Three RF battalions manned outposts along the northern and western approaches, while a fourth RF battalion and two Ranger battalions secured the southern reaches of the province and the Chu Pao Pass.
Although Colonel Quang felt that he could defend Kontum City, ARVN formations in the highlands had lost the mobility that had previously enabled II Corps to deploy forces rapidly by air - from small patrols to entire divisions - to meet enemy threats and somewhat nullify the advantages of initiative and surprise. Constraints on fuel and maintenance had all but eliminated air mobility. Long range reconnaissance patrols, formerly moved by helicopter, were now walking to objective areas, their range and ability to remain drastically shortened. Logistical airlift for the entire province was limited to one CH-47 helicopter; consequently, nearly all supply and evacuation was trucked as far as possible, then carried over steep trails to forward positions. Thus, even in good weather, the ARVN could not reinforce or rescue isolated outposts such as Mang Buc.
As Mang Buc was overrun, the NVA B-3 Front conducted attacks along the Kontum defenses that held the meager II Corps reserves in place, denying reinforcements to Mang Buc. Enemy pressure declined after Mang Buc's fall, and the ARVN in Kontum concentrated on the enemy's Route 715, which by mid-September had been extended to within 15 kilometers of the boundary of Binh Dinh and Pleiku Provinces, bypassing the Kontum defenses on the east. The ARVN II Corps sent long range reconnaissance patrols against the road to lay mines and sabotage trucks and road building equipment, and air strikes were called in. Four 175-mm. guns in Kontum, with fires adjusted by the Province's remaining L-19 observation plane, also interdicted Route 715. Persistent ARVN attacks caused high casualties among the NVA work parties and temporarily stopped further extension of the road.
While II Corps was pounding away at Route 715, the NVA B-3 Front was preparing to attack Chuong Nghia. Aware of an impending attack, II Corps headquarters moved the 254th RF Battalion, operating west of Kontum City, to reinforce the defense of Chuong Nghia. By the end of September 1974 the garrison had 600 men - 280 from the 254th, one RF Company, and nine PF platoons. The defense included a ring of outposts as far as six kilometers from the camp, intermediate outposts about three kilometers away, and an inner ring about 1,000 meters out. About 2,000 civilians lived within the camp's perimeter.
The NVA attacked the outposts on 30 September. Two 105-mm. howitzers in Chuong Nghia could not adequately support the widely scattered platoons and companies and one by one, the outposts were overrun. Although the commander of II Corps, General Toan, ordered two 175-mm. guns to move up Route 5B from Kontum to support the defense, the poor condition of the road made the going very slow. As the attacks continued on 1 October, II Corps sent an RF company by air to Chuong Nghia.
By 2 October, five outposts had fallen and the camp was under heavy bombardment. The ARVN 251st RF Battalion was at the Kontum airfield waiting to be flown to Chuong Nghia, but heavy enemy fire on the airstrip prevented the landing. The two 175-mm. guns were not yet in range.
The final assault began on 3 October with heavy artillery concentrations falling on the subsector headquarters and on the command post of the 254th RF Battalion. Volleys of 1,000 rounds were followed by the assault of a battalion of NVA infantry, from the 28th Regiment, against the subsector and 254th RF Battalion. Defensive positions were quickly overrun. Chuong Nghia was lost, and few survived. Although VNAF fighter-bombers were employed against the 28th NVA Regiment and its supporting artillery, the last major outpost in Kontum Province had fallen. Without supporting artillery, the South Vietnamese had no way to hold a small, isolated garrison against a determined, well supported NVA attack.
The demands for reinforcements in Quang Nam Province and in the Que Son Valley had spread the ARVN very thin in Quang Ngai Province, which had been boiling with enemy activity since early summer. The 2d ARVN Division, under Brig. Gen. Tran Van Nhut, had conducted fairly successful pacification and security operations in Quang Ngai, but the vast expanse of territory it had to cover was vulnerable to hit-and-run Communist attacks. Furthermore, a number of ARVN outposts were deep in the hills beyond supporting or quick reinforcing distance.
The principal adversary opposing the ARVN in Quang Ngai was still the 52d NVA Brigade, which had four infantry battalions, a sapper battalion, and supporting artillery. The brigade had its battalions deployed west of National Highway 1 (QL-1), and south of Nghia Hanh District Town in position to threaten the populated areas of Mo Duc and Duc Pho, as well as the mountain district seats at Son Ha, Tra Bong, and Minh Long and the frontier outpost of Gia Vuc in the far western edge of Ba To District. Five other battalions of local sappers and infantry were disposed close to Route 1 from the northern district of Binh Son south to Duc Pho, and one battalion had infiltrated into the Batangan Peninsula east of Binh Son.
Augmenting the 2d ARVN Division in Quang Ngai Province were 12 RF battalions and 3 battalions of the 11th Ranger Group. The 68th Ranger Battalion was at Son Ha District Town, over the mountains west of Quang Ngai City; the 69th Ranger Battalion was in Tra Bong, up the Tra Bong River from Binh Son; and the 70th Ranger Battalion was still defending the outpost at Gia Vuc.
Timing operations with the opening of the offensive in Quang Nam Province, the NVA initiated heavy attacks by fire and ground assaults throughout Quang Ngai on the night of 19 July 1974. The following morning, NVA gunners fired at the base at Chu Lai with eight 122-mm. rockets but caused no damage. Attacks continued for five days before the intensity began to fall off.
Meanwhile, the critical situation in Quang Nam impelled General Truong to order Maj. Gen. Le Van Nhut to send his 4th Infantry Regiment to take over defense of the Que Son Valley, relieving the 3d ARVN Division of a responsibility that had distracted General Hinh from the principal threat in central Quang Nam. Heavy NVA attacks flared again on 3 and 4 August in the central district of Nghia Hanh. In the hills south of the district town in the Cong Hoa Valley, the 118th RF Battalion was overrun following a heavy artillery concentration. Two battalions, one RF and the other from the 5th Infantry, were sent to reinforce the 118th, but they arrived too late to rescue the position. General Truong and General Nhut saw the hard-won gains of the summer slipping away. There were no spectacular enemy initiatives: just a gradual erosion of security as one small position after another fell to short, violent enemy assaults. But with so few troops available, South Vietnamese commanders could do little to halt the decline, much less restore the earlier situation. The first of the district headquarters to fall during the NVA offensive was Minh Long when elements of the 52d NVA Brigade overran the two defending RF Companies on 17 August. Outposts held by the 15 local PF platoons collapsed quickly under the weight of NVA artillery. A platoon of 105-mm. artillery was soon out of action, its howitzers damaged by enemy fire. A three-battalion ARVN relief force failed to make any headway, and NVA trucks were seen hauling ammunition into Minh Long on 23 August. Three days after the fall of Minh Long, General Nhut asked General Truong for permission to withdraw the 70th Ranger Battalion from Gia Vuc, now completely isolated and exposed to Communist attack. General Nhut also wanted to pull the 68th and 69th Rangers out of Son Ha and Tra Bong because these battalions had poor prospects for survival against heavy NVA firepower. General Truong understood, but he would not agree to abandoning any districts to the Communists without a fight.
Artillery fire on Gia Vuc began on 19 September, followed shortly by ground assaults. Five outposts fell, but the Rangers moved out quickly and retook three of them. But without artillery support or air strikes - the weather was bad - and losing 50 men killed and as many wounded, the 70th Ranger Battalion was unable to hold. The camp fell on 21 September. Only 21 survivors eventually made it back to ARVN lines.
Some help for beleaguered Quang Ngai Province appeared on 1 October when the 4th Infantry, 2d ARVN Infantry Division, returned to Chu Lai from its operations in the Que Son Valley to try to recover the terrain lost to the NVA south of Nghia Hanh District Town. Well entrenched, the Communists had even moved a battery of 37-mm. antiaircraft guns to within four kilometers of the district town, but the guns were soon destroyed by ARVN artillery. The enemy force blocking the 4th Infantry's advance included three battalions of the 52d NVA Brigade. The 4th Infantry took heavy casualties but made no significant gains.
In December, the reconstituted battalions of the 14th Ranger Group from Quang Nam Province reinforced the 6th ARVN Infantry in heavy fighting on the Batangan Peninsula. Casualties were high, but the improvements to local security were slight.
As the year ended in Quang Ngai, the advantage and initiative lay in enemy hands. South Vietnamese territorial forces were understrength and dispirited; the once-effective 2d ARVN Division could field battalions of only 300 men each, and Ranger battalions were sorely fatigued from continual combat.
The NVA's strategic raids campaign in the vast region south of the Hai Van had accomplished three things that placed NVA forces in an excellent position to begin a major offensive. First, although NVA casualties were very high, the campaign had severely depleted the ARVN of experienced leaders and soldiers. Replacements were not well trained or in sufficient numbers to bring battered battalions up to strength. On the other hand, the NVA replacement flow was copious and free from interference. Second, NVA command, staff, logistics, and communications had been thoroughly expanded and proven during this campaign; the new 3d Corps had the valuable experience of a major offensive behind it. Third, the NVA had pushed its holdings to the edge of the narrow coastal plain and was within artillery range of nearly every major South Vietnamese installation and population center. Similar progress, meanwhile, was being made north of the Hai Van Pass.
Note on Sources
The field reporting from the Consul General's Office, Da Nang, was especially copious and usually reliable; these reports formed a large part of the basis of this chapter. Additionally, the author made a number of visits to Military Region 1 and 2 and has referred to his notes. DAO, Saigon, and J2/JGS Weekly Summaries provided most of the information on order-of-battle and combat activity. Most significant in this chapter, however, were the comments and corrections made by Generals Truong and Hinh whose personal recollections provided accurate data and understanding.