Chapter 13 The Last Christmas: Phuoc Long
In his serialized account of the "Great Spring Victory" (translated in the Foreign Broadcast Information Service - FBIS - Daily Report: Asia and Pacific, vol. IV, no. 110, Supplement 38, 7 Jun. 1976, pp. 2, 5-6), Senior General Van Tien Dung of the North Vietnamese Army described deliberations of the Central Military Party Committee and the General Staff as they reviewed the events of the summer campaign. He wrote of how, between April and October, from Thua Thien to Saigon, NVA forces had stepped up the offensive actions and had won great victories. The facts were, of course, that the NVA was stalemated at the extremes of this long battlefield - in Thua Thien and around Saigon - but had overrun isolated bases in the Central Highlands and succeeded at great cost in penetrating to the edge of the Quang Nam lowlands. This latter success loomed large in significance to General Dung and NVA planners:
We paid special attention to the outcome of a battle which destroyed the district capital of Thuong Duc in the 5th Region. This was a test of strength with the best of the enemy's forces. We destroyed the enemy forces defending the Thuong Duc district capital subsector. The enemy sent in a whole division of paratroopers to launch repeated and protracted counterattacks in a bid to recapture this position, but we heavily decimated the enemy forces, firmly defending Thuong Duc and forcing the enemy to give up.
However distorted the account, the victory at Thuong Duc and the numerous, more easily won objectives in the highlands demonstrated to the satisfaction of the North Vietnamese high command that the time had arrived for an even bolder strategy. General Dung went on to relate how the General Staff reported to the Central Military Party Committee that the combat capability of our mobile main force troops was now altogether superior to that of the enemy's mobile regular troops, that the war had reached its final stage and that the balance of forces had changed in our favor.
General Dung believed, and the Military Committee and the General Staff agreed, that the NVA's superiority should be exploited in a new strategy. The NVA would no longer attack only to destroy the RVNAF but would combine this objective with attacks to "liberate" populated areas. It would move out of the jungles and mountains into the lowlands. NVA planners observed that, "the reduction of U.S. aid made it impossible for the puppet troops to carry out their combat plan and build up their forces" and that the South Vietnamese were "forced to fight a poor man's war," their firepower having decreased "by nearly 60 percent because of bomb and ammunition shortages" and their mobility was reduced "by half due to lack of aircraft, vehicles and fuel."
According to General Dung, the conference of the Politburo and the Central Military Committee met in October, considered the General Staff's assessments and recommendation, and unanimously agreed on the following:
1. The puppet troops were militarily, politically and economically weakening every day and our forces were quite stronger than the enemy in the south.
2. The United States was facing mounting difficulties both at home and in the world, and its potential for aiding the puppets was rapidly declining.
3. We had created a chain of mutual support, had strengthened our reserve forces and materiel and were steadily improving our strategic and political systems.
4. The movement to demand peace, improvement of the people's livelihood, democracy, national independence and Thieu's overthrow in various cities was gaining momentum.
Having assessed their own capabilities and those of RVNAF, and having concluded that the time was right for the final offensive, the conferees had to consider how the United States would react. They concluded:
After signing the Paris agreement on Vietnam and withdrawing U.S. troops from Vietnam, the United States had faced even greater difficulties and embarrassment. The internal contradictions within the U.S. administration and among U.S. political parties had intensified. The Watergate scandal had seriously affected the entire United States and precipitated the resignation of an extremely reactionary president - Nixon. The United States faced economic recession, mounting inflation, serious unemployment and an oil crisis. Also, U.S. allies were not on good terms with the United States, and countries who had to depend on the United States also sought to escape U.S. control. U.S. aid to the Saigon puppet administration was decreasing.
Comrade Le Duan drew an important conclusion that became a resolution: Having already withdrawn from the south, the United States could hardly jump back in, and no matter how it might intervene, it would be unable to save the Saigon administration from collapse. Phuoc Long became the battleground for the first test of this assessment.
Phuoc Long - the Setting
The summer and fall of 1974 in South Vietnam's 3d Military Region had been difficult times. Unlike the losses in Military Regions 1 and 2, however, very little terrain of consequence had been given up to the NVA summer offensive. The divisional battles in Binh Duong, Tay Ninh, and Bien Hoa Provinces had produced thousands of casualties, but all positions - except those on the Tay Ninh-Cambodian frontier - were eventually retaken by ARVN troops. The mop-up of the Iron Triangle was not completed until 24 November, the eve of the next phase of the NVA offensive, the most significant step before the ultimate offensive of 1975.
Since Phuoc Long Province was far outside the defenses of Saigon, its importance to South Vietnam was essentially political in that the government could still claim possession of all province capitals. On the other hand, the presence of RVNAF bases deep inside otherwise NVA-controlled territory was anathema to the enemy. Several important COSVN tactical and logistical units and activities were in the Bo Duc-Bu Dop complex of villages and plantations. The COSVN M-26 Armor Command, usually with three of its tank battalions, was based at the Bu Dop airfield only 25 kilometers from the ARVN base at Song Be. The COSVN Engineer Command had a headquarters at Bo Duc and kept three or more battalions working on roads between Loc Ninh and Bu Gia Map to the northeast. Antiaircraft battalions, transportation battalions, training centers, and other rear service organizations contributed to a relatively dense NVA military population, nearly within medium artillery range of Phuoc Binh, the capital of Phuoc Long Province. Additionally, four major NVA infiltration-supply routes traversed Phuoc Long Province from north to south, past RVNAF bases and crossed sections of National Route 14 patrolled by South Vietnamese troops.
The summer in Phuoc Long had been relatively uneventful. In August an enemy soldier turned himself in to the Phuoc Long Sector Headquarters and described a recent reconnaissance of RVNAF installations by two NVA patrols. While one patrol had reconnoitered Song Be, the other had concentrated on Duc Phong District. Since no attacks followed, the province chief concluded that the reconnaissance was probably related to infiltration and logistical movements. In any event, the major NVA combat formations in the area were not sufficient to create a serious threat to Phuoc Long, although they could interfere with RVNAF movements on the major routes to Song Be, Highway 14 from Quang Duc and the provincial road between Song Be and Bunard. The 7th NVA Division, however, had for some time permanently blocked Highway 14 between Bunard and Don Luan, causing traffic to the province capital to detour through Quang Duc. Because the 7th NVA Division also cut Route 1A south of Don Luan, that town relied exclusively on helicopter resupply.
NVA interdictions of Highway 14 east of Phuoc Binh-Song Be were often enough to require the RVNAF to mount road-clearing operations each time a major rice and military convoy was scheduled to roll into Phuoc Long. The province required about 500 tons of rice per month, of which only half was produced locally and frequent convoys were necessary. The forces in Phuoc Long kept enough ammunition on hand to last for a week of intensive combat, and these stocks also had to be replenished frequently. Road convoys were supplemented by VNAF C-130's using the airstrip at Song
Anticipating a resupply convoy in early November 1974, the Phuoc Long Sector, commanded by Colonel Nguyen Tan Thanh, started to clear the road. To protect its bases while RF battalions were on the highway, the III Corps, lacking infantry reserves, sent three reconnaissance companies to Phuoc Binh and Song Be, one from each of the three III Corps divisions. Forces at Duc Phong - the 362d RF Battalion, four PF platoons, and a 105-mm. howitzer platoon - and two companies from the 304th RF Battalion from Song Be were committed along Highway 14. In their one brief encounter with the enemy, near the Quang Duc boundary, these forces killed four enemy soldiers from the 201st NVA Regiment of the newly formed 3d NVA division. (This Division, formed in Phuoc Long, was separate from and unrelated to the 3d NVA Division operating in Binh Dinh.) Although the ARVN operation was a success, the presence of an NVA regiment so close to Duc Phong was an ominous sign.
In addition to the 340th and 362d RF Battalions already mentioned, Colonel Thanh also controlled the 341st RF Battalion at Don Luan and the 363d RF Battalion at Bunard. Thirty-four PF Platoons were scattered about the hamlets and military installations around Song Be, while 14 PF platoons defended eight hamlets in the Duc Phong Subsector. South of Song Be at New Bo Duc, where the refugees of Communist-occupied northern Phuoc Long settled, were nine PF platoons; in the eight hamlets and military posts around Don Luan, were a like number. Artillery support was provided by four 155-mm. and 16 105-mm. howitzers, employed in two-gun platoons throughout the sector. The RF battalions were fielding about 340 men each - about 85 percent of full strength - but the PF platoons were seriously understrength.
Phuoc Long Province during late November and early December was relatively tranquil, and the attention of the ARVN III Corps commander was divided between his eastern and western flanks. The situation in the northern reaches of his region were of little immediate concern. Outposts around An Loc in Binh Long Province received sporadic enemy attacks by fire but were not in peril, although resupply was a constant problem due to NVA antiaircraft fire. On 5 December an SA-7 missile shot down a CH-47 helicopter nine kilometers south of An Loc, killing all 15 passengers and crew members.
The major enemy threats appeared in Tay Ninh Province in the west and in Long Khanh and Binh Tuy Province in the east. A skirmish northeast of Xuan Loc at the end of November netted a document revealing enemy plans to attack Gia Ray and eliminate ARVN outposts along Route 333 north into Binh Tuy Province. Supporting attacks in Binh Tuy were to be conducted by the 812th NVA Regiment
While the threat on the eastern flank was inchoate, heavy combat in Tay Ninh was under way, NVA rockets falling on the province capital and on adjacent military installations. Although an RF company guarding the radio relay station on the summit of Nui Ba Den began receiving attacks of increasing intensity and frequency, the main NVA effort was against hamlets and RF outposts along local Route 13 northeast of Tay Ninh City. The NVA attacked early on 7 December. By noon, forces from the 205th Independent NVA Regiment were in the hamlets, although the RF post at Soui Da held on. The 8th and 9th Battalions, 205th NVA Regiment, were on local Route 13 southwest of Soui Da, and the NVA D-14 and D-16 Tay Ninh Battalions were blocking ARVN relief efforts. Meanwhile, the 7th Battalion, 205th NVA Regiment, in trying to overrun Soui Da, lost over 100 of its soldiers. The ARVN RF battalion defending Soui Da captured two NVA soldiers to confirm the identification of the 205th NVA Regiment in the attack, and one of the RF patrols ambushed and captured a 100-mm. Soviet field gun. The ARVN 46th Infantry, pushing a column up Route 13 from Tay Ninh City, did not fare so well. Ambushed on 12 December about three kilometers short of Soui Da, it suffered heavy casualties.
While heavy combat was taking place around Nui Ba Den, the 80-man RF company at the top fought off repeated assaults. Helicopter resupply and evacuation had become impossible, and although the company commander reported sufficient food and ammunition, water was running very short and several severely wounded men required evacuation.
Binh Tuy-Long Khanh
The RVNAF JGS and the III Corps commander had excellent warning of the impeding NVA attacks in Long Khanh and Binh Tuy Provinces. They knew that the 33d NVA Regiment planned to attack Hoai Duc District in Binh Tuy Province and that the recently formed 812th NVA Regiment, composed of battalions from neighboring Lam Dong, would attack in Tanh Linh District. Furthermore, they rightfully estimated that the 274th NVA Regiment would be involved. A new NVA division headquarters had been created to control the operation. Lacking information on its designation, the RVNAF called this new adversary the MR 7 Division, after the NVA military region in which it operated. Later, it was identified as the 6th NVA Division, and it controlled the three infantry regiments mentioned, plus the usual supporting arms and services found in the regular NVA divisions.
There were no regular ARVN units in Binh Tuy Province when the NVA offensive began. Territorial companies were deployed in the principal villages, and smaller territorial detachments secured bridges and checkpoints along local Routes 333 and 335, Hoai Duc's and Tanh Linh's only usable land routes out of the province. The province's small population was concentrated in the villages along these two roads, which generally followed the meandering course of the Song La Nga. Beginning in the 5,000-foot mountains overlooking the flat, deep forests of Binh Tuy on the northeast quadrant, the Song La Nga flowed through the rice bowl of the province. The two district towns, Tanh Linh on the east and Hoai Duc on the west, each had an airfield. The only other sizable village in the Province was Vo Xu, about midway between the two.
The 812th NVA Regiment attacked at Tanh Linh on 8 December. Supported by the 130th Artillery Battalion, one sapper and three infantry battalions attacked the subsector, the artillery position on the hill above the town, and the villages between Tanh Linh and Vo Xu. By the next day, the NVA Regiment had captured two 155-mm. howitzers at Tanh Linh, occupied the surrounding villages, and held the road between Vo Xu and Tanh Linh.
The ARVN III Corps ordered the 18th Infantry Division, with the 7th Ranger Group attached, from Xuan Loc to reinforce the territorials in Binh Tuy Province. When the 32d Ranger Battalion fell into a well-laid ambush along Route 333 and sustained heavy casualties, it became clear that the 33d NVA Regiment was not going to permit the reinforcement of Binh Tuy to proceed without a fight. Later the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 48th ARVN Infantry, 18th Division, joined the attack along Route 333 and were soon in heavy combat north of Gia Ray. In the days that followed, the 85th Ranger Battalion made it a four-battalion task force pushing up Route 333, but the lead elements - the Rangers - never made it past Gia Huynh, still 16 kilometers south of Hoai Duc. The NVA 33d Regiment was dug in along the road, well supported by mortars and artillery.
On 17 December Duy Can Village, between Vo Xu and Tanh Linh, was overrun by the 812th NVA Regiment, and the few survivors of the 700th RF Company struggled into Tanh Linh. Although outposts still in ARVN hands, as well as Hoai Duc and Tanh Linh, were receiving heavy indirect fire, General Dong, commanding III Corps ordered the 18th Division not try to press forward past Gia Huynh on Route 333. With his Military Region under attack from Tay Ninh to Phuoc Long, he was unwilling to risk having four of his battalions cut off and decimated. Meanwhile, the NVA blew a bridge south of Hoai Duc, occupied Vo Xu, and increased the intensity of its attack on Tanh Linh. Following a 3,000-round bombardment on 23 and 24 December, the NVA launched five successive assaults, finally overrunning the last defenses ;n Tanh Linh on Christmas. Hoai Duc, meanwhile, was under attack by the 274th Infantry, 6th NVA Division.
After the 274th NVA Regiment had penetrated the local defenses of Hoai Duc and had gained a foothold in the northeastern and southwestern edges of the town, the ARVN 18th Division moved the 1st and 2d Battalions, 43d Infantry by helicopter west and north of the town respectively, and began pushing the enemy out. While two battalions of the 48th ARVN Infantry held their positions on Route 333 north of Gia Ray, the tired and depleted 7th Ranger Group was withdrawn to Binh Duong Province to rest and refit. Since all available battalions of the 18th Division had been committed, the JGS moved the 4th Ranger Group from Kontum to Long Binh where it was rested and re-equipped and made available to General Dong as a reserve.
NVA assaults on Nui Ba Den in Tay Ninh Province continued throughout December 1974, but the tough little ARVN RF Company held on. Meanwhile, by mid-month, an ARVN relief column eventually reached Soui Da and found that the besieging enemy force had withdrawn. VNAF efforts to resupply the troops on the mountain were largely unsuccessful. Helicopters were driven off by heavy fires, and fighter-bombers were forced to excessive altitudes by SA-7 and antiaircraft artillery. One FSA fighter-bomber was shot down by an SA-7 on 14 December. Finally, without food and water anc with nearly all ammunition expended, the 3d Company, 314th RF Battalion, on 6 January picked up its wounded and withdrew down the mountain to friendly lines.
The Last Days of Phuoc Long
The 301st NVA Corps conducted the campaign for Phuoc Long Province, using the newly formed 3d NVA Division, the 7th NVA Division, which had been operating in eastern Binh Duong Province, a tank battalion from COSVN, an artillery and an antiaircraft regiment, and several local-force sapper and infantry units. This was a formidable force to concentrate against four widely dispersed ARVN RF battalions and PF platoons. One by one the isolated garrisons came under attack and were overrun.
The first blow fell on Don Luan on 13 December 1974. Simultaneous assaults on Duc Phong and New Bo Duc Subsectors on 14 December succeeded in overrunning these posts while the defense at Don Luan held. The next to go was the post at Bunard, along with two platoons of 105-mm. howitzers. Enemy casualties were heavy at New Bo Duc, but these were local NVA units, not main force. Still, the NVA artillery damaged both of New Bo Duc's 105-mm. howitzers before Phuoc Long Sector's counterattack retook New Bo Duc on 16 December. Although Phuoc Binh Subsector, near the province headquarters, was also under artillery attack, its positions for the moment appeared strong. Three ARVN reconnaissance companies, which had been deployed there to support the road-clearing operation in November, augmented the defenses of the 340th RF Battalion, and the VNAF flew six 105-mm. howitzers, ammunition, and other supplies into Song Be airfield, carrying out noncombatants and wounded. But the NVA did not permit this to continue. Artillery fire on 21-22 December heavily damaged a C-130 upon landing and destroyed another. The 3d NVA Division, meanwhile, launched another strong attack and took New Bo Duc for the last time.
While the battle raged around Song Be and New Bo Duc, the ARVN 341st RF Battalion continued to beat back successive assaults on its positions at Don Luan. The battalion lost the airstrip on 17 December but counterattacked and took it back again. In the north, however, the only positions still in ARVN hands were the Song Be airstrip, Phuoc Binh, and the crest of Nui Ba Ra overlooking the entire region.
The crisis at Phuoc Long, the strong enemy pressure in Tay Ninh, and the attacks in Binh Tuy presented General Dong with no favorable choices. He had to stop enemy advances toward Tay Ninh and hold Binh Tuy Province. On the other hand, he well knew the political and psychological damage that would follow the loss of Phuoc Long. Having to reinforce the north somehow, he ordered the 5th ARVN Division to send the 2d Battalion, 7th Infantry, by helicopter from Lai Khe to Song Be.
On 23 December, as the 2d Battalion reached Song Be, General Dong told Lt Gen. Dong Van Quang, President Thieu's National Security Advisor, that III Corps needed at least part of the Airborne Division from Military Region 1 to save Phuoc Long. Informed of the request, President Thieu rejected it, stating that the Airborne Division was not available and that it could not be moved in time anyway. General Dong would receive priority on air and logistical support, but he would have to make do with his own troop units.
More grim news reached the JGS and III Corps Headquarters on 26 December. Following a 1,000-round artillery preparation, the NVA 7th Division, assisted by diversionary attacks against ARVN positions in and around Phu Giao, finally overran Don Luan.
Meanwhile, refugees poured into Song Be, and the RVNAF tried to resupply the isolated garrison. Ten attempts were made in early January 1975 to drop supplies, but none of the bundles could be recovered by the defenders. At least 16 enemy tanks had been destroyed in prior attacks, but on 6 January 10 more were seen approaching the city. That day General Dong sent two companies of his best troops into the battle: the 81st Airborne Rangers, whose highly trained volunteers were usually employed in commando operations. Also on 6 January, VNAF RF-S photography disclosed seven 37-mm. antiaircraft positions around the city. It was only the first week of January and the RF-S flying-hour allocation for the month had been nearly used up.
Very few infantry joined in the assaults on Song Be. Instead, squads of sappers followed the tanks as they rolled through the streets firing at ARVN positions, the sappers followed, mopping up bypassed positions and establishing strong points. Most of the NVA tanks damaged or destroyed were hit by M-72 LAW and 90-mm. recoilless rifles. Often the ranges were so short that the LAW missiles failed to arm themselves and harmlessly bounced off the tank hulls. Making tank kills even more difficult, the NVA M-26 Armor Group had welded extra armor plating on the sides of the hulls, and the crews kept buttoned up so that grenades could not be dropped through the hatches.
NVA artillery was devastating, particularly after 3 January when the rate of fire increased from about 200 rounds per day to nearly 3,000. Structures, bunkers, and trenches collapsed, and casualties mounted. ARVN artillery was out of action, its guns destroyed by fire from tanks, recoilless rifles, and 130-mm. guns. Finally, on 6 January, the province chief realized that he could no longer influence the battle. With no artillery and shattered communications, under direct fire from four approaching T54 tanks, and seriously wounded, he and what remained of his staff, withdrew from Song Be. The NVA had captured the first province capital since the cease-fire.
There were some military and civilian survivors from Song Be. Pitiful little bands of Montagnards treked through the jungles to Quang Duc, and VNAF helicopters rescued about 200 men of the Rangers, 7th Infantry, and sector territorials in the days immediately following the collapse. The province chief never made it to safety. His wounds slowed him down and he was not seen again. A few members of the command group eventually reached the ARVN outpost of Bu Binh on Highway 14 in Quang Duc. RVNAF losses were staggering. Over 5,400 officers and men of the 7th Infantry, Airborne Rangers, and territorials were committed; less than 850 survived. Especially costly were the high losses in the Airborne Ranger Battalion - 85 troopers survived - and in the 2d Battalion, 7th Infantry, fewer than 200 returned from Phuoc Long. About 3,000 civilians, Montagnards and Vietnamese, out of 30,000 or more, escaped Communist control. The few province, village, and hamlet officials who were captured were summarily executed.
Although it was the time of the dry, northeast monsoon, unseasonably heavy torrents drenched Saigon. As this writer's Vietnamese driver dolefully remarked, even the gods were weeping for Phuoc Long.
Note on Sources
General Dung is quoted from his article as translated by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service.
The principal sources of operational and intelligence information came from the DAO liaison officer in Bien Hoa who had daily contact with III Corps headquarters, primarily with Colonel Le Dat Cong, the G-2. These reports were most complete, reliable, and perceptive.
The author made frequent visits to Bien Hoa, and his notes were also used in this chapter. DAO and J2/JGS weekly and daily reports were important references, as were many reports issued by the U.S. Embassy.