Chapter 10 Strategic Raids
We have seen how the vigorous RVNAF attack into the Tri Phap in February had thwarted the NVA attempt to sever Saigon from the delta at My Tho and had prevented the NVA 5th Division from establishing a base from which to extend its operations southward into Dinh Tuong, and westward toward Saigon through Long An. Denied this approach, the 5th NVA had concentrated between the Elephant's Foot and the Angel's Wing in Cambodia, threatening the district headquarters at Moc Hoa, but, more seriously, preparing to occupy the narrow strip of marshland between the Svay Rieng border and the Vam Co Dong River, the last real barrier between the Cambodian border and Saigon, only 30 miles away. NVA success would have strangled Tay Ninh Province, since the seizure of Go Dau Ha would end all land and water communications between Saigon and the province capital. The RVNAF had dealt with this threat by the daring armored thrust into Cambodia beginning in late April. Suffering severely, the NVA 5th Division was never again to seriously threaten the South Vietnamese in this sector.
But in spite of these encouraging operations, the North Vietnamese were pressing ahead with what they called their strategic raids campaign against the crucial defensive perimeter of bases north of Saigon. The first to fall was the relatively unimportant outpost of Chi Linh.
In defense of Saigon, the 5th ARVN Division had its main base at Lai Khe, about 25 miles due north of the capital. This base, in fact, was the last strongly held position with an uninterrupted connection to Saigon. A few miles north, the 5th Division maintained a series of strongpoints, generally in the vicinity of the deserted hamlet of Bau Bang. North of Bau Bang, National Route 13 passed through dense jungle and was blocked by NVA units, usually the 9th NVA Division, the 7th NVA Division, or independent regiments of COSVN. The ARVN maintained a major garrison and artillery firebase at
Chon Thanh, near the junction of National Route 13 (QL-13), which continued north to An Loc, and Local Route 13 (LTL-13), curving northeast to the ARVN base at Don Luan, about 25 miles away. About halfway to Don Luan, where Local Route 13 crossed the Song Be, the RVNAF had a small firebase called Chi Linh, manned by the 215th Regional Force Company with a platoon of two 105-mm. howitzers.
The 7th NVA Division attacked Chi Linh in the first week of April, quickly damaging the two howitzers and destroying the ammunition dump. On 5 April the 3d Battalion, 141st Regiment, with the division's 28th Sapper and 22d Artillery Battalion supporting, overran the base. By the 10th, about half of the defenders and 20 dependents had straggled into Don Luan or Chon Thanh. The rest, about 50 men, remained unaccounted for.
With the elimination of Chi Linh, the 7th NVA division enjoyed unimpeded movement along Local Route 13 between Chon Thanh and Don Luan, from north to south along the Song Be corridor, and had reduced the effectiveness of the defenses of Don Luan and Chon Thanh.
Tong Le Chon
Situated alongside the Saigon River on the Tay Ninh-Binh Long border, Tong Le Chon had been under siege since the cease-fire. By March 1974, the situation was becoming desperate for the defending 92d Ranger Battalion. Seriously wounded soldiers could be neither treated nor evacuated. Resupply was by parachute drop only. Morale in the camp was deteriorating under the strain of isolation and constant heavy bombardment. The cost of the continued defense of Tong Le Chon, as a symbol of gallantry, was exceeding its real worth. The human suffering was incalculable, but the expense in flying hours, ammunition, and other logistical support was great. As scarce resources became even more scarce, it was clearly time to reassess priorities and determine how best to end this intolerable situation.
As of 15 March, about 255 officers and men of the 92d were still alive in Tong Le Chon, and five of these were critically wounded. On 20 March Lt. Gen. Pham Quoc Thuan proposed to the Chief of the Joint General Staff, General Cao Van Vien, that one of three methods be selected to relieve the 92d Battalion. First, a division-sized operation could be launched from An Loc to secure a corridor through which the 92d could be withdrawn, replaced, or reinforced. Second, the commander of the NVA siege forces could be enjoined to permit the orderly and safe withdrawal of the 92d, surrendering the camp to the enemy. Third, the 92nd Battalion commander could be ordered to plan and execute a withdrawal - by exfiltrating in small groups - bringing out all his men, including the sick and wounded.
General Thuan realized at the outset that only the third plan was even remotely feasible, as General Vien and his staff no doubt understood. How could an ARVN division be expected to punch through from An Loc to Tong Le Chon when repeated efforts to attack even a few miles north of Lai Khe had failed? How could a division be assembled when the road to An Loc was held by the NVA, and even if this obstacle could be overcome, where would a division be found for the mission? The inescapable fact was that all ARVN divisions were heavily committed coping with other threats.
The second option was equally unrealistic, if for different reasons. There could be no "surrender." The political repercussions would be unmanageable for President Thieu, and the precedent could portend future such capitulations, some possibly with less than adequate justification.
Only the third option had any merit, but the decision could not be made at the JGS or at III Corps Headquarters. Matters of this import, even though essentially tactical, had to be settled at the presidential palace.
Meanwhile, as the problem was being studied, the situation at Tong Le Chon was becoming critical. The intensity of the enemy's artillery and mortar attacks increased greatly in the week of 17-24 March. In the Two-Party Joint Military Commission meetings in Saigon, South Vietnam's representative warned the Provisional Revolutionary Government that if the attacks on Tong Le Chon did not cease, the VNAF would launch devastating attacks against enemy bases in Tay Ninh and Binh Long. In fact, the VNAF did fly 30 or more sorties around Lo Go in Tay Ninh and around Tong Le Chon on the 23d. But the NVA bombardments continued. NVA artillery used against Tong Le Chon between 22 and 24 March included 122-mm. rockets, 122-mm. howitzers, 120-mm. mortars, and nearly 1,000 rounds from 82-mm. and 60-mm. mortars. Many of the bunkers and fighting positions were badly damaged. Enemy sappers attempted to break through the defensive wire on the night of 21 and 22 March but were driven off. On the 21st, the commander of the 92d Battalion, Lt. Col. Le Van Ngon (who had been promoted ahead of schedule in recognition of his courageous leadership at Tong Le Chon), sent a message to Colonel Nguyen Thanh Chuan, commander of the 3d Ranger Command at An Loc. Colonel Ngon said, in effect, get us some support or destroy this camp. He asked for more air strikes, although it was already apparent that the VNAF could not materially change the situation. He asked for a ground relief column, but he probably knew as well as did Colonel Chuan that this could not succeed. In emotional desperation, he asked for air strikes on his own camp as the only feasible alternative to surrender, which he said he and his men would never do.
Colonel Chuan relayed this urgent message to General Thuan. General Thuan replied that he had received no response from the JGS to his earlier proposals for evacuation or relief. By this time, the survivors at Tong Le Chon included 254 Rangers, 4 artillerymen, 7 stranded helicopter crewmen, and 12 field laborers. Of this force, 10 were seriously wounded and 40 slightly wounded. Sappers on the nights of the 24, 25, and 26 March penetrated three of seven rings of barbed wire before being forced to withdraw.
The unrelenting bombardment and repeated sapper attacks continued through the month and into April. Still no initiatives or decisions emanated from the presidential palace, III Corps, or 3d Ranger Command to ameliorate the suffering or offer hope to the defenders of Tong Le Chon. While nearly 1,000 rounds of mortar and artillery fire were falling on the base the night of 11 April, Headquarters, III Corps, received a final request from Colonel Ngon: give us authority to abandon the camp. Whether General Thuan conferred with General Vien or President Thieu is not known, but at 2330 that night he ordered Colonel Ngon to defend at all costs.
Shortly after midnight, the defenders of Tong Le Chon reported that sensitive papers were being burned. Later they requested that VNAF stop dropping flares over the camp because they were moving out. Radio contact with the Rangers was broken until 0900 on 12 April, when a radio operator outside the camp responded to a call. By that time the march to An Loc, some 10 miles northeast through the jungle and enemy lines, had started. The ranks of the wounded had swollen by 14 during the night's action, and 35 more were wounded during the withdrawal. All wounded were brought out; those who could not walk were carried. In the firefights during the withdrawal four more Rangers were killed, but even these bodies were carried on to An Loc.
It was a remarkable feat of courage and leadership to bring a group of 277 men, many of whom were wounded, out of an encircled position, and arrive inside friendly lines with 268. In fact, the outstanding success of the operation led many observers, Vietnamese and Americans alike, to suspect that the enemy had somehow collaborated in the withdrawal. Although possible, this is quite unlikely. Not only would the arrangement have had to be approved at a high echelon, but also the North Vietnamese would certainly have exploited the propaganda value of such an event. Furthermore, an eyewitness report on the NVA occupation of the camp strongly refuted such speculation.
According to a NVA participant, following an intensive artillery preparation, a ground attack of infantry and tanks had forced the Rangers to give up the position, but the defenses were so heavily mined that the NVA was unable to get through the barriers until the 13th. The Communists found that all equipment had been destroyed or removed and all wounded had been carried out. Only two Ranger bodies were found, and only one ARVN Ranger was captured. This NVA soldier ended his report with the comment that the attacking NVA infantry had been ordered to block the withdrawal but had disobeyed the order for fear of the RVNAF air and artillery fire, and that the discipline displayed by the ARVN 92d Ranger Battalion was extremely high, much higher than that found in NVA or VC main forces.
Although the record was clear that Colonel Ngon had disobeyed orders by withdrawing, he was not punished, but the battalion was dissolved and its men sequestered from the press. The official South Vietnamese position was that the camp had been overrun in clear violation of the cease-fire, and appropriate protests were made to the ICCS and the Two-Party Joint Military Commission. On 13 April, VNAF flew 19 sorties against what remained of the camp. The last of the survivors entered the An Loc perimeter on 15 April. The 92d ARVN Ranger Battalion had clearly distinguished itself by enduring the longest siege of the war and by conducting a remarkable withdrawal under fire.
With Tong Le Chon obliterated, the NVA had unrestricted use of its important east-west line of communication between Tay Ninh and Binh Long and controlled the Saigon River corridor from its source to Dau Tieng.
In Binh Duong, the NVA's strategic raids campaign began on 16 May with a coordinated attack by the 7th and 9th NVA Divisions on Phu Giao and Ben Cat. ARVN 25th Division operations in Hau Nghia, Tay Ninh, and Cambodia had, by 10 May, significantly diminished the threat of the NVA 5th Infantry Division to the western approaches to Saigon, but the NVA 7th and 9th Divisions, in the jungles and plantations north of the capital, were in fair fighting form. Replacements had been received, trained, and integrated into the force; supplies had been stockpiled and moved into forward positions; and the divisions had received their orders.
The 7th NVA Division forces that had taken Chi Linh were still responsible for the zone of operations generally on the east side of National Route 13 (QL-13). Their main objective in the imminent campaign was the bridge at Phu Giao, where interprovincial Route 1A (LTL-1A) spanned the Song Be. Their capture of this bridge, and its controlling terrain, would isolate the 5th ARVN Division's regimental base at Phuoc Vinh and provide the forward positions needed for subsequent attacks toward Phu Cuong, the Bing Duong provincial capital, and Bien Hoa with its huge air base and logistical concentrations.
The 9th NVA Division was west of National Route 13, concentrating in the old secret zone, the Long Nguyen, north of the famous Iron Triangle. From here its artillery regularly bombarded the ARVN 5th Division base at Lai Khe, but its objectives in this May campaign were farther south. It would strike into the Iron Triangle, try to sever National Route 13 at the district seat of Ben Cat, and open the Saigon River corridor nearly as far south as Phu Hoa. By accomplishing this latter objective, it could position artillery to reach Tan Son Nhut Air Base and support operations against the ARVN 25th Division at Cu Chi. By cutting National Route 13 at Ben Cat, it would isolate the ARVN base at Lai Khe and, in coordination with the 7th NVA Division, threaten Phu Cuong and eventually Saigon.
A glance at the map shows the strategic location of the Iron Triangle. Bounded on the north by the jungle and overgrown rubber plantations of the Long Nguyen, it was enclosed on the west by the Saigon River and on the east by the smaller but unfordable obstacle of the Thi Thinh River. The Thi Thinh joined the Saigon River near Phu Hoa, at the southern apex of the Triangle, 7 miles from Phu Cuong. Phu Cuong itself, the capital of Binh Duong Province, was an important industrial and farming center and contained the ARVN Engineer School. It was linked by a major highway with the large ARVN base at Phu Loi (called Lam Son) and, farther east, with Bien Hoa. Lying as it did in the center of the Saigon River corridor, at the junction of Routes 13 and 1A, and only 10 miles from the outskirts of Saigon, Phu Cuong was vital to the defense of Saigon.
The terrain within the Iron Triangle was flat, almost featureless, and covered by dense brush and undergrowth. The clearings, especially in the northern part, were thick with elephant grass, higher than a man's head. The surface was scarred by countless bomb and shell craters so that vehicular movement off the narrow, rough dirt roads was nearly impossible. Even tracked vehicles had difficulty. A vast network of tunnels and trenches, most of them caved-in and abandoned, laced this ground that had been the scene of battles since the early days of the second Indochina war.
A weak string of three ARVN outposts protected the northern edge of the Triangle, from Rach Bap on the west, close by the Saigon River, along local Route 7 (TL-7B) to An Dien on the Thi Thinh River opposite Ben Cat. Each of these outposts, including Base 82, which was midway between Rach Bap and An Dien, was manned by a company of the 321st RF Battalion. Another country road passed by the Rach Bap outpost: local Route 14 (LTL-14) which generally paralleled the Saigon River from Tri Tam, through Rach Bap, and veered to the southeast through the Triangle, crossing the Thi Thinh River before it joined Highway 13 (QL13) north of Phu Cuong. The NVA had blown the bridge on Route 14 over the Thi Thinh a few weeks earlier, but the stream could be spanned by pontoon sections. About midway between Rach Bap and the Thi Thinh crossing of Route 14, the ARVN had another small firebase.
Frequent sweeps and some semi-fixed defensive positions north of Cu Chi manned by the ARVN 25th Division and Hau Nghia Regional Forces screened the western flank of the Triangle, but enemy resistance in the Ho Bo woods, opposite Rach Bap, and the formidable obstacle of the Saigon River, as well as a lack of resources, limited the influence that the 25th could exert on the situation within the Triangle.
The ARVN was strong with infantry, armor, and mutually supporting fire bases and outposts in Ben Cat District east of the Thi Thinh boundary of the Triangle, but only one bridge, a weak span, connected the district town and the Triangle hamlet of An Dien.
Such was the situation on the eve of the initiation of the strategic raids campaign in western Binh Duong Province. As mentioned earlier, this was a coordinated attack, with the 9th NVA Division conducting the main effort in the west, while the 7th NVA attacked in the east against ARVN positions along Highway 1A near Phu Giao. The distances between the two thrusts were too great, concurrent attention of the III Corps commander however, to provide for mutual support, and the ARVN III Corps was able to deal with separate operations. For these reasons, although they occurred simultaneously and demanded the concurrent attention of the III Corps commander and his staff, they can best be described sequentially, beginning first with the Iron Triangle attack of the 9th NVA Division.
Iron Triangle Attack
The attack began with heavy artillery, rocket, and mortar concentrations falling on Rach Bap, Base 82, and An Dien on the morning of 16 May. The RF company at Base 82 abandoned its bunkers, many of which had collapsed under the weight of the bombardment, late that afternoon. Rach Bap held out until about 0300 the following morning, its surviving defenders withdrawing in the direction of An Dien. The fighting was fierce in An Dien on the 16th, but by the night of 17 May, NVA forces held the flattened village and its defenses. Remnants of an RF battalion, however, held the western end of the Thi Thinh bridge in a shallow blocking position, while the eastern end, by Ben Cat, was secured by ARVN forces. The enemy dug in around An Dien but was unable to dislodge the RF positions at the bridge.
Two infantry regiments of the 9th NVA Division, with about ten T-54 and PT-76 tanks, were employed against the dispersed 321st RF Battalion. The 272d Regiment overran Rach Bap and continued the attack south into the Triangle along Route 14, while the 95C Regiment attacked Base 82 and An Dien. The 271st Regiment was held in reserve.
The RVNAF at Ben Cat were unable to counterattack the NVA immediately at An Dien because the bridgehead held by the RF was too shallow to protect the crossing of any large forces, but General Thuan quickly began reinforcing Ben Cat. Task Force 318 arrived in Ben Cat District on the afternoon of the 16th and on the 17th began reinforcing the RF holding the bridge and moving against the enemy's blocking positions west of the bridgehead. The weakness of the ARVN bridgehead and the strength of the enemy positions in An Dien, which included antitank guns and tanks, made it impractical to send any armor of the 318th across the An Dien bridge at this time.
Meanwhile, the 322d Task Force moved from Tay Ninh Province to Phu Cuong and was ordered to prepare to attack into the Triangle along Route 14 (LTL-14) in order to oppose the 272d Regiment, which was moving south from Rach Rap.
VNAF aerial observers and photography on 17 May revealed two T-54 tanks inside Base 82, which VNAF fighter-bombers destroyed the next day, and four more in the An Dien base. Initial negative reactions at ARVN III Corps Headquarters to the seemingly hasty, if not unwarranted, withdrawal of the RF companies from their positions softened somewhat when the size and composition of the enemy force was revealed.
Six months would pass before the situation existing before 16 May would be restored along the northern edge of the Iron Triangle. The campaign was never officially divided as such, but major operations fell into four distinct phases. In the first, 16-17 May, the NVA had captured the northern edge of the Triangle and launched a major column into the center of this strategic approach to Phu Cuong. In the second phase, 18 May to 5 June, the ARVN counterattacked and regained control of An Dien. Four months later, on 4 October, ARVN troops concluded the third phase by reoccupying the devastated wasteland that was once Base 82. Finally, on 20 November ARVN infantry re-entered Rach Bap, concluding the last phase of the 1974 Iron Triangle campaign.
An Dien Counterattack
General Thuan greatly underestimated the strength and tenacity with which the 9th NVA Division would defend An Dien, although he had accurate intelligence concerning the size, composition, and location of the enemy. His initial plans for the second phase, which proved unrealistic, called for virtually simultaneous recapture of the three lost bases by about 22 May. Perhaps the remarkable successes his corps troops had in repulsing the NVA 7th Division attacks on the Phu Ciao front had given him this unwarranted overconfidence.
Except for the few ARVN infantry and engineers that were thrown across the Thi Thinh River to reinforce the An Dien bridgehead, the first major ARVN unit to move into the Triangle was a battalion of the 43d Infantry, 18th ARVN Division, which crossed on Route 14 north of Phu Cuong. Shortly reinforced by the rest of the regiment, this element, followed by the 322d Armored Task Force, was to attack Rach Bap and Base 82. Meanwhile, the 318th Task Force would cross the An Dien Bridge, pass through An Dien, and proceed to Base 82. Three Ranger battalions attacking south out of Lai Khe were to strike Base 82 from the north. None of this worked as planned. The 43d Infantry became stalled after advancing only four or five kilometers north. Then, the tracked vehicles of the 322d Task Force found the going extremely slow in the dense brush and cratered terrain. General Thuan, concerned lest this armored force become bogged down and have a bridge blown behind it, ordered its withdrawal. He discovered, meanwhile, that the An Dien bridge had been seriously weakened by enemy artillery (including AT-3 missiles) and would not support the tanks of the 318th Task Force. Under enemy observation and, sporadically, heavy mortar and artillery fire, ARVN combat engineers attempted to repair the bridge. Casualties mounted, and the work progressed very slowly. About the same time, the 7th Ranger Group, with three battalions, moved southwest out of Lai Khe, crossed the Thi Thinh River and advanced on Base 82. The Rangers were immediately opposed in the thick jungle and rubber plantation by the dug-in troops of the NVA 9th Division, and their attack stalled well short of the objective.
While III Corps was experiencing great difficulty getting moving, it was pounding An Dien with heavy artillery fire. The North Vietnamese responded in kind against ARVN batteries and the stalled Ranger and infantry columns and sent sappers into an RF command post just south of Ben Cat, where they destroyed a 105-mm. howitzer and routed most of the small garrison.
The VNAF, meanwhile, gave only limited support. NVA antiaircraft artillery and SA-7 defenses were plentiful in the area, forcing VNAF aircraft to high altitudes. On 24 May, an armored cavalry squadron of the 25th ARVN Division launched a diversionary attack from Go Dau Ha east toward the Boi Loi Woods. General Thuan's purpose was to cause enough of a threat here to prevent the 9th NVA Division from committing its reserve, the 271st Regiment, against either the 318th or the 322d Task Forces. By the 25th, the armored cavalry squadron had passed Suoi Cau without encountering any resistance, and another supporting maneuver began with two battalions of the 50th Infantry, ARVN 25th Division, moving north from Phu Hoa along the west bank of the Saigon River.
On 25 May, General Thuan met with the commander of the 18th ARVN Division, Brig. Gen. Le Minh Dao, and with the commander of the 3d Armored Brigade, Brig. Gen. Tran Quang Khoi, to coordinate the following morning's attack. At that time, the 43d Regiment was about seven kilometers south of An Dien, about to attack north, while the 3d Armored Brigade was preparing to send a cavalry squadron and a Ranger battalion across the An Dien bridge.
Although the enemy's heavy mortar and artillery fire had so weakened the bridge at An Dien that the cavalry could not follow the Rangers, by nightfall the 64th Ranger Battalion was dug in on the eastern edge of An Dien Village. The 43d Regiment was again ordered to resume the attack north, and the 7th Ranger Group, coming down from Lai Khe, was ordered to take Base 82 by night attack on 27 May. Because no progress was made General Thuan on 28 May decided to try a fresh approach. First, he turned the operation over to General Dao, told him to move his 52d Regiment over from Phu Giao, gave him operational command of the 7th Ranger Group, which was still north of Base 82, and attached to Dao's 18th Division a reinforced squadron of the 3d Armored Brigade. Since it would take two days to relieve the 52d Regiment on the Phu Giao front and move it into position at Ben Cat, the new operation was scheduled for 30 May. Delays in the relief and movement forced General Dao to set the date ahead to 1 June.
With the Rangers still holding the shallow bridgehead opposite Ben Cat and the 43d Regiment making slow progress attacking the dug-in 272d NVA Regiment south of An Dien, General Dao sent the 2d Battalion, 52d Regiment, across the Thi Thinh River on an assault bridge south of Ben Cat on 1 June. Once across, it turned north to attack the defenses of the 95C NVA Regiment in An Dien. Meanwhile, the reconnaissance company and an infantry company from the 18th Division crossed the An Dien bridge and advanced toward the village. Casualties on both sides were heavy that day in An Dien as the commander of the ARVN 52d Regiment committed his 1st Battalion behind the 2d. The 9th NVA Division responded by assaulting the ARVN infantry that night with infantry and at least 10 tanks. The two battalions of the 52d held their positions and were reinforced by the 3d Battalion the next afternoon. Meanwhile, ARVN combat engineers were clearing the road past the An Dien bridge. Working at night with flashlights to avoid enemy observation and fire, they removed 38 antitank mines from the route of advance.
Weakened by casualties, the 52d Infantry made very little progress on 2 and 3 June, and the 43d Regiment was still being blocked by the NVA 272d Regiment. General Dao then ordered his 48th Infantry across the Thi Thinh south of Ben Cat, to pass through the 52d and take An Dien. While the NVA artillery continued to pound ARVN positions, two battalions of the 48th crossed into the Iron Triangle on the night of 2-3 June.
The fighting at An Dien Was especially fierce on 3 June as the NVA used tanks against ARVN infantry. Armed with light antitank weapons, ARVN infantry knocked out at least four enemy tanks in the final day of the battle. On 4 June, troops of the 18th ARVN Division finally entered An Dien, and on the 5th overran the last position of the NVA's 95C Regiment, which had since been reinforced by elements of the 9th NVA Division's 271st Regiment. On the morning of the 5th, two battalions of the 48th and two of the 52d were holding An Dien, bracing for a counterattack. One Ranger battalion was in a blocking position north of the destroyed village, while another secured the An Dien bridge. The 43d Regiment was still stalled by the NVA's 272d Regiment's defenses south of An Dien. The 7th Ranger Group had not been able to advance toward Base 82 from the north, and a new major ARVN attack would be required to advance past the positions held in and around An Dien .
NVA soldiers captured by the 18th ARVN Division in An Dien told of horrendous losses in the three battalions - the 7th, 8th, and 9th - of the 95C Regiment. Fourteen surviving members of the 9th Battalion were captured when the last strongpoint fell on 5 June. They said that casualties in the 8th and 9th Battalions between 16 May and 4 June were 65 percent, that a company of the 7th Battalion had only one man left, that a company of the 8th Battalion was totally destroyed, and that the 9th Battalion lost two complete companies. These accounts were confirmed by the large number of bodies left on the battlefield and by the quantity of weapons and equipment captured. ARVN losses were substantial, but none of its units were decimated as were those of the 9th NVA Division. Well over 100 ARVN soldiers had been killed in action, and the hospitals held over 200 wounded from An Dien, while 200 more suffered light wounds not requiring evacuation.
The expected NVA counterattack came on the night of 5-6 June as two battalions of the 271st Regiment, 9th NVA Division, supported by up to 14 tanks, attacked from two directions. The ARVN 18th Division held and its infantrymen knocked out 5 tanks and damaged 5 others.
The second phase of the Iron Triangle campaign was over with the recapture of An Dien, and General Thuan was anxious to get the attack moving again toward Base 82 and Rach Bap. Although the An Dien bridge would soon be in condition to carry the tanks of the 318th Task Force - one company of armored personnel carriers had already crossed into An Dien - a knocked-out T-54 tank blocked the narrow road from the bridge into An Dien. Swampy ground on each side prevented bypassing the tank, and it had to be blown off the road with demolitions. ARVN combat engineers were laboring at this task while infantrymen of the 18th Division were holding the perimeter around An Dien.
The first of several attempts during the third phase to retake Base 82 began on 7 June 1974 when the 318th Task Force finally brought its tanks across the Thi Thinh River and passed through the 18th Division position in An Dien. While the 52d Infantry of the 18th Division remained in reserve holding the An Dien perimeter, two battalions of the 48th Infantry moved south and west to protect the southern flank of Task Force 318 as it attacked along Route 7 (TL-7B) toward Base 82. To the south, the 43d Regiment maintained contact with the NVA 272d Regiment. Meanwhile, the 9th NVA Division had withdrawn the remnants of the 95C Regiment from action and placed its 271st Regiment at Base 82, where it prepared deep, mutually supporting defensive positions. Clearly indicating its resolve to conduct a determined defense along Route 7 in the Iron Triangle, COSVN sent the 141st Regiment of the 7th NVA Division south from its position along Highway 13, north of Lai Khe, to reinforce the 9th Division north of Base 82. The9th Division meanwhile began shifting the 272d Regiment north from the southern part of the Iron Triangle to assist in the defense of Base 82 and Rach Bap.
The wet summer monsoon had arrived in Binh Duong Province. Rains and low cloud cover further reduced the effectiveness of VNAF's support of the attack. A dense rubber plantation northwest of Base 82 provided excellent concealment for supporting defensive positions and observation of local Route 7, the only avenue of approach available for ARVN armor. Dense brush covered the southern approaches to the base and concealed more enemy supporting and reserve positions. The only fairly open terrain was on either side of Route 7 where high grass offered no concealment to the ARVN column but reduced the visibility of ARVN tanks and infantry to a few meters. Furthermore, this approach was under the observed fire of the 9th NVA Division's supporting artillery, which included 120-mm. mortars, 122-mm. howitzers, 105-mm. howitzers, and 85-mm. field guns. Infantry mortars, 82-mm. and 61-mm., added to the indirect fire, and, in addition to the B-41 antitank grenade launchers carried in great numbers by the NVA infantry, NVA soldiers were amply equipped with the new Soviet 82-mm. recoilless gun, a superb weapon.
By the evening of 8 June, Task Force 318 reached its first objective, Hill 25, about 1,000 meters short of Base 82. There it fought a battalion of the NVA 271st Infantry, killing 30 and capturing 10 while taking light casualties. The prospects seemed bright for recapturing Base 82 by the following day, and General Thuan told General Dao of the 18th ARVN Division that Rach Bap should be taken by 15 June. But on 10 June Task Force 318, advancing very slowly in two columns, one north of Route 7 and one south, was struck by a battalion of the NVA 271st Infantry supported by four tanks and a heavy concentration of mortar, howitzer, and rocket fire. Four of Task Force 318's tanks and one of its personnel carriers were knocked out but personnel losses were light. By nightfall only 200 meters had been gained, the enemy's minefields and 82-mm. recoilless guns having stopped the task force 800 meters short of Base 82.
No progress was made on 11 June, but ARVN artillery and VNAF pounded the base. Antiaircraft fire was intense and kept the VNAF fighter-bombers above their most effective attack altitudes. Meanwhile, General Thuan, determined to get the attack moving again, directed Brig. Gen. Khoi, commander of the 3d Armored Brigade, to assemble the 315th Task Force at Ben Cat and send it across the Thi Thinh to reinforce the attack. The 315th was to move southwest and attack Base 82 from the south, while the 318th continued its frontal assault. Farther south, another change was taking place. Detecting that all but one of the NVA's 272d Regiment's battalions had moved north toward Route 7, General Dao left only one of his 43d Infantry battalions in the Phu Thu area, placing the balance of the regiment in reserve.
By noon on 12 June, the 315th Task Force had reached a position about 1,600 meters southeast of Base 82. At this point, General Dao changed the original concept of a two-pronged attack from the east and south. As soon as the 315th was ready to attack, he would withdraw the 318th to defend the eastern approaches to Ben Cat that had been weakened by the commitment of the 315th against Base 82. Thick brush, rough terrain, and accurate enemy artillery fire prevented the 315th from making any gains on 13 June. In fact, as the 318th withdrew from contact, it left positions much closer to the objective than those reached by the 315th.
In another change in plans, General Dao proposed to General Thuan that two battalions each from the 43d and 52d Regiments take over the attack role, while the 315th remained in its defensive perimeter southeast of Base 82. The infantry battalions would move into the rubber plantation and attack from the north. General Thuan agreed and left for JGS headquarters to ask for a new ammunition allocation for the attack. He returned to his headquarters in ill humor, for General Khuyen, the RVNAF Chief of Logistics, was unable to satisfy this request.
By 15 June, the two leading ARVN 43d Infantry battalions, one of which was attempting to swing north of Base 82 from An Dien, had made very little headway against strong resistance and heavy enemy artillery fire. In contacts south of Route 7 on the 17th, prisoners of war were taken from the 272d Regiment, soldiers who had recently arrived in South Vietnam and had been assigned to the 272d for only three days before their capture. ARVN casualties continued to mount, troops were desperately fatigued, artillery support was too severely rationed, and the weather all but eliminated effective air support. On 21 June, General Thuan ordered a halt in the attempt to take Base 82, while a new approach, better supported by artillery fire, could be devised. Consideration was also given to replacing the 18th Division, whose troops had been in heavy combat for a month, with the 5th Division.
Instead of relieving the 18th, General Thuan decided to try his armor again. Holding the infantry in position, he sent the 318th and 322d Task Forces back into the Triangle, one north of Route 7, the other generally along the road. The enemy's antitank defenses, primarily employing the 82-mm. recoilless gun, stopped the attack once again, destroying 13 personnel carriers and 11 M-48 tanks between 27 June and 1 July, even though ARVN artillery and the VNAF supported the attack with 43,000 rounds and 250 sorties. The tired infantrymen of the 43d Regiment tried once again to take Base 82 from the south on 1 July but got nowhere.
On 2 July, General Thuan finally decided to relieve the 18th Division and replace it with the 5th. The armored task forces would be withdrawn for rest and refitting. General Thuan allowed his commanders ten days to complete the relief; he wanted it done gradually and expertly so that constant pressure could be maintained against the enemy. In order not to weaken the 5th Division's defenses north of Lai Khe, elements of the 18th Division's 52d Regiment, which had seen little action, and two battalions of the 25th Division's 50th Infantry were attached to the 5th Division in the Iron Triangle. The relief was accomplished on schedule, and a relative calm settled over the Base 82 battleground.
The 9th NVA Division also made adjustments during the last part of June and the first weeks of July. While the 272d Regiment retained defensive positions in the southern part of the Iron Triangle, the 95C Regiment, refitted and with fresh replacements, returned to the Base 82 area and assumed responsibility for its defense. The third regiment of the 9th NVA Division, the 271st, held defensive positions in the Base 82 area, primarily to the north and northeast. Meanwhile, the 141st Regiment of the 7th NVA Division returned to its normal area of operations north of Lai Khe, and artillery support for the 9th NVA Division was assigned to the 42d NVA Artillery Regiment. The 75th NVA Artillery Regiment moved from the Ben Cat area to support the 7th NVA Division east of Route 13.
The 5th ARVN Division made no determined effort during July or August to alter the status quo. The NVA, however, pulled the 95C Regiment out of Base 82 and replaced it with the 141st Regiment of the 7th NVA Division, in time to meet the next concerted ARVN effort to take Base 82.
By autumn the 8th Infantry, 5th ARVN Division, had been selected to try to plant South Vietnam's red and yellow banner on Base 82, having replaced its sister regiment, the 7th, in the Iron Triangle. Prior to an attack scheduled for 7 September, ARVN reconnaissance patrols had successfully reached the base's perimeter. The 8th Regiment formed a task force around its 1st and 2d Battalions, reinforced by the 5th Division Reconnaissance Company and a small armored troop with three M41 tanks, three M-48 tanks, and three armored personnel carriers. The 1st Battalion advanced south of Route 7, while the 2d Battalion, with the reconnaissance company and the armored troops, advanced on an axis north of the road. Unopposed and moving quickly the two battalions reached the outer defenses of Base 82 in the early morning of 7 September but could go no further that day. Faced with barbed wire and mines and under fire from the front and flanks, the 8th Infantry dug in. As the rain of enemy shells continued, much of it heavy 120-mm. Soviet mortars, the 8th kept digging and improving fighting positions with logs overhead.
On 8 September, the NVA shelling increased, and at 1600 it began to rain, ending all VNAF aerial observation and air support for the 8th Infantry. As the rain increased, so did the enemy bombardment, 1600 rounds falling in one hour, and the battlefield was obscured in smoke. ARVN infantry could hear the approach of tanks. One column of T-54's came out of the rubber plantation and forest to the north, and another line of six advanced from the south. The three ARVN M-48's withdrew, and at 1800 hours, nearly caught in a double envelopment, the 8th Infantry fell back, first about 300 meters where the leaders attempted to establish a new line, then 300 meters farther back where the troops of the 8th rallied and held on the western slope of Hill 25.
With victory seemingly so close, General Thuan was deeply disappointed by the rout of the 8th Regiment, and his disappointment changed to anger when he learned of the relatively light casualties suffered by the 8th: 6 killed, 29 missing, and 67 wounded. But even if the 8th Infantry leaders on the scene could have held their troops in their exposed positions in front of Base 82, the regiment probably could not have survived the NVA counterattack. In any case, General Thuan ordered an immediate investigation of the circumstances of the 8th Infantry's failure and subsequently dismissed the regimental commander. On 11 September, the 8th Infantry was replaced in the Iron Triangle by the 9th, and the final phase of the fight to retake Base 82 was about to begin.
All three battalions of the 9th Infantry moved into position on the west slope of Hill 25. Combat losses since the start of the NVA offensive in May, combined with the slow flow of the replacements into the regiment, had reduced battalion strength to under 300. Between 12 and 18 September, the 9th concentrated on reconnaissance, planning, and improvement of positions. As the ARVN 9th Regiment prepared for the attack, the NVA was beginning to execute another relief in the Ben Cat battlefield. The 141st Regiment of the 7th NVA Division made preparations to leave the Base 82 area and turn over its defense once again to the 95C Regiment of the 9th NVA Division.
With the 2d Armored Cavalry Squadron protecting the right (north) flank, and two Ranger battalions protecting the left, the 9th ARVN Infantry Regiment began its attack toward Base 82. The two attacking battalions, the 3d Battalion on the right, north of Route 7, and the 2d on the left, crossed the line of departure on Hill 25 on 19 September. Moving slowly, with excellent reconnaissance and effective artillery support, the ARVN infantrymen methodically eliminated, one by one, the enemy's mutually supporting bunkers that lay in a dense pattern all along the route of advance. Although the NVA infantrymen defended tenaciously and their artillery support was heavy and accurate, they gradually gave ground. On 29 September, the 1st Battalion relieved the weary 3d Battalion, and the relentless attack continued. On 2 October, the 2d Battalion, 46th ARVN Infantry, 25th Division, was committed to reinforce the 2d Battalion of the 9th Infantry. Before midnight on 3 October, as enemy artillery and mortars were still firing heavy barrages, a 12-man assault team from the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry, attempted to breach the barbed wire and scale the earthen wall. An antipersonnel mine detonated, disclosing the team's position, and heavy fire from the base pinned it down. Very early the next morning, the NVA infantry counterattacked, forcing the withdrawal of the assault team. But it became apparent to the ARVN commander on the ground that victory was within grasp. A 100-round concentration of 155-mm. howitzer fire, which he requested, had the desired effect: enemy resistance and return fire was notably diminished by 1300, and a half hour later NVA infantrymen were seen climbing out of their crumbling fortress and running to the rear. At 1500 on 4 October the 1st Battalion, 9th Regiment, raised South Vietnam's flag over Base 82, ending a bitter four-month struggle and the third phase of the Iron Triangle campaign.
Return to Rach Bap
Calm returned to the Iron Triangle as the remnants of the 95C and 272d NVA Regiments withdrew from Base 82. For three days, even the NVA artillery was silent. Meanwhile, far to the north of the Ben Cat battleground and in the COSVN rear area, a significant event was taking place. Recognizing the need to plan and coordinate the operations of multi-divisional forces, COSVN organized a corps headquarters in the Tay Ninh-Binh Long region and designated it the 301st Corps. This corps would soon direct the combat operations of the 7th and 9th NVA Divisions, separate regiments, and additional formations already en route from North Vietnam.
After the long and costly victory at Base 82, General Thuan decided to rest the tired troops of the 5th ARVN Division and turned his attention to sending his 25th Division to clear out the enemy bases in the Ho Bo area west of the Iron Triangle. The ARVN defenses around An Dien and Base 82 were taken over by Regional Forces and Rangers. For what became the fourth phase of the campaign, III Corps Headquarters worked on plans to resume the attack to retake Rach Bap, the last of the three outposts still remaining in enemy hands. General Thuan also recognized the need to clean the enemy out of the southern part of the Iron Triangle, around Phu Thu, and a plan encompassing Rach Bap, Phu Thu, and the Phu Hoa area west of the Iron Triangle began to take shape. But on 30 October, before the execution of the plan, President Thieu relieved General Thuan of command of Military Region 3 and III Corps and replaced him with Lt. Gen. Du Quoc Dong. Other important command changes took place on the same day. The II Corps Commander, Lt. Gen. Nguyen Van Toan, was replaced by Maj. Gen. Pham Van Phu, and Maj. Gen. Nguyen Khoa Nam became the new commander of IV Corps, in place of Lt. Gen. Nguyen Vinh Nghi. Only I Corps was untouched, where Lt. Gen. Ngo Quang Truong retained command.
General Dong immediately surveyed the situation in the Iron Triangle and reviewed the plan of his predecessor, which as modified became operation Quyet Thang 18/24 (Operation Will to Victory). Battalions from all three divisions of the corps were committed; D-Day was 14 November. The 9th Infantry of the 5th ARVN Division, the victors of Base 82, started from An Dien and marched west, along Route 7, past Base 82 toward Rach Bap. The 48th and 52d Regiments of the 18th Division crossed the Thi Thinh River south of Ben Cat and entered the Iron Triangle and attacked west toward the Saigon River. Elements of the 50th ARVN Infantry, 25th Division, were already in this area. Meanwhile, the 46th ARVN Infantry and one battalion of the 50th moved into the plantations north of Phu Hoa District Town to prevent enemy infiltration across the Saigon River.
Along Route 7, the 9th ARVN Infantry advanced without incident until 19 November when sharp fighting west of Base 82 resulted in over 40 ARVN soldiers wounded. The enemy withdrew leaving 14 dead and many weapons and radios behind. The next morning, Reconnaissance Company, 9th Infantry, entered Rach Bap unopposed. The Iron Triangle campaign was virtually over, although mopping_up operations continued in the south along Route 14 until 24 November. Measured against the costs and violence of the earlier phases of the campaign, this final chapter was anticlimactic. Casualties on both sides were light, and contacts were few and of short duration. The NVA had given up its last foothold in the Iron Triangle with only token resistance in order to replace losses, reorganize, re-equip, and retrain the main forces of the new 301st Corps for the decisive battles to come.
As mentioned earlier, the NVA 16 May offensive in Binh Duong Province was a two-division attack, with the 9th NVA Division west of Route 13 into the Iron Triangle and the 7th NVA Division east, against Phu Giao District. The principal 7th Division objective was the bridge on Interprovincial Route 1A (LTL-1A) over the Song Be south of the major ARVN 5th Division base at Phuoc Vinh and northeast of the Ben Cat-Iron Triangle battlefield.
The 7th NVA Division on 5 April overran the ARVN outpost at Chi Linh. After taking Chi Linh, the division's 141st Infantry Regiment remained in the Chon Thanh area until detached for duty in the Iron Triangle under the 9th NVA Division. Meanwhile, the other two 7th Division regiments were preparing for the May offensive in the jungles around Phu Giao. The 165th NVA Infantry Regiment was west of Route 1A and north of the Song Be; the 209th NVA Infantry Regiment was south of the Song Be, with battalions disposed on both sides of Route 1A. But sometime before 16 May, the 165th crossed the Song Be and moved into attack positions in the Bo La area, south of Phu Giao, and the 209th moved north to positions close to the Song Be bridge. The 7th NVA Division's plan called for the 165th to attack ARVN positions and block Route 1A south of the bridge, while the 209th would seize the bridge and its controlling terrain.
The defense of the Song Be bridge was the responsibility of the 322d RF Battalion, while the 7th and 8th Regiments of the ARVN 5th Division and the 318th Task Force were in position to provide support from the Phuoc Vinh base south to the Bo La area. Based on good intelligence, the 8th ARVN Infantry attacked assembly areas occupied by elements of the 209th NVA Infantry on 15 May. The disruption caused by this attack was probably largely responsible for the poor showing made by two battalions of the 209th which, the following morning, attacked RF outposts around the Song Be bridge. In any event, the troops of the 322d RF Battalion fought off the attack, losing a few positions but maintaining control of the key terrain and the bridge.
Meanwhile, the 165th NVA Infantry Regiment had better success in attacking the Bo La area, managing to hold enough of Route 1A to prevent reinforcements from breaking through to the bridge. But its accomplishment was short-lived. The 5th ARVN Division reacted immediately and sent its 7th Infantry Regiment and the 315th Task Force north to break the block on Route 1A. Casualties on the ARVN side were light, but the NVA lost heavily; the 209th was especially hard hit by ARVN artillery and air strikes in the bridge area. By 23 May, despite reinforcement of the 165th NVA Regiment by a battalion of its sister regiment, the 141st, the ARVN tank and infantry counterattack had cleared the road to the bridge and beyond to Phuoc Vinh. Although the 7th NVA Division maintained its 165th and 209th Regiments in the Phu Giao area for the rest of the summer, the strategic raids campaign in eastern Binh Duong Province was a failure, essentially over a week after it began, and the ARVN successfully countered the sporadic attacks the enemy continued to make along Route 1A in the Phu Giao area.
The strategic raids campaign in Bien Hoa Province differed from that in Binh Duong, principally because the main objective, the sprawling air and logistical base at Bien Hoa, was beyond the reach of large NVA formations. But even if a main-force regiment could have penetrated the Bien Hoa defenses, it would most likely have been cut off, surrounded, and destroyed. The attacks in Bien Hoa were therefore stand-off artillery bombardments, sapper raids, and small-scale infantry assaults against outposts.
The first large attack of the summer came on 3 June. From launching sites north of the air base, the NVA artillery launched at least 40 122-mm. Soviet rockets. Most of them struck inside the base, where they did minor damage to runways and destroyed 500 napalm canisters, but the rest exploded in hamlets surrounding the base, killing and wounding civilians. Surprisingly, no aircraft were damaged. The NVA artillery struck again early on 10 August with 25 rockets. Of these, seven hit the F-5A storage area, slightly damaging a few airplanes. Most of the rest fell on civilian communities causing light casualties. The bombardment continued sporadically throughout the morning and resumed the next day, but no significant casualties or damage resulted.
The 10 August rocketing of Bien Hoa signalled the beginning of the NVA's attack on the outposts along the north bank of the great Dong Nai River in Tan Uyen District north of the air base. Employing primarily the 165th Infantry Regiment, the 7th NVA Division attacked RF-manned outposts intended to prevent the enemy's crossing of the Dong Nai and deny him easy access to areas from which he could launch rockets against Bien Hoa.
The first outpost to fall, Ho Da, west of Tan Uyen District Town, was overrun on the night of 9 August but was recovered by the ARVN 52d Infantry five days later. On the 10th, a battalion of the 165th NVA Infantry captured Dat Cuoc outpost at the big bend in the Dong Nai east of Tan Uyen. The enemy managed to hold on to this outpost until 24 August, when the 346th RF Battalion recaptured it. East of Dat Cuoc on the river north of Thai Hung village, was the Ba Cam outpost, manned by the 316th RF Battalion. In successive attacks, the 316th was driven out of its defenses by a battalion of the 165th NVA Infantry, heavily supported by artillery. By 13 August, the 316th had withdrawn to Thai Hung, virtually destroyed by NVA and ARVN artillery. By the end of the month, ARVN counterattacks had recovered all lost positions north of the Dong Nai, the enemy having suffered heavy casualties during the brief campaign.
The only other incident of note in the Bien Hoa area during 1974 was the NVA sapper attack on 21 October against the Hoa An bridge over the Dong Nai linking Bien Hoa with Saigon. This bridge, the most important of three across the Dong Nai northeast of Saigon, was 800 meters of reinforced concrete. By floating two rafts loaded with explosive downstream so that the rope that joined them wrapped around a bridge pillar, the water-sappers were able to accomplish their mission even though all of them were killed in the river by ARVN sentries before the explosion, which knocked down two 60-meter spans and rattled the windows in the American Consulate offices at the river's edge. Three days later, ARVN engineers had a one-way Bailey span in place and traffic resumed.
General Thuan, commanding III Corps at the time, could not give the crucial battles north of Saigon his undivided attention during the summer of 1974. He was forced to look over his shoulder as the strategic raids campaign spread to the eastern limits of Military Region 3 and threatened to close National Route 1 (QL-1), Saigon's major connection with the central coastal provinces.
About 50 kilometers along Route 1 east of Saigon was Xuan Loc, capital of Long Khanh Province. Set in the midst of vast, lush rubber plantations, Xuan Loc was the eastern terminus of the railroad that once carried passengers and freight up the coast all the way to Hanoi. Xuan Loc was also close to the beginning of Route 20 (QL-20), which joined Route 1 west of the city, and provided Saigon its connection with the mountain resorts and bountiful gardens of Dalat. Adding to the strategic importance of Xuan Loc, Local Route 2 began there and wound south through the plantations into Phuoc Tuy Province, providing an alternate route to the port city of Vung Tau.
The 18th ARVN Division usually kept a regiment at Xuan Loc, frequently operating against the NVA's 33d and 274th Regiments that maintained base areas in the jungles north and south of Route 1. Because of heavy requirements for combat power in Binh Duong and Bien Hoa Provinces, General Thuan pulled the 18th Division out of Long Khanh in the summer of 1974, leaving the security of that province and its lines of communication to Regional and Popular Forces and creating opportunities for the local VC, supported by the main force NVA regiments, to take the offensive in Long Khanh and Phuoc Tuy Provinces.
Bao Binh and Rung La
The cluster of hamlets called Bao Binh, in the rubber plantations east of Xuan Loc, was the first major objective of Communist forces in the strategic raids campaign in Long Khanh Province. On 24 May, an NVA force of two battalions of the 274th NVA Regiment, a battalion of the 33d NVA Regiment, and an NVA engineer battalion invaded the hamlets, overrunning the local force defenses with ease. Tentative efforts by Regional Force battalions failed to dislodge the enemy, and the NVA still held Bao Binh when General Thuan visited province headquarters on 8 June. General Thuan was not pleased with the district chief's assertion that the clearing of Bao Binh would have to wait until the 18th Division returned to Xuan Loc.
On 11 June, a strong NVA force attacked the Rung La refugee resettlement village and cut Route 1 about 30 kilometers east of Bao Binh. Rung La was one of several villages established in eastern Military Region 3 to provide new homes and farmland for refugees who fled the NVA invasion of Binh Long Province in 1972. People from Loc Ninh and An Loc, after suffering weeks of inactivity in crowded tent camps following their escape from the Communist offensive, were clearing virgin land for farming and harvesting wood from the forests that surrounded new, government-sponsored villages. Some 132,000 refugees were making a fresh beginning in this region, and the struggle would have been difficult enough without frequent harassment from VC and NVA forces. Mortar attacks, minings, kidnapping and murder, all intended to disrupt resettlement efforts, failed, however, to drive the refugees away.
Communist terrorism had been relatively minor until April, when a definite rise in incidents was noted. The frequency of mortar attacks increased, and the Communists became bolder in early June as they exploited the absence of the 18th ARVN Division. On 1 June, they entered the Thai Thien resettlement village and burned 25 houses, warning the people to leave. Returning on 6 June, they burned 50 houses and again warned the villagers to leave. On 11 June they burned 80 houses in Rung La village and closed Route 1 nearby.
Rung La was one of the largest settlements of An Loc refugees, the first of whom began occupying the village in December 1973. By June the population had grown to 18,000. When an NVA road block isolated Rung La from Xuan Loc, up to 10,000 villagers fled eastward into Binh Tuy and Binh Thuan Provinces.
The 347th RF Battalion and the 358th RF company of Long Khanh Province were dispatched to break the enemy's hold on Route 1, but both were repelled by heavy mortar fire. An RF battalion from Binh Tuy experienced a similar reception at Rung La. The political and psychological damage, to say nothing of the serious effects on local commerce of cutting the principal north-south artery, was enough to draw the corps commander's attention away from the Iron Triangle and his other serious problems in Military Region 3. General Thuan flew over the roadblock on 13 June and viewed the NVA force and its defenses. He then ordered a task force, assembled at Xuan Loc, to start moving east along Route 1 to clear the road. The force included two battalions of the 5th ARVN Division's 8th Infantry, the 32d Ranger Battalion of the 7th Ranger Group, and a tank company. Making good use of heavy artillery support and air observation, the task force by 15 June cleared two of three enemy positions. When the last position fell on 17June, and the road was again open, the villagers of Rung La began returning to rebuild their settlement.
Leaving the Ranger battalion and one of the 8th Infantry Regiment's battalions to secure the construction of a new RF base at Rung La, General Thuan ordered the province chief to use the other 8th Infantry Battalion and Long Khanh RF battalions to retake the Bao Binh hamlets still under enemy control. This force, however, proved to be too light for the task. Since heavy demands elsewhere precluded reinforcement, Bao Binh remained in enemy hands.
On 8 July, the NVA again moved against Rung La and succeeded in holding a segment of Route 1 until the 13th. Although these harassments were to continue throughout the year, the enemy was unsuccessful in blocking traffic again.
Bao Binh was a difficult objective. In late July and August, the province chief employed the 7th Ranger Group against the well-established enemy defenses, and the Rangers cleared all but one hamlet before being pulled out to operate around Rung La. But by the end of the year, all of Bao Binh was under South Vietnamese control as Communist units withdrew, probably to receive orders for the final offensive.
Because of the beating the 5th NVA Division had taken in the Duc Hue and Long Khot actions during the spring, the strategic raids campaign was slower getting started in Tay Ninh Province. The main attacks were against the ARVN outposts along Interprovincial Route 13 (LTL-13) west of Tay Ninh City and the Song Vam Co Dong, but supporting and diversionary attacks were conducted against the Ben Cau outpost near the Angel's Wing, the southern edge of Tay Ninh City, and Suoi Da, a hamlet and outpost northeast of Tay Ninh City in the shadow of Nui Ba Den. The NVA also moved 107-mm. rockets in close enough to bombard the city; some of these struck the civilian hospital on the night of 18 August and on the morning of the 19th, wounding 16 patients and killing one.
The NVA's purpose was parallel to the one it had tried to achieve at Duc Hue; to seize the territory between the Cambodian frontier and the Vam Co Dong. The focus of this attack, however, was northwest of Duc Hue.
A string of three outposts guarded the western approach to Tay Ninh City between the Svay Rieng Province border and the Vam Co Dong. Ben Soi post was closest to Tay Ninh City; it was on Local Route 13 on the west bank of the Vam Co Dong. The two forward posts were Luu Buu Lam on Route 13, about halfway to the border, and Luoc Tan, located on seasonally flooded land within sight of Svay Rieng Province, Cambodia. The blow fell simultaneously on the three posts on the morning of 14 August as the 6th Regiment, 5th NVA Division, launched heavy mortar and artillery bombardments into the fortresses. About 1,000 civilians began streaming into Tay Ninh City to escape the onslaught, but some 3,000 were trapped behind the block that the NVA 6th Regiment placed on the road between Luoc Tan and Luu Buu Lam.
The ARVN 312th RF Battalion's 2d Company at Luoc Tan reported absorbing intense shellings in which all of the buildings and three-fourths of the bunkers there had been destroyed. But it held on and beat back successive assaults by tank-supported battalions of the 6th NVA Regiment. As of 15 August, the company commander reported that his men had repaired most of the defensive positions and that very effective artillery and air strikes had knocked out one tank and killed over 300 of the enemy around Luoc Tan. Of the 97 men he had when the attack began, 45 were still able to fight.
East of Luoc Tan, Luu Buu Lam and Ben Soi were quiet after the second day as the NVA concentrated on Luoc Tan and the 25th ARVN Division's 46th Infantry Regiment sent a battalion in to reinforce Luu Buu Lam. To the south, at Ben Cau, two NVA soldiers captured from the 174th NVA Infantry said that their regiment was severely undermanned and its mission was only to test the ARVN reactions to the attack at Ben Cau. The NVA found the reaction to be violent as well as firm.
The staunch defense put up by the company of the 312th RF Battalion at Luoc Tan boosted RF and civilian morale throughout Tay Ninh. Resupply of the little garrison was made by helicopter as the relief column of the 46th ARVN Regiment approached along Route 13. On 20 August, the company commander at Luoc Tan reported driving off a three-pronged infantry assault; the 46th Infantry's battalion was stalled about three kilometers away, where it had been for four days. Fearing an ambush, General Thuan had ordered the battalion to halt its attempt to link up with Luoc Tan. The night of 20 August was the last for the 2d Company, 312th RF Battalion, as a battalion of the 6th NVA Regiment breached the shattered defensive works and captured the garrison. It remained in NVA hands, but the cost was high. The 6th NVA Regiment had to be withdrawn to Cambodia for another refitting and to receive replacements.
This has been an account of the main events that took place around Saigon during the NVA's strategic raids campaign in the summer and fall of 1974. No attempt has been made to cover all combat actions; the purpose has been rather to treat those which changed the map in a significant way, illustrated the relative strengths and weakness of the opposing forces, demonstrated the strategies and tactics adopted by the two sides, and set the stage for the final NVA offensive.
In the deep forests of northern Tay Ninh, Binh Long and Phuoc Long Provinces, COSVN was building a mighty combat capability, stockpiling weapons, ammunition, fuel, and supplies, marshalling and training replacements, building hospitals, improving roads and bridges, while its major fighting forces, the 5th, 7th, and 9th NVA Divisions pressed forward against the ARVN's outer line of defense.
Note on Sources
Principal among the sources of this chapter were the author's notes recording visits to the field, particularly in Binh Duong Province and to III Corps headquarters at Bien Hoa, and meetings with the J2/JGS.
The Weekly Summary published by DAO Saigon Intelligence Branch and by the J2/JGS provided the chronology of events as well as detailed order-of-battle information. Heavy reliance was also placed on the reports of the Consul General, Bien Hoa, and offices of the U.S. Embassy, Saigon. As usual much reliable information was also derived from rallier and prisoner of war interrogation reports and from captured documents.