The Razor’s Edge
"Peace with honor was and is a fantasy in Vietnam; can we not face the glaring fact of our failure in Southeast Asia?"
An open letter from John Guffey to Gerald Ford, 1975
It was not as if Washington did not have advance warning of the deteriorating situation in South Vietnam. Policymakers were just not being attentive. Throughout 1974, the acrimony produced by Watergate overflowed into Vietnam. The nation’s attention was focused on the sputtering economy, with spiraling inflation and rising unemployment, and the death throes of the Nixon Administration. Public support for, and interest in, the Thieu regime had largely evaporated. To many, if not most, Americans, the signing of the Paris Peace Accords had concluded the war. Congress was in step with this mood; the legislative branch had spent most of 1974 asserting its prerogatives. Vietnam was a painful experience that had cost too many lives and too much money.
Civilian communications expert John Guffey had repeatedly warned his superiors that the South Vietnamese were becoming weaker. In January 1974, Guffey noted that the military suffered from a "shortage of junior officers and high personnel turnover." They also "had significant deficiencies in intelligence gathering. Troops suffered from the high rate of inflation. Their response to economic pressures was "to moonlight to make ends meet and engage in corrupt practices for the same reason." But Guffey added, "At the same time, the ARVN soldier shows considerable staying power once engaged." (It needs be pointed out, however, that there were some senior officers in the South Vietnamese government and armed forces who engaged in corrupt practices simply to enrich themselves and their families. This was just one more example of the debilitating affect of the politicization of the RVNAF hierarchy.)
Guffey was pessimistic about improvements in morale and effectiveness. Just because South Vietnam had a million-man military, it did not mean that Thieu’s armed forces could repulse the communists. Guffey closed his gloomy assessment by using the analogy of the Polish Army in 1939. With the second largest army in Europe, the Poles "conducted a static defense on its borders with no other plan than to dig in and hold on, and was crushed in little more than three weeks by an army that was numerically inferior in every respect."
Guffey sensed that South Vietnam was doomed. He repeatedly called attention to the systemic deficiencies in Thieu’s government and military. He knew about them; North Vietnam knew about them, also. So did many in Washington. As the Congress reduced the funding for support of South Vietnam, instead of it forcing Thieu to lessen his authoritarian hold on the country, he desperately tightened his control of the populace and he increased the harassment of his domestic opponents. And as dollars became scarce in 1974, and as inflation accelerated, so did the corruption in South Vietnamese society.1
Guffey was far from alone in warning about the critical situation escalating in Southeast Asia. In Saigon, Deputy Chief of Mission Wolfgang Lehman sent his superiors at the State Department a cable in August 1974. Nixon had just left office; Ford was cautiously picking up the pieces left behind by the Watergate scandal. Lehman said that he and Defense Attaché General John Murray had reviewed the most recent funding reductions. Congress’ action, Lehman was convinced, meant that the $700 million "would at best leave $475 to $500 million to the RVNAF in actual assets…." In his corresponding message to the Pentagon, Murray started his analysis with what had been the bare bones budget of $1.126 million and then he decreased it in "hundred million dollar, country killing, increments." He ended his blunt cable this way: "$600 million level – write off [the Republic of Vietnam] as a bad investment and a broken promise."
Lehman reported that the communists were spending their time rebuilding the infrastructure of North Vietnam that had been decimated by American bombing missions. No one should mistake Hanoi’s intentions, however, Lehman said. He made absolutely clear to the state department that "Should the North Vietnamese conclude that the U.S. is disengaging politically and economically from the South, they would suspend serious economic planning and hold their resources in reserve to use militarily against South Vietnam at some opportune moment." Some intelligence reports suggested that the communists would launch a military attack "as early as the spring of 1975 when the Vietnamese government’s equipment and material shortages could be more severe if there is no additional U.S. assistance." Reflecting later on the events of late 1974 and early 1975, Lehman recalls, "We had to walk on the razor’s edge."2
The "decisive" assault that Lehman predicted would come sooner rather than later. Observing Thieu’s domestic problems and America’s distraction, the North Vietnamese made their decision in September 1974 to test Thieu and the new American president. Additionally, a large North Vietnamese delegation traveled to Moscow that November to inform the Soviets of their plans to attack South Vietnam in the strategic province of Phuoc Long.3
From December 18, 1974 until January 8, 1975 the Political Bureau of the Government of North Vietnam held an extremely important meeting in Hanoi. In addition to the members of the Bureau, participants included "leading party members and commanders from all battlefields, members of the Central Military Committee, and the vice chiefs of staff in charge of combat operations." A backdrop to this gathering of the North Vietnamese leadership was the critical battle for the southern province of Phuoc Long, the capital city of which was about 120 kilometers north of Saigon. In addition, there was heavy fighting going on in Bin Tuy, Long Khan, and Tay Ninh provinces on the eastern and western flanks of the South Vietnamese seat of government. However, it was the outcome of the battle for Phuoc Long’s capital city, Phuoc Binh, which had the most influence upon the attitude of the North Vietnam leadership. This battlefield victory, which was completed on January 6, 1975, led these leaders to conclude that the Armed Forces of South Vietnam no longer had the strength to mount large-scale, encircling operations to recapture regions. It was also a clear indicator that the United States was very unlikely to come to the support of its ally in the south. This did indeed turn out to be the case, in spite of the fact that at the time of the 1973 Paris peace agreement Nixon had promised to intercede in the event of an overt attack in the south by the forces of North Vietnam.4 Nixon was out of office and Gerald Ford was crippled by the pardon of the ex-president and the anemic American economy.
On January 9, 1975, General Van Tien Dung was appointed representative of the North Vietnamese Central Command to supervise the Tay Nguyen (South Vietnamese central highlands) campaign. General Dung had been a member of the Communist Party of Vietnam since 1937. From then on he had been an aggressive fighter for the causes of his party, even to the extent of having been condemned to death by the French after being captured for the second time in 1944. In both instances, he demonstrated his resourcefulness by escaping and rejoining the fight against his country’s occupiers.5
General Dung’s mission for 1975 had been outlined by the Party’s First Secretary Le Duan at the conclusion of the Political Bureau’s meeting: "The situation has become quite clear. We are resolved to complete our two-year plan [to conquer South Vietnam] … [T] he Americans have withdrawn, we have our troops in the South, and the spirit of the masses is rising. This is what marks the opportune moment. We must seize it firmly and step up the struggle on all three fronts: military, political, and diplomatic.
"In the South we have new strength: we have the initiative on the field of battle, and have linked our positions together from Tri Thien [in the north] all the way to the Mekong Delta [south of Saigon]. … We must strike the strategic blow in 1975. [While we must bring pressure to bear on Saigon and other major cities in the South,] we agree that the year will open with attacks on the [central highlands]." In particular, these attacks were to begin at the strategic city of Ban Me Thout, a crossroads that had been critical to control of the region over the entire Indochina War.
The communists’ two year strategic plan for 1975-1976 called for wide spread attacks in 1975 designed to create conditions favorable "to carry out a general offensive and uprising to liberate the South completely" in 1976. The plan also provided for taking advantage of any unforeseen opportunities to "immediately liberate the South in 1975."6
At exactly 10:30 AM on February 5, 1975, the airplane carrying General Dung to the front lines took off from Hanoi. Upon his arrival in South Vietnam’s northernmost province, Quang Tri, the gruff, square-faced fifty-eight-year-old Army Chief of Staff, and his fellow generals immediately began making their plans for the coming battle for the strategic highlands.
In the years following the 1973 agreement in Paris between Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, the North Vietnamese had prepared themselves for their intended conduct of "revolutionary warfare [to] destroy the enemy and liberate the South." This was a huge effort involving more than 30,000 troops and members of the Vanguard Youth. It resulted in an eight-meter wide highway system of more than 20,000 kilometers of paved roads capable of supporting trucks, tanks, and other weapons of war. The logistical complex also included 5,000 kilometers of oil pipeline, major storage facilities, and extensive telecommunication lines. In addition, over 80,000 troops had been moved south of the demilitarized zone giving the North Vietnamese Army a total force of some 200,000 soldiers in combat units supported by another 100,000 men in administrative and logistical outfits. The number of armored vehicles available to these forces exceeded 700. This gave the Communists as many tanks as were available to the South Vietnamese defenders. In addition, the number of artillery pieces in the hands of the invaders had quadrupled to 400. Clearly, the "peace" of 1973 was what John Guffey labeled in his open letter to President Ford, "a fantasy."7
It was during the Political Bureau’s meeting that the tactical decision was made to begin Campaign 275 with a massive attack in the Central Highlands. On January 8, 1975, just two days after the fall of Phuoc Long province, Party First Secretary Le Duan declared "We must strike the strategic blow in 1975. We must open with attacks on Ban Me Thuot and Tuy Hoa. We must liberate [the area] from Binh Dinh [on the coast east of Ban Me Thuot] on up. In [the northeast] we must gain control from Hue to Da Nang. Such great victories will greatly change the balance of forces. We must sustain the fighting until the rainy season starts [in the late spring] and pile up repeated victories. If we strike powerfully, the enemy will face the danger of disintegration sooner. To fight around the cities we must smash the enemy’s main force troops. When we enter the cities we must crush the enemy’s nerve centers. The North must guarantee adequate material and technical support to the infantry. These are the basic principles of victory." No international body stepped forward to force the communists to honor the Paris Peace Accords. And the United States was not about to unleash its B-52 bombers.8
If one were to draw lines on a map from the coastal city of Qui Nhon west to Kontum city in the highlands, down through Pleiku Province to Ban Me Thuot, and then back to Nha Trang on the coast, he would be roughly following first Route 19 west, then Route 14 south, and Route 21 back east. These highways were the principal lines of communications supporting the South Vietnamese Armed Forces defending the central highlands. The Communist strategy was apparently like that of Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Vicksburg in 1863. They would split South Vietnam into two pieces and then surround Saigon from all directions.
In early January, the South Vietnamese captured a member of the North Vietnamese Third Army Division in the vicinity of the An Khe Pass, a potential choke point on Route 19 some 70 kilometers west of Highway 1 on the coast. Reconnaissance on the part of the South Vietnamese in late February and early March confirmed the existence and extensive nature of the network of roads built by the northerners for the purpose of bringing massive forces into the area. They also took note of the heavy truck traffic that was making use of these highways. Concerned that his forces in the highlands might have their lines of communications to the coast cut, the Commander of Region II, South Vietnamese General Pham Van Phu, began repositioning his forces with the intent of preventing this from happening.9
General Phu had established his reputation as a division commander, but he had never been in a position with as much responsibility as he held in these early months of 1975. According to General Homer Smith, who had relieved General Murray as Defense Attaché in September 1974, Phu’s lack of experience in commanding such large forces meant that he "apparently had little concept of the logistics of large troop movements, particularly under conditions which would introduce large masses of civilians into the problem."10 As will be seen, this ignorance was a contributing factor to a debacle of major proportions.
The battle for the central highlands began in earnest early on the morning of March 4, 1975 at the Mang Yang Pass on highway 19 about 35 kilometers east of Pleiku city, the military headquarters for the region. Attacks along the southern connector between the coast and Ban Me Thuot, Route 21, were carried out simultaneously. As result, by March 6, the communist forces had successfully isolated the central highlands.11 As we know, it was not that these attacks were a total surprise. For some time both American and South Vietnamese Intelligence had monitored not only the construction of the vast logistical network described above, but also the movements of troops and supplies across that network. Lehman had sent a message to Washington expressing the view that the drastic reduction in military assistance being provided to South Vietnam combined with the resignation of Richard Nixon would likely lead Hanoi to make an all out effort to conquer the south sometime in early 1975.12
The main question that faced General Phu at this point was not so much whether or not he would have to defend against a major, full force, attack by the communists, but where the attack would come. General Phu’s Intelligence Officer, Colonel Trinh Tieu, insisted that the enemy’s principal objective would be Ban Me Thuot, with intermediate and supporting objectives at Buon Ho to the north of Ban Me Thuot on Route 14 and Duc Lap to the south. Based upon sporadic attacks in the Kontum and Pleiku areas immediately following those along Highways 19 and 21 the general became convinced that his intelligence officer was wrong and that Pleiku was the enemy’s main objective. Since he had only two regiments protecting the western approaches to his headquarters, he decided not to weaken this front in order to reinforce Ban Me Thuot where nothing of significance had yet taken place.13
Upon his arrival in the central highlands, General Dung and his deputy, General Le Ngoc Hien, spent their first night in the region pondering their next course of action. General Dung raised the questions, "How could we carry out the Political Bureau’s resolution on liberating the South? How could we win in the [central highlands]? Especially, how should we attack Ban Me Thuot so the enemy would collapse quickly?" While Dung was thoroughly familiar with the north’s conventional approach to fighting, he had, over the years, developed his own style; attack the enemy "like a bolt of lightning straight at their command center and smash it first."14
General Dung conducted a study of the deployment of South Vietnamese forces. He made note of the fact that General Phu had concentrated the bulk of his assets in the northern portion of the highlands around his headquarters at Pleiku. The North Vietnamese commander decided that, rather than confront his enemy across the entire region, he would concentrate his armies in the area around Ban Me Thuot. The result was that even though there was rough military parity in the region, at the point of the planned major attack, the North Vietnamese outnumbered their adversary by 5.5 to 1 in soldiers, 1.2 to 1 in tanks and armored cars, and 2.1 to 1 in large artillery. The South Vietnamese were spread too thinly.15
As formal plans for the attack on Ban Me Thuot were being prepared, Dung was visited by "some people in the revolutionary structure in [the] town." These party members had come to report "about the local political situation and the local political movements, and the status of our network within the town." Additional information relating to the deployment of the defending units was obtained from a captured South Vietnamese spy. This knowledge was all integrated into the planning process.
General Dung outlined his plans for the capture of Ban Me Thuot in his book Our Great Spring Victory:
1. The attack on Ban Me Thuot must be made using concentrated forces so as to "wipe out the enemy there."
2. All units must be closely coordinated, especially the mechanized units that are to strike deep inside the town.
3. The fact that Ban Me Thuot is a political and economic center for the region must be recognized. The fact that its residents are members of a diverse collection of ethnic groups that include members of various religions, citizens of foreign countries, and members of the bourgeoisie who have become accustomed to life under neocolonialism must be considered. This means that when our soldiers enter the town they must have "the correct attitude and behavior … in order to win the hearts of the people and quickly stabilize people’s lives after liberation."
4. Upon the liberation of the city, a military administrative structure must be quickly put in place. Colonel Ly Bloc, a man from one of the local ethnic groups who "has the confidence of the people and is loved and respected by everyone in the area" will be made chairman of the Ban Me Thuot military committee.
5. Since the city has a large system of military storage areas as well as a considerable industrial base belonging to the bourgeoisie, it will be necessary to protect these assets and put them back into operation. While South Vietnamese government property will be confiscated, the property of the people must not be touched.
6. Based upon the experience of the fight for Phuoc Long, it will be possible to put prisoners of war to work in such capacities as drivers of cars, tanks, armored cars, and road repair vehicles. In sum, "utmost attention [must be paid] to using war booty and prisoners of war immediately for the battle."16
It should be noted that while these plans contain instructions to treat South Vietnamese civilians and prisoners in a constructive way, the fact is, that in their implementation, many who were suspected of being "collaborators" with the Americans or the Thieu government were summarily executed once in custody.17
During the period of March 5 through March 9 the North Vietnamese forces implemented the plan to strike several outlying ARVN posts. Dung also ordered additional shelling of the Cu Hanh airfield at Pleiku. In a final directive to his commander in charge of these operations, he said that the commander should "strike once and shout ten times."
These attacks served two purposes. One was to confuse the ARVN and lead it to believe that Pleiku and/or Kontum in the northern part of the region were to be the principal point of attack. The other was to further cut off and isolate Ban Me Thuot. Dung observed that "by March 9 we had completely set our forces in their strategic and campaign positions, had cut [the highlands] off from the lowlands, had cut the northern and southern [sections of the highlands] apart, and completely surrounded and isolated Ban Me Thuot. The first stage in our test of wits with the enemy was over and the victory was ours."
Jay Scarborough, an American civilian on a leave of absence from Cornell Law School, was in Vietnam under a Ford Foundation grant to photograph thousands of pages of old Cham manuscripts. The Chams were an ancient ethnic group that had been nearly extinguished by the Vietnamese as they drove south out of China centuries earlier. On Sunday, March 9, he decided to fly to Ban Me Thuot to visit some students that he had taught for four years at a local high school. Scarborough had been in country between the time he had completed his undergraduate work at Cornell in 1967 and when he entered law school in 1973. Over these years he had served with a U.S. Government-funded private organization called the International Voluntary Services. This was a Peace Corps-like entity used to place young Americans who were willing to contribute their time and energy to help people in areas where the dangers of conflict precluded the insertion of Peace Corps personnel. During this period he had become fluent in Vietnamese and made many friends. It was with one of these friends that he stayed that night. At three o’clock on the morning of the 10th, Scarborough was awakened by his host with the shouted words, "Incoming! Incoming!"18
It had been exactly 2:00AM that morning when the North Vietnam sapper troops opened the battle for Ban Me Thuot with an attack on its airfield. Simultaneously, artillery and rockets were fired at the ARVN 23rd Division headquarters in the city itself in a barrage that lasted until 6:30 AM. Under cover of this heavy fire; tanks, armored cars, troop transports, trucks pulling artillery and antiaircraft guns raced toward the heart of the town in accordance with Dung’s "blossoming lotus" tactic of "smashing [the enemy’s command center] right at first."19
When the shells first landed, John Miller, his wife Carolyn, and his five-year-old daughter LuAnne were shaken awake by the noise and shock of the explosions. The Millers were in Vietnam as missionaries for the Wycliffe Bible Translators and had been in the country for fifteen and fourteen years, respectively. LuAnne had two older brothers and a sister who were attending school at Nha Trang on the coast. Also living in Ban Me Thout were other missionaries, a Canadian couple, and three other Americans. Shortly after dawn on the 10th of March, these westerners converged on the USAID compound where Paul Struharik, the local U.S. consulate representative, took them in. By then there were twenty people in the compound, the others being a mix of local USAID employees, a visiting Australian Broadcasting Commission official, and a Philippine agriculture expert
Struharik herded his charges into a twelve-by-twenty bunker that had once been used by the CIA and he radioed the consulate in Nah Trang, advising them of their precarious situation. While a helicopter was immediately dispatched on a rescue mission, communist ground fire repeatedly drove the aircraft off. In the end, all were taken prisoner by the invaders.
Struharik was suspected of being a CIA officer and was therefore isolated from the others in solitary confinement, and all were held as prisoners of war for the next eight months. In the meantime, the Wycliffe Bible Translator’s staff had seen that the three older Miller children were taken to the Philippines. The family was ultimately reunited and the Millers continued their mission as Bible translators.20
By nightfall on March 10, the North Vietnamese had completed their conquest of Ban Me Thuot itself, but at the Phung Duc airfield about eight kilometers east of the city, a fierce battle continued. In addition, a South Vietnamese Ranger group that had been moved by General Phu to the town of Buon Ho, about forty kilometers northeast of Ban Me Thuot on Route 14, began a counterattack against the still not heavily occupied city.21
It has been said throughout time, and in every part of the world, that soldiers do not fight so much for their country, as they do for their buddies. It has therefore been the challenge to military leadership across the ages to direct this fighting spirit in such a way as to best serve the country’s interests in time of war. However, in South Vietnamese society, as in many others, the loyalty to family supersedes virtually all others. It is this loyalty that led to what General Homer Smith has referred to as the "family syndrome," (i.e., the willingness of ARVN soldiers to leave their posts in order to protect their wives,
children, and other relatives, from danger.) In the battle for Ban Me Thuot, one of the earliest, and most destructive of these derelictions of military duties took place. As the Ranger group was fighting its way toward the city, the Commander of the 23rd Division diverted it to a training center just outside town to prepare a defended helicopter landing zone. The ARVN II Corps Chief of Staff later described what happened as follows:
"… General Tuong, the 23rd Division Commander, worried a lot about his family. His wife and children were still in Ban Me Thuot city. So he had them go to the training center southeast of Ban Me Thuot. He had them gather there in an open place. He then directed the Ranger group to go back to the training center in order to protect the landing zone for his helicopter to pick the family up. The Ranger group was advancing; they were fighting with the enemy. The enemy was not strong inside the city. Most communist main forces were outside the city possibly afraid to concentrate within Ban Me Thuot for fear of air attacks. Tuong directed the Rangers from the air to go back to the training center. The commander must obey the order of his general, his division commander. They went back to protect the landing zone, and he picked up his family and when the soldiers tried to go back to Ban Me Thuot city, the enemy had sealed it off."22 While this particular action had only a marginal effect upon the ultimate fate of Ban Me Thuot, it illustrates a problem that faced the South Vietnamese armed forces as the communist army advanced from one battlefield success to another.
In the meantime, the ARVN defenders of the Ban Me Thuot airfield continued to vigorously resist repeated communist assaults. As the communist encirclement tightened around the Division command post, air strikes were requested in a desperate attempt to relieve the North Vietnamese Army pressure. However, one bomb struck the defender’s tactical operations center cutting communications with II Corps headquarters. In the end, Ban Me Thuot had fallen into enemy hands by 11:30 AM on March 11.23 The Ford Administration failed to respond.
Beginning on March 12, Phu attempted to position a counterattack force in the village of Phuoc An about 45 kilometers east of Ban Me Thuot. It has been alleged by a number of the South Vietnamese military that one of the consequences of having had the Americans be the de facto leaders in the war for so long was that many South Vietnamese officers had become "conditioned" to an American way of fighting, (i.e., accustomed to vast amounts of logistical and air support). Whether for this reason or some other, Phu greatly underestimated his ability to move the troops and materials necessary to carry out this effort. As a consequence of this, the tactical skill of the North Vietnamese Commander, and the fact that the ARVN soldiers brought into Phuoc An were not prepared for combat, the counterattack was totally ineffective.
Adding to his shameful behavior at the Ban Me Thuot training center, General Tuong "was slightly wounded as his helicopter received fire and had himself evacuated to a hospital," turning command of the 23rd Division over to a colonel.24
On March 11 there had been a meeting in Saigon between President Thieu, Joint General Staff (JGS) Chairman General Cao Van Vien, Lieutenant General Dang Van Quang, and Prime Minister Tran Thien Khiem. The President is reported to have declared that he believed Ban Me Thuot to be more important to the defense of South Vietnam than either Pleiku or Kontum, and that it had to be retaken "at all cost." He then went on to describe his strategic concept of "light at the top, heavy at the bottom." This plan consisted of conceding to the enemy much of the territory to the north of Saigon, and it was based upon Thieu’s concern that without the American aid that had been promised to him by President Nixon, the balance of forces was now "severely tipped in favor of North Vietnam." Moreover, there was a disastrous morale crisis prevailing in South Vietnam at that time as a result of the aid reductions. In a postwar interview, the ex-Speaker of the South Vietnamese House of Representatives is quoted as saying that Thieu’s change in strategy "cannot be regarded as an inspiration of the moment, nor as a move by an exhausted man stunned by the loss of Ban Me Thuot", but rather as being motivated by "highly important political necessities." Speaker Can went on to say, "At the time, Thieu was in a very bad posture." The growing domestic opposition was about to urge him to resign. Word of a coup spread around Saigon, and additional U.S. aid seemed to be uncertain despite efforts by President Ford to convince Congress that more aid was vitally needed. Besides satisfying the purely military needs, Thieu’s decision to abandon the highlands would also create a state of emergency in the country that would consequently muzzle the mounting opposition. Moreover, Thieu would naively expect that because of worldwide repercussions resulting from the catastrophic retreat, the U.S. would appropriate the requested military aid in order to avoid being accused of betraying an ally and thus losing all confidence abroad. Since Phuoc Long had fallen into enemy hands, President Thieu repeatedly blamed his reverses on Washington’s failure to keep its promises, and once exploded; "If they [the U.S.] grant full aid we will hold the whole country, but if they only give half of it, we will only hold half of the country." Can was surprised by such reasoning which sounded like President Thieu was defending the U.S. and was fighting for the Americans themselves." Half a country could quickly become "a quarter of a country," or less. Neither the U.S. Embassy nor the Defense Attaché’s Office (DAO) was notified of President Thieu’s decision to withdraw from Pleiku and Kontum.25
President Thieu wished to discuss the new strategy, and the force movements impelled by it, face-to-face with General Phu. However, the hazardous situation in the highlands decreed that any such meeting be held outside that area. It was therefore scheduled for Cam Ranh Bay on the coast for March 14, at which time the President outlined his new strategy to his Region II Commander. In view of the fact that the only two major highways from the highlands to the coast (Routes 19 and 21) were blocked by communist forces, the decision was made to use Route 7B, described as "an old logger’s road" that was "overgrown with brush, with fords in disrepair, and an important bridge out."26
The meeting that Friday was attended by only five men: President Thieu, General Phu, the Presidential Security Advisor Lieutenant General Dang Van Quang, Prime Minister Khiem, and Joint General Staff (JGS) Chairman General Vien. After only an hour and a half, four basic decisions were reached: (1) the regular ARVN forces in Pleiku and Kontum were to be pulled out of the highlands; (2) the Regional and Popular Forces, consisting "overwhelmingly" of Montagnards, along with dependents, civilians, and government administrators of Pleiku and Kontum were not to be told of the retreat and therefore not to be withdrawn; (3) the redeployment was to be executed within a few days and in secrecy; and (4) the route for the evacuation was to be the long unused Route 7B. There seems to be some question as to whether or not this movement of troops was intended to be preparatory to a campaign to recapture Ban Me Thuot, but in the end this question was made moot by the actions of General Dung and his superior forces. President Thieu’s recounting of this point came in his April 21 farewell address, "After Ban Me Thuot fell we wondered where we could get the troops to recapture it. We came to a political decision not to insure the life or death of Kontum and Pleiku … We decided to re-deploy our forces from Kontum and Pleiku to recapture Ban Me Thuot." In any case, upon his return to his headquarters Phu made his decision to pull out all at once. General Homer Smith has expressed the view that if Lieutenant General Dong Van Khuyen, Chief of Staff of the JGS and senior logistician in the South Vietnamese armed forces, had not been in Japan where his father was being treated for cancer, the withdrawal may have been executed quite differently. Smith is convinced that General Khuyen would have directed Phu to develop a detailed plan for any such large-scale movement before putting it into effect.27
When General Phu announced the decision to his staff, "all of those assembled were surprised." Colonel Le Khac Ly, who as Chief of Staff for the II Corps had the responsibility for planning, recounted these exchanges at the meeting: " Nobody believed him. All of us asked him again, we are to abandon Kontum and Pleiku? Yes, this decision has already been made. We have no discussion on this. I asked him how? He said some by air, some by road. I asked him what road? He said Route 7B, through Phu Bon. That has already been decided. No discussion again. It was the President’s decision."
Colonel Ly then said to Phu, "Please give me a week or three days at least for me to present you with a plan." Phu responded, "No. You have no time. Everything starts tomorrow." Ly later recounted "I opened my eyes widely, my mouth, and everyone looked at him except [newly promoted Brigadier General] Tat." Phu then said, "Tomorrow I will fly to Nha Trang and Cam and Ly will stay here. Tat will be overall commander. That is the plan."
In giving his orders for the conduct of evacuation, General Phu confused the chain of command for the withdrawal by giving Brigadier General Cam, his Assistant for Operations, "verbal orders to the effect that he was to ‘supervise’ the retreat." According to Ly, this "created more problems between Tat and Cam, more disagreements." Phu then directed his staff to "go ahead and prepare tonight and start moving tomorrow." The movement orders were to be issued to the units just one hour in advance of the execution of the operation. He also then revealed that only the regular units were to be withdrawn.
Colonel Ly remembered this part of the conversation vividly: "I asked him another question, how about the province and district personnel, the Regional and Provincial Forces (the RF/PF), the troop’s dependents and the people? He said, [and] I will never forget, ‘Forget about them. You have no responsibility to take care of them! … If you tell them about it, you cannot control it and you cannot get down to Tuy Hoa [on the coast] because there would be panic.’ "
The discussion then turned to the decision to use Route 7B. Ly argued that Route 19 was a better road whereas Route 7B "required a lot of engineer effort to open the road, because [of] mines, enemy mines, friendly mines, and Special Forces mines. The bridges were also down and the route had not been used for a long time. So we had to rebuild it. And it would take time and equipment to rebuild. Engineering equipment. Do we have enough, can we move it? If the American troops were here, they could use flying cranes for the movement of engineering equipment in the area. It would be easy. But now, we Vietnamese are alone, do we have enough assets to move heavy equipment to the place where it is needed? That’s a problem. It’s good for surprise, I agree with you. Yes, surprise. For the enemy to move into this area to attack us would take time. But we have to build roads, to build bridges, and it’s easy for them to harass us. The enemy will have enough time to overcome the surprise. But he didn’t buy my opinions. He said the President had already decided."
Later, when Colonel Ly was asked whether or not the II Corps had sufficient engineering assets to repair Route 7B he responded: "We did not have enough. We had just a fair amount of equipment and engineers. It requires a lot of time; it’s a tough job. To move equipment it takes time. It’s heavy equipment and can’t move fast. He [Phu] said the President discussed that, knew that. The President and Vien knew that, they all knew about the difficulties and they decided to take this road, a big surprise to the enemy. We would be down to Tuy Hoa by the time the enemy came and we would have no problem at all. We would use air support."
The next morning, March 15, General Phu and a number of key staff officers took off for Nha Trang, ostensibly to supervise the overall operation from there. However, those left behind were left with feelings of betrayal and anger. General Cam, the putative "supervisor" of the difficult operation immediately left for Tuy Hoa leaving Colonel Ly to fend with the withdrawal on his own. The II Corps Chief of Staff described his situation as follows: "I was the only man to assume the responsibility for everything [other that General Tat’s Rangers]. Cam [went] to Tuy Hoa, Phu to Nah Trang, and Tat stayed at the old American 4th Division headquarters in Pleiku [at Ham Rong Mountain] to take care of his Rangers. I stayed of course in corps headquarters. Every report from all units came to me and they reported, ‘Enemy attack, enemy attack – surrounded.’ I could communicate with General Phu on the ‘hotline’ phone only. And Saigon said they could not get information from Phu in Nah Trang. I forgot to tell you one more thing. Phu took all the key staff members. The Chiefs of G3, G2, G1, all his key staff went with him. He left only the deputies of each staff agency with me. The total troops we had in II Corps at that time were about 165,000 including lowland troops. And you withdraw a corps like that with no planning! With no planning at all he withdrew the troops. I had to do my best. I called the unit commanders; I had to let them know the situation. I personally informed the Americans there, the CIA, the consulate, the DAO, and told them that they must go right now. At first they couldn’t believe me. But I said, ‘Go, don’t ask.’ They called Saigon and checked with headquarters, and they didn’t know. … Later on, of course, they knew and they were asking me questions, ‘Where is Phu?’ and I said, ‘Phu is not here, Phu is in Nah Trang.’ And Phu couldn’t provide enough information for the JGS. So the JGS contacted me directly in Pleiku."
Once the ARVN regular units began their preparations for leaving Pleiku, the Montagnard and PF/RF realized that they were being abandoned and panic broke out. In Colonel Ly’s words, "The people, the troops, the dependents became undisciplined. Troops were raping, burning things, and committing robbery. The troops became undisciplined when they heard the order. I can’t blame them. There was no plan to take care of the troops’ dependents. The airfield at Pleiku was in a state of panic. Sometimes the planes could land, but they couldn’t do the job. I had to go there and use my pistol to restore order. Of course, I didn’t shoot anybody, just shot in the air. And when the people saw me, there was order. But soon I had to go back to headquarters. And the enemy kept shelling the headquarters at Pleiku. We left all of the old airplanes in Pleiku, helicopters and fixed wing, and heavy equipment, and the important equipment like the sensors left by the Special Forces. All types of equipment like that. We moved only about seventy percent of what we had. What we left behind we destroyed by air later. However, Colonel Uoc reported later that not all "operational planes" were destroyed at Pleiku and that :over 100,000 tons of ammunition were left behind. The final report of the DAO, dated June 18, 1975, stated that "[l]ittle, if any, materiel was destroyed, although the Vietnamese Air Force did bomb the ammunition storage areas at Ban Me Thuot and Pleiku.28
In the meantime, the ARVN engineering units were dispatched down Route 7B at the column’s head with the mission of clearing the path for the rest of the Corps. By noon on March 16, a mass of humanity; troops, dependents, civilians, and deserters; was clogging the old road. Some 400,000 civilians, 60,000 regular forces, and 7,000 Rangers began the attempted escape to the sea.29
On the same day that General Phu and his staff left Pleiku for Nah Tran on the coast, North Vietnamese General Dung received cables from Le Duc Tho and Vo Nguyen Giap confirming plans to accelerate the timetable for the conquest of South Vietnam. In addition, Western news reports heard on the radio described a crush of departures for Saigon from the Pleiku airport. Intercepted messages on March 16 from South Vietnam Air Force (SVAF) planes indicated a mass exodus of the SVAF to Nha Trang, in spite of the fact that the airfield had not yet been heavily shelled. At 4:00 PM, reports were received of long convoys of vehicles headed south from Pleiku. At 9:00 PM that day, the convoy was reported to be headed down Route 7B.
As General Dung described it, "Our headquarters came alive. A map of [the highland] road network was spread out on the table, with flashlights and magnifying glasses spread out along Routes 19, 14, and 7B to find points we could ‘cork up’, encircling routes, and attack routes, and measuring the distance between the nearest unit and route 7B to calculate the time for each action. I picked up the telephone and talked directly with Kim Tuan, who was then Commander of the 320th Division. Before we attacked Ban Me Thuot I had asked many times about Route 7B, and it was reported that Route 7B had long been abandoned, bridges were out, there were no ferries, and the enemy could not use it. Two days before, I had again asked Kim Tuan about this road, and he, too, had given the same answer. Now having heard that the enemy were retreating along Route 7B, but that his unit still had no concrete hold on that road and was not yet urgently pursuing the enemy, I spoke very severely to the unit’s highest responsible person. I emphasized twice to Kim Tuan, ‘That is a shortcoming, negligence that deserves a reprimand. At this time if you waver just a bit, are just a bit negligent, hesitate just a bit, you have botched the job. If the enemy escapes it will be a big crime, and you will have to bear the responsibility for it.’"30
Meanwhile, the convoy became stalled near Cheo Reo, the provincial capital of Phu Bon Province located about half way down Route 7B. Again, according to Colonel Ly, the repair work on the bridges took much longer than had been anticipated. "General Phu’s estimate was that in about two days the roads would be open. He was completely wrong. Just one bridge took about three or four days." There was little interference with the column by the North Vietnamese along the road to Cheo Reo until 18 March, but late that day the 320th Division began executing General Dung’s orders to prevent an escape by the fleeing South Vietnamese.31
The withdrawal from Pleiku was now turning into a major disaster. Colonel Ly described the situation as Kim Tuan’s forces began their intense attacks on March 18. "The road from Pleiku was terrible. I saw many old people and babies fall down on the road and tanks and trucks would go over them. Accidents all the time but everything would keep moving. … Nobody could control anything. No order. The troops were mixed with the dependents and civilians and were trying to take care of all the children and wives. You can’t imagine it. It was terrible. No control. And the enemy squeezed them. Refugees were strung out all the way from Cheo Reo back to the point where Route 7B and Route 14 fork. [A distance of about 40 kilometers.] I walked under fire."32
Even before the mass of refugees was half way toward their goal of reaching the coast, any semblance of discipline among the soldiers had disappeared. Food supplies ran out and the men began to pillage the villages along Route 7B. There were many incidences of murder and rape. By March 18, some 200,000 desperate people were trapped in the vicinity of Cheo Reo. And the communists continued to fire at them with small arms and artillery from the hills on both sides of the road. General Smith has called it a "turkey shoot."
The former Commander of the ARVN Artillery Command, General Thin, described the retreat as follows: "We must salute the battalion commanders and lower officers for having marched with their units but they were no longer able to control their famished and tired men. The soldiers kept shouting insults at President Thieu for this impossible and terrible retreat. Some reached the limit of their despair and killed their officers. An artillery battalion commander who was marching in the retreating column was shot to death by some Rangers who wanted his beautiful wristwatch. The despair was so great that at one point two or three guerrillas arriving at the scene could make prisoners of a hundred Rangers. Wives and children of retreating soldiers died of hunger and sickness along the road. It was a true hell."33
The journalist Nguyen Tu, who was in Cheo Reo on March 18, wrote: "On the heels of the refugees evacuating Pleiku and Kontum, the people of Cheo Reo were also leaving their city. Refugees evacuating Pleiku and Kontum who reached Cheo Reo in small groups made the long journey in two days. The majority [were] still far behind, dragging their feet on the dirty road under a scorching sun by day and chilled by night in the forests. It was not possible to say how many children fell during the walk, how many helpless old people were standing along side the road unable to move, how many others were suffering from thirst and hunger during the walk to freedom and democracy. A Ranger officer told me, ‘This time, I can never look straight to my people again.’ A private said, ‘Damn it, we got away without any fighting. I prefer to fight and run away if we lose. I will accept that.’ An Air Force captain said, ‘It is sad, very sad, especially when we look back at Pleiku, a deserted city now. We can see only fires and fires. I am very sad.’ Another soldier added, ‘I am stunned. … Look at these people, the young ones. Isn’t this miserable?’"
He continued, "Women, children, youngsters, and the elderly – all in small groups with their belongings either on their backs or in their hands – rushing out of their houses as they saw the convoy approaching. The same scenes of plundering and ransacking of homes by unidentified people reappeared. … Many sections of town were set on fire. … Cheo Reo has capitulated not to the enemy but [to] its own. … After Kontum and Pleiku on Sunday, Cheo Reo became a lost town on Tuesday."34
The next day Tu’s dispatch read, "the leading part of our convoy got through the ambush point under a screen of supporting fire. But the tail end had to leave the road and pass through the jungle. I was in the tail end. Rebel mountain tribesmen armed with our [American] weapons and Communist B-41 rockets and AK-47 rifles shot into the convoy, while Communist artillery struck from all directions. Many trucks were hit by shells and burst into flames and exploded. The trucks were crammed with soldiers, children, and old people. They fell everywhere. Those who walked fell to machine gun bullets. Their blood flowed in tiny streams. The roaring artillery, crackling small arms, screams of the dying and crying of the children combined into a single voice from hell.
"The Rangers resisted all night, permitting the tail end of the convoy to flee into the jungle.
"At last, 200 of us succeeded in climbing up Chu Del hill, about six miles from Cheo Reo, 210 miles north of Saigon. Helicopters contacted us and moved in for rescue. The operation was difficult, because Chu Del is a narrow and steep hill. Finally, in an operation that evening and the next morning, 200 people were lifted out and rescued."35
The following Sunday, March 23, a photographer for United Press International named Lim Thanh Van was able to get a ride on a helicopter piloted by Captain Huynh My Phuong. The pilot’s mission was supposed to be "to destroy communists." However, Captain Phuong spotted a group of refugees huddled on top of the same hill from which Nguyen Tu had been rescued earlier. Captain Phuong dropped down to pick up as many of them as he could. As he pulled up, an old woman and an old man holding a child lost the grip that they had managed to get on the skids and fell to the ground. The pilot was quickly notified of the fact that the child’s mother had made it on board in the mad scramble, and he started to turn back. Lim Than Van later wrote, "Phuong, tears in his eyes, tried to swing his helicopter around and pick up the abandoned child. He could not, because he already had so many aboard. We dropped his load of refugees at the province capital of Tuy Hoa and flew back, Phuong urging his helicopter on in an attempt to pick up the ones left behind. When we got there, they were gone ….
"Communist artillery, attacks by mountain tribesmen and dissident troops, the heat, the sheer struggle, the hardships have killed – who knows how many died?
"Vehicles lie along Highway 7B, route of retreat from the Central Highlands provinces of Pleiku, Kontum, and Phu Bon. So do the dead children, women and old men. For miles and miles, people look up to us, falling on their knees, begging for rescue. Phuong saw a communist mortar team firing at one group of persons in the convoy. He and his following gunships furiously attacked. The mortars stopped."
Journalist Lim recorded, "It is against Phuong’s orders to stop and pick up people, but he said he must. The door gunners ran out to pick up children, old people. Others, including government Rangers, ran for the helicopters. I fell down and had ten persons on my back. I didn’t even feel any pain, worrying only that the children wouldn’t get on the chopper. In the helicopter, I was pinned down by people. I couldn’t even click my camera.
"No one knows how many people have died in this most incredible convoy down Highway 7B. No one likely ever will. Babies are born on the route. More die. The sheer incomprehensible terror is not only on Highway 7B.
"At Pleiku last Sunday, the last planes took off before the town was abandoned to the communists. Old Mrs. Khien told me the huge crowd trying to get on the last three C-130 transports looked like a huge dragon dance, pushing, shoving, up and down, back and forth. People grabbed for the tail, falling off as the plane taxied. Just as the last one took off, a small baby fell out of the aircraft, killed instantly as it hit the tarmac, she said.
"And at Tuy Hoa [on the coast] sits major Ly Van Phuc, generally recognized as the best field information officer in the South Vietnamese Army. Phuc was away at training school when Pleiku was evacuated. His wife and eight children were somewhere between Pleiku and Tuy Hoa on the convoy of death."
Richard Blystone, then working for the Associated Press, reported from Tuy Hoa, " The helicopters spill out weeping women and children limping on bare feet and soldiers in blood-caked camouflage fatigues. Some carry satchels and straw baskets; some have nothing but their lives. An Army major, hoping his family has made the 150-mile march from Pleiku, watches each incoming helicopter intently. An old woman drops down on the grass near the helicopter pad. ‘Now I know I am alive,’ she says. She has been on the road a week.
"‘It was such misery I cannot describe it,’ says a mother after frantically searching for her ten children and finding that they are all there.
"Two children arrive alone. Their father put them aboard a helicopter thinking that their pregnant mother was on board. But she was not.
"A school teacher says that his family walked through the jungle to avoid North Vietnamese shellfire and thought their luck had changed when they were able to climb aboard a truck. But later they realized that their five-year-old child was missing in the scramble.
"The refugees are flown to this coastal province headquarters about 240 miles northeast of Saigon from a stalled refugee column that ends 15 miles to the southwest. Outgoing choppers carry ammunition, rice and bread – some of which the helicopter pilots pay for out of their own pockets. Flying from Tuy Hoa toward the column, the reasons why the refugees cannot move soon become evident. Six miles from the city, a blackened armored truck sits in the road beside a flattened burned out hamlet. This is as far as relatives of the refugees hoping to meet their loved ones dare to go. …
"The retreating soldiers at the head of the column have set up several camps beside the road. Farther on, cars, trucks and busses are clustered in a bizarre traffic jam in the middle of nowhere. Other vehicles are backed up at a half-completed bridge across a river. Viet Cong shells have been hitting near the river crossing, killing and wounding many persons, the refugees say.
"Earlier in the week, they say, more than 100 persons, mostly civilians, were killed by shellfire near Cong Son, ten miles back.
"The column trails out of sight into the foothills where a cloud of gray smoke rises; officers say that there are about 35, 000 refugees near [that fire] and anther 30,000 stretching back to Cong Son, where a Ranger group harassed by communist fire brings up the rear. How many hundreds are left behind along the rest of the more than 150 miles to the abandoned Central Highlands capitals of Pleiku and Kontum no one knows."36
By the time that the last straggling men, women, and children had reached Tuy Hoa on the coast; 300,000 civilians, 40,000 ARVN, and 6,300 Rangers were missing, never to be accounted for. While General Phu had said that the withdrawal could be completed in three days, some of those who had left Pleiku on or about the 16th of March were still staggering down Route 7B when the North Vietnamese captured Tuy Hoa on April 1.37
General Cao Van Vien, the last chairman of the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff, summarized the situation this way; "Psychologically and politically, the self-inflicted defeat of II Corps in the Highlands amounted to a horrible nightmare for the people and armed forces of South Vietnam. Confusion, worries, accusations, guilt, and a general feeling of distress began to weigh on everybody’s mind. Rumors spread rapidly that territorial concessions were in the making. The immediate impact of the rumors was to unleash an uncontrollable surge of refugees seeking by all means and at all costs to leave whatever provinces remained of Military Region II. To the north, Military Region I also felt the repercussions. Its population soon joined the refugees and battered troops streaming south along the coast. First, they rushed into Phan Rang and Phan Thiet (on the coast south of Nha Trang), and then moved on toward Saigon. In the national capital itself, the opposition increased its activities and irreparably widened the government’s credibility gap. Confidence in the armed forces also swung down to its lowest ebb. Demonstrators angrily demanded the replacement of President Thieu; they also vigorously voiced anti-American sentiment. A pervasive hope still lingered, however, for some miraculous thing to happen that could save Vietnam."38
The debacle on Route 7B is only part of the story of the North Vietnamese success in defeating the ARVN forces in Military Region II. Prior to achieving his overwhelming success in the defeat of General Pham Van Phu’s forces at Ban Me Thuot and their subsequent rout down the infamous logging road 7B, General Van Tien Dung had isolated his main target from the other ARVN forces in the Central Highlands. Dung described his strategy thus: "For our attack in the (central highlands) campaign, we would have to use relatively large forces, of regimental and divisional size, to cut Routes 19, 14, and 21, thereby establishing positions dividing the enemy’s forces: strategically, this would cut off the (central highlands) from the coastal plains, and tactically, it would isolate Ban Me Thuot from Pleiku and Kontum. At the same time, we needed diversionary maneuvers to tie the enemy’s feet and draw their attention and their forces towards the northern (part of the Central Highlands), enabling us to maintain secrecy and surprise in the south until we began the attack to take Ban Me Thuot."39
The first of these tactical maneuvers occurred on March 1 about 25 kilometers west of Pleiku on Route 19 where two small ARVN outposts were wiped out. General Phu reacted by shifting one regiment of troops to that area on 3 March to reinforce his defenses of Pleiku. It was at this point that General Dung directed that the airfield there be shelled while the division commander "shouted ten times." While Phu was reacting to the action to the west of his headquarters, North Vietnamese Army attacks were carried out on 4 March at key choke points on Route 19 to the east. This closed that highway to reinforcements that might try to come from the coastal areas. On March 5, communist forces overwhelmed an ARVN outpost west of Khan Duong on Route 21, the southern connector between the highlands and the coastline. There they established a roadblock that was about 65 kilometers east of Ban Me Thuot. This completed the isolation of Phu’s armies from the South Vietnamese units based on the plains below without revealing Dung’s the immediate objective.
Dung explained his decision to hold back from completely isolating Ban Me Thuot at the outset as follows: " We didn’t cut Route 14 (between Pleiku and Ban Me Thuot) at the same time we cut Routes 19 and 21 although our plan included, besides strategic roadblocks, the campaign blockade of Route 14 in order to cut Ban Me Thuot off from Pleiku. The problem was when we should put it into effect. If we cut Route 14 too soon, our intention to attack Ban Me Thuot might be discovered." He went on to explain that his intention was to cut Route 14 when he began the attack on Ban Me Thuot.40
Since Route 21 had been defended by relatively light forces, the establishment of a roadblock there was accomplished by Dung’s forces with relative ease. That was not the case along Route 19. The eastern portion of this vital connector from the seacoast to the highlands was defended by the 22ed ARVN Division, commanded by General Phan Dinh Niem, and by South Vietnamese Air Force units located at the Phu Cat Air Base on Route 1 in the north of Military Region II.
The coordinated attacks by Dung’s troops on 4 March were at several points along Route 19. These included the Mang Yang Pass about 45 kilometers east of Pleiku, the airfield at An Khe about 25 kilometers further toward the coast, the An Khe Pass, the intersection of Route 3A and Route 19 just west of the city of Binh Khe, and the air base at Phu Cat. While the 22nd Division was attempting to maintain some semblance of control in Binh Dinh Province to the east, the South Vietnamese forces near Pleiku were under heavy rocket, mortar, and recoilless rifle fire. These were the attacks that reinforced General Phu’s belief that it was his headquarters that was the principal target of the invading North Vietnamese army.
In the first couple of days of the battle along Route 19 between Pleiku and the coast, the communists achieved some success. However, General Niem began re-deploying several of his units on the 8th and 9th of March in an effort to stop the advance of General Dung’s armies and to protect Phu Cat Air Base.
On March 10, the day General Dung’s lotus bloomed in Ban Me Thuot, troops of the 22nd Division fought off repeated attempts by the North Vietnamese Army to clear a path east of the An Khe Pass. By the 11th, the attacking army had been badly hurt by South Vietnamese artillery and air strikes. In fact, two companies had been virtually annihilated. However, truckloads of replacements and ammunition continued to reinforce the communist forces, demonstrating once again the value of the huge complex of highways and depots constructed by North Vietnam between the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January of 1973 and the aggressions initiated in 1975.
On March 13, a representative of the Defense Attaché Office visited the battlefield along Route 19. While his report of the situation faced by the South Vietnamese forces described General Niem’s general confidence and optimism, the situation was, in fact, shaky. On the 12th, the command post of a company of Regional Forces had been overrun, and heavy attacks by North Vietnamese units had killed four successive commanders of one regular ARVN battalion and had left it at half strength. As it turned out, the superior numbers and resources of the North Vietnamese units slowly overwhelmed General Niem’s forces attempting to open the An Khe Pass. For example, despite killing nearly 500 of the enemy in two days, the 42nd Regiment was unable to make any real progress in dislodging the three North Vietnamese Army battalions holding the high ground at each end of the pass. On March 17, the Division Commander concluded that they could not succeed in breaking the North Vietnamese resistance so he ordered his troops to hold in place. This left several hundred territorial soldiers cut off in the city of An Khe. By March 19, some 500 people were struggling to escape from this besieged city to the coast over rural roads and trails. On 24 March, the massed forces of the North Vietnamese 3rd Division began its assault of the city of Binh Khe. In other words, General Niem’s 22nd Division had been pushed back to within less than 50 kilometers of the coast by this date.41
As the 41st and 42nd Regiments of the 22nd Division dug in for the defense of the port of Qui Nhon on March 27, orders came to evacuate what remained of General Niem’s troops. On the 31st, the communists attacked Phu Cat Air Base and the Vietnamese Air Force flew out 32 aircraft, leaving about 58, mostly disabled or destroyed, on the ground. General Thin, Commanding General of the Artillery Command of the Joint General Staff described the final act of this drama as follows: " Finally isolated, at the end of [its] supplies, and deprived of the necessary area support, the 22ed ARVN Division was forced to lead a heroic delaying action toward the ocean, abandoning the province of Binh Dinh to the enemy." Only a fifth of the division’s compliment, some 2,000 officers and men, remained to be evacuated by sea on April 1. The rest having been dispersed or killed, wounded, or made prisoner…The general commanding the 22ed Division, in his command post on [the] boat, fainted several times at the news of [the] severe losses of his unit.42
While the South Vietnamese forces were attempting to stop the communist advances on Route 19, a similar effort was underway on Route 21, the connector between Ban Me Thuot and the cities of Ninh Hoa and Nha Trang on the coast. Even though General Dung’s forces had been able to quickly overcome the defenders of Ban Me Thuot, a number of the surviving ARVN troops had been able to re-group at the city’s airfield about ten kilometers outside of town. There they fought valiantly before superior forces finally overwhelmed them.43
Then First Lieutenant Nguyen Troung Toai described this part of the battle as follows: "At Phung Duc air base, where our Corps Headquarters 53 and 44 were stationed, we fought with them for almost ten days, and the number of casualties on their side was greater than on our side. The ratio was seven deaths on their side to two on our side. We fought until our ammunition ran out. We had helicopters supplying us with ammunition. But under the intense fire our pilots became afraid and they flew too high and didn’t aim right. They dropped boxes of ammunition closer to the communist side than our side and we were not able to retrieve the ammunition. So we fought to the last bullet, and all of us were nearly wiped out."44
In contrast, however, the attempt by the ARVN to retake Ban Me Thuot from Phuoc An city about 40 kilometers to the east, which was briefly mentioned earlier, was another disaster. In response to President Thieu’s order to reoccupy Ban Me Thuot right away, General Phu apparently planned to airlift the entire 44th Regiment of the 23rd Division from Pleiku to Phuoc An. In the event, there were insufficient helicopter assets to move more than two battalions, and those could not be provided with artillery or tank support. General Thinh described what happened: "Ban Me Thuot was the rear base of the 23rd Division, with many barracks of married men from all units. For this reason, it was hoped that the men would push quickly toward the city in order to liberate their families in the city. Unfortunately, the opposite took place. As soon as they landed with their copters,…most of the soldiers, seeing by chance their families who had left the city several days earlier, threw their uniforms and weapons away and disguised themselves as civilians in order to lead their wives and children to Nha Trang, which city was still under friendly control."
The Chief of Staff of II Corps confirmed this account in these words: "…the defensive troops worried too much about their families in Ban Me Thuot city. So when they got out of the helicopters they would run to find their wives and children rather than fighting the enemy. When they departed from Pleiku the spirit of fighting was very high, the morale was very high. And Tuong and Phu felt very good about it. But actually, when they got on the ground at Ban Me Thuot, they ran away to take care of their families. Nobody could control them."45
Once the Rangers at Phung Duc airfield were eliminated and the soldiers of thee 23rd Division dispersed at Phuoc An, the path down Route 21 was wide open to the North Vietnamese armies. In an effort to block their anticipated drive to the sea, the Joint General Staff decided on March 17 to provide reinforcements to those still defending Military Region II. An Airborne brigade that had been withdrawn from Military Region I to provide additional strength to the defenses of Saigon was diverted to Nha Trang. This force of about 2000 men moved quickly to the Deo Cao Pass about 50 kilometers west of coastal highway Route 1 and the city of Khan Duong. There they joined two battalions of the 40th Infantry that had come down earlier from Binh Dinh Province some 200 kilometers to the north. These two battalions had taken up positions just west of Khan Duong city while the Airborne units dug in on the high ground in the pass behind the infantrymen.
After defeating the failed ARVN counterattack at Phuoc An, General Dung’s forces moved rapidly down Route 21 toward the defenders of Khan Duong and the Deo Cao Pass. On March 22, the North Vietnamese Army 10th Division, with supporting tanks, overwhelmed the two infantry divisions on the western approaches to the city, forcing them to withdraw from their positions.
Since the possibility existed that the communists could avoid the Airborne-protected Deo Cao Pass by using a network of logging roads and Local Route 420 to get to Nha Trang, the 40th Infantry was directed to take up new defensive positions in that area. However, the North Vietnamese Army did not deviate from the most direct route to that most important city and it moved quickly to engage the outnumbered Airborne units directly. General Thin described the battle: "Quite a number of [North Vietnamese] T-54 tanks were hit and burned, artillery duels terminated in silence by North Vietnamese artillery but also by the loss of South Vietnamese artillery. The paratroopers were the only hope for the port of Nha Trang, but they were only a light brigade, whereas the enemy facing them consisted of at least a division, supported by many heavy tanks, long-rang cannon and intense antiaircraft. On our side there remained no tanks and only a few 105’s and 155’s."46
After a week of heavy fighting, the Airborne soldiers were forced back down Route 21 and then Route 1 toward Nha Trang. As the fighters moved toward the coast, students and staff of the three ARVN training centers located in the area joined them in retreat. Colonel Loi of the Joint General Staff described the consequences of the evacuation of these cites. "Along the road from Ban Me Thuot to Nha Trang we had two or three training centers, so when the Airborne withdrew along the road, all these training centers just disbanded and ran with the Airborne. When the Airborne and these troops ran out of the camp, and Nha Trang knew about this, then Nah Trang ran too. If we had had responsible people to hold Nha Trang and to organize a defense of Nha Trang, I think that we could hold it for a while."47
First Lieutenant Loi, one of the few survivors of the battle for the airfield at Ban Me Thuot, managed to hide from the communists, but he was still trapped inside the city. He finally decided to make a break for it and he described his experience this way in the oral history Tears Before the Rain:
"In early April, I was able to escape from Ban Me Thuot and I fled to Nha Trang. By that time Nha Trang had already fallen to the Communists. It was the home of my maternal relatives but by the time that I got there my sister and her husband had already fled to Saigon.
"Let me tell you about the trek from Ban Me Thuot to Nha Trang. It was unbelievable. On the route the many busses that carried people, like big American Greyhound busses but not as nice, got shot at by the Communists on the way. They didn’t care that they were shooting at civilians. To have survived that trip required a tremendous amount of luck.
"My bus was stopped by the local guerrillas, and they said, ‘There must be military men on this bus, and if you don’t get off, we will shoot everybody on the bus.’ The term that they used for us was ‘Nguy Quam.’ They threatened to shoot everybody on the bus and so others and I got off the bus. And, lucky for us, at the moment we got off the bus, there were two A-37 bombers that came by and dropped bombs in the area. The local guerrillas ran away and the bus drove away. But, bless his heart, the bus driver was so kind that he stopped a short distance away and picked us up again.
"One of the most unforgettable scenes we witnessed was something that really hurt us in our guts. There were two companies of South Vietnamese Airborne men who got captured by the Communists and were ordered to march without any shoes or uniforms, and they looked so pathetic. Those of us on the bus looked out at this scene and we just wanted to cry because it hurt us so much, and we were so angry. Another thing that really hurt us was to see so many corpses of the Airborne troops along the road. Too many corpses. There were many corpses of the Communists, too, but they were removed, so what were left were just the bodies of the Airborne men, especially in the area of Phung Hoang. The Phung Hoang route leads from Ban Me Thuot to Nha Trang."48
Thus, the communists’ two-year plan to "liberate" South Vietnam had been replaced by an accelerated assault, assisted by Thieu’s errors and American inaction. Members of the U.S. Congress were not about to send more money to Thieu. In the final two months of the war, visiting Congressmen arrived in South Vietnam – not to voice outrage at communist violations of the 1973 peace agreement, but to criticize Thieu’s treatment of dissenters. The former staff director of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Jack Brady, remembers New York Representative Bella Abzug’s insistence on meeting every imprisoned foe of Thieu’s government. California’s Paul McClosky spent his time on the February 1975 visit posing for photographers, "flashing his pearlies," as James Piner, General Homer Smith’s Executive Officer, put it. While South Vietnam collapsed, Congress refused to provide more money for its defense. By March 1975, South Vietnam had become, as defense department consultant Richard Armitage explains, "a pregnant lady" – abandoned by her lover to face her fate.49
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