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Grinding to a Halt

By James H. Willbanks
3/23/2017 • Vietnam Magazine

South Vietnam’s 1971 invasion of Laos to cut NVA supply routes was supposed to be a showcase for Nixon’s plan to decrease American involvement in the war, but that all changed when Operation Lam Son 719 came …

IN EARLY 1971, their history, the South Vietnamese armed forces launched a corps-level campaign on a foreign battlefield. The for the first time in lead elements of what would eventually total more than 17,000 South Vietnamese soldiers crossed into Laos on February 8 to strike at North Vietnamese Army resupply areas and infiltration routes. The massive operation, Lam Son 719, involved 34 South Vietnamese battalions, supported by nearly 700 helicopters and 2,000 fixed-wing aircraft. The forces, led by Lt. Gen. Hoang Xuan Lam, I Corps commander in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, were to seize Base Area 604 west and south of Tchepone, a small town at a strategic junction of supply routes 9 and 92, 42 kilometers from the border with South Vietnam. The United States provided aviation, logistical and artillery support, but its ground forces were prohibited by law from entering Laotian territory. After securing Tchepone, the ARVN would, for the remainder of the dry season, interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail and destroy additional logistical facilities in the area.

The North Vietnamese responded strongly, committing more than 60,000 troops to the area. The 45-day battle that ensued saw some of the heaviest fighting of the war.

By February 10, ARVN forces had made good progress against relatively light resistance. The troops seized Objective A Luoi along Route 9 (see map, pg. 49) and captured Ban Dong, finding large caches of Soviet-made weapons, fuel, uniforms and food. South Vietnamese Ranger and airborne units were inserted by helicopter into blocking positions north of the main advance along the road. Meanwhile, soldiers from the ARVN 1st Division were inserted into a series of blocking positions along the escarpment south of Route 9. Once the infantry had secured its respective areas, artillery was flown in and fire support bases were established.

On February 11, however, for reasons that were inexplicable at the time, the South Vietnamese forces attacking along Route 9 halted their advance about 5 kilometers beyond Fire Support Base A Luoi. After five days with no further movement toward Tchepone, U.S. Army General Creighton Abrams, commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), who had expected a much more rapid thrust, urged General Lam to get the force moving in order to keep the North Vietnamese off balance. But the ARVN had lost the initiative and never regained it.

Abrams had feared that South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu might settle for less than the originally planned advance on Tchepone and the destruction of the NVA supplies throughout the area, and indeed it was determined after the operation that Thieu had a hand in halting the ARVN drive. On February 12 Thieu had flown to Dong Ha and ordered Lam to be careful as he moved west and to cancel the operation if he incurred 3,000 casualties. Thieu was apparently worried about how potentially high casualty figures in Laos would affect the national elections in the fall. Also, he was concerned about damaging or losing the ARVN general reserve (which consisted of the Airborne Division and the South Vietnamese Marines). The Airborne Division was effectively Thieu’s palace guard and protection against a coup.

Enemy pressure on the ground increased on February 14, when patrols from the 39th Ranger Battalion at FSB Ranger North began engaging NVA troops in new uniforms. By late afternoon, the heavily embattled Rangers called for artillery, which drove the North Vietnamese back. The following day patrols discovered the bodies of 43 North Vietnamese soldiers and captured two 37mm anti-aircraft guns, indicating a large unit in the immediate area. The 308th NVA Division and its three regiments were closing on the Ranger positions.

Around midnight on February 18 a two-battalion enemy force attacked the Rangers. U.S. Air Force gun- ships and flare ships were called in, but the enemy breached the Ranger lines and occupied the outer trenches. By morning on February 20 NVA forces had completely isolated the Rangers. In the afternoon reconnaissance aircraft reported 400 to 500 North Vietnamese troops encircling the 39th Ranger positions; actually, there were more than 2,000.

About to be overrun, the battalion commander of the 39th Rangers ordered his survivors to break out and withdraw toward the 21st Ranger Battalion’s position at Ranger Base South, 6 kilometers away. They fought their way out, but 178 of the initial 430 Rangers were killed or missing and 148 were wounded. The 39th was finished as a unit, but it had exacted a heavy toll on the 102nd NVA Regiment. Reconnaissance photo analysts counted 639 enemy bodies at and around Ranger Base North.

With the loss of Ranger Base North, Washington pressed Abrams for more timely and accurate reports. In a conversation with Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, President Richard Nixon worried about the mounting negative stories in the press. South Vietnamese soldiers had been seen clinging to helicopter skids and riding back to South Vietnam. “The main thing that I am concerned about is the SVN [South Vietnamese],” Nixon said. “I don’t want them to lose confidence in themselves—I don’t want them to suffer defeat and hope that they can stay in there [Laos] for another month.”

In a follow-up phone conversation with the JCS chairman, an exasperated Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told Moorer, “I do not understand what Abrams is doing….I think the units north of…[Route] 9 are just dug in a static position in the sort of thing the North Vietnamese know how to fight….And I don’t see anything aggressive [to the] south…of 9 either.” Clearly frustrated, Kissinger continued, “If we are getting our pants beaten off in here, we’ve had it in Vietnam for psychological reasons.” Closing, he asked, “What we want to know is, Is he [General Lam] cutting the road?” Moorer answered, “When they get logistics and the combat situation in hand.”

Nixon believed that there was more at stake in Laos than just cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In a December 1970 discussion, he acknowledged that the operation, above all, would be seen as a test of Vietnamization, the U.S. effort to turn the war over to South Vietnamese forces.

While Washington’s concern escalated, the NVA began pouring artillery and rockets on landing zone Ranger South. In a battle that raged for four days and nights, the Rangers held tenaciously to their position. Supporting helicopters continued to sustain heavy damage as they flew in and out of Laos.

The withdrawal of the Rangers from FSB Ranger North left the Airborne Division’s northern flank exposed, and two nearby firebases, 31 and 30, became the full focus of the North Vietnamese attack. Fire Support Base 31, 8 kilometers north of A Luoi and west of an NVA north-south supply line on Route 92, hosted the headquarters of the 3rd Airborne Brigade, commanded by Colonel Nguyen Van Tho, and was defended by two severely depleted companies from the 3rd Airborne Battalion, a Ranger reconnaissance company and a 105mm howitzer battery. The airborne battalion’s other two companies patrolled the mountainous area to the northeast. As enemy pressure mounted, an additional battalion, the 6th Airborne, which had been inserted into the area northwest of FSB 31 on February 13, came under intense fire; 28 were killed and 50 wounded. It was evacuated on February 19.

Meanwhile, the other ARVN paratroopers in and around FSB 31 came under increased enemy artillery and mortar fire. Following this punishing barrage, the NVA launched a three-pronged attack by an estimated 2,000 infantry, backed by some 20 PT-76 and T-54 tanks.

In the afternoon, an overhead forward air controller reported three enemy tanks within 30 meters east of the airborne positions; he subsequently directed airstrikes by four A-7 fighter-bombers that destroyed all three tanks and killed 30 enemy soldiers. Three more tanks were seen coming up the hill from Route 92, but tactical air support destroyed them as well. Still the NVA continued to press the attack. A thunderstorm broke over the area, making it impossible to get fighters in to assist the defenders. North Vietnamese tanks and infantry managed to penetrate the defenses and occupy the north and northwest sides of the position, forcing the ARVN to the southern edge.

As the situation at FSB 31 deteriorated, the Airborne Division commander, Lt. Gen. Du Quoc Dong, according to his senior adviser, Colonel Arthur Pence, became increasingly unhappy with Lam’s plan and use of his men in static positions, which he believed stifled the paratroopers’ usual aggressiveness. Pence suggested resupply by parachute, but Dong did not want to further demoralize his troops by letting them know how dire their situation was becoming.

The battle for FSB 31 continued to rage for four days as paratroop casualties mounted. Several helicopters, led by Lt. Col. William N. Peachey, commander of the 158th Aviation Battalion, braved intense enemy fire and flew into FSB 31 to evacuate the wounded. However, as the aircraft landed, a new round of artillery fire began, and most of the ARVN soldiers stayed in their fighting positions. With no one to load them, the seriously wounded remained behind, and only a few walking wounded made it to the aircraft.

Dong, wanting to save his forces at FSB 31, ordered Colonel Nguyen Trong Luat, commander of the armored task force, to move some of the 17th Armored Cavalry Squadron’s M41 tanks north from A Luoi to reinforce FSB 31. Dong also ordered the 31st and 32nd companies of the 3rd Airborne Battalion, which had been patrolling in the mountains northeast of the base, to move south to link up with the tanks and lead them into the fire support base.

During the night on February 22 NVA sappers tried to penetrate FSB 31 from the west but were repelled, with 15 killed. On the 23rd the base again came under intense artillery fire, including from 130mm guns. Later that afternoon, 31st Company to the south of the firebase reported enemy armor moving toward FSB 31. The ARVN responded with artillery and called for air support. The first aircraft on the scene destroyed a number of attacking tanks and turned back the enemy from the southern perimeter.

The defenders at FSB 31 waited for the tanks that had been dispatched to relieve them. The reason the tanks never arrived is controversial. Pence, Dong’s senior adviser, maintained that Luat simply ignored Dong’s orders, as well as a follow-up order from Lam. Although the armor was attached to the Airborne Division and thus under Dong’s command, “General Dong had absolutely no control over the task force commander,” said Pence. “General Dong did everything he could do…except call the commander in and shoot him.”

The American adviser to the 1st Armored Brigade, Colonel Raymond Battreall, later said that the armor commander had received conflicting orders from generals Lam and Dong, and the five-tank column with accompanying paratroopers halted as ordered by the Airborne Division commander south of FSB 31. Perhaps, in the confusion, the inexperienced Airborne Division staff simply forgot about the armored element and neglected to issue any further orders. Whatever the reason, the tankers just sat there, still several kilometers southeast of FSB 31 on February 25.

That day elements of the 66th Regiment of the 308th Division again hit FSB 31 from the northwest and east, supported by an estimated 20 camouflaged T-54 tanks from the 9th Tank Company, which knocked over presawed trees and assaulted up the slope. Their appearance was a great shock to the ARVN; most had never faced North Vietnamese tanks on the battlefield.

The defenders reeled, but U.S. Air Force A-7 and F-4 fighter-bombers took advantage of improved weather, dropping napalm and general-purpose bombs to turn back several assaults. Artillery from A Luoi and FSB 30 continued to fire in support of FSB 31, but did not stop the tanks, which continued up the hill to breach the defenses and overrun the firebase in 40 minutes. Some of the paratroopers broke out and escaped, but most were captured. Captain Nguyen Van Duong, commander of a paratroop artillery battery, fought to the last minute, refusing to surrender; he was captured and subsequently executed by the North Vietnamese Army.

Peachey, the 158th Aviation Battalion’s commander, returned to the area to see if his unit could provide assistance, only to see enemy tanks inside the perimeter wire. “There they were, big and ugly,” he later observed. “They were on top of the bunkers, doing 360 degree turns, driving around and around.”

At FSB 31, Tho, the brigade commander, his entire staff and the commander of the artillery battalion were trapped in a collapsed bunker. They called FSB A Luoi to report that NVA troops were tearing the roof off their bunker and to request that artillery be fired on their position. Apparently it was without effect: The North Vietnamese dug Tho and his officers out of the rubble and took them prisoner. Tho was sent to the rear for interrogation, and the Communists later forced him to make a radio statement denouncing the South Vietnamese attack into “neutral” Laos.

Dong ordered a counterattack by 31st and 32nd companies, but the weather worsened, precluding further air support. In the defense of FSB 31 and a subsequent counterattack, the ARVN airborne forces suffered 155 killed and more than 100 captured, rendering the 3rd Airborne Battalion combat ineffective. Not surprisingly, the survivors were embittered toward the tankers who had failed to come to their rescue. This battle was arguably the first time that South Vietnamese troops had faced a large-scale tank-infantry combined-arms attack. Nevertheless, the paratroopers made the enemy pay a grim butcher’s bill, killing 250 soldiers from the NVA 64th Regiment and destroying 15 PT-76 and T-54 tanks.

The airborne-armored task force, still southeast of FSB 31, had its own problems. On February 25 and 27 and the night of March 1, the task force, consisting of elements of the 17th Armored Cavalry Squadron, reinforced with the 8th Airborne Battalion, fought three major battles with elements of the 36th Regiment, 308th NVA Division, including the first engagement between North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese tanks. The ARVN sustained 27 killed in action and had three M41 tanks and 25 armored personnel carriers destroyed. However, with the help of U.S. tactical air support, including aircraft from 1st Marine Air Wing and B-52 strikes, the ARVN claimed more than 1,000 North Vietnamese soldiers killed, as well as 17 PT-76 and six T-54 tanks destroyed. Interrogation of North Vietnamese prisoners after the battle revealed that the 24th and 36th regiments of the 308th NVA Division, reinforced by the 202nd Tank Regiment, had taken part in the battle. The airborne-armor task force had fought well, destroying the equivalent of an NVA regiment, but it had not prevented the fall of the firebase.

Kissinger was stunned by the fall of FSB 31, but even more so by what he saw as Abrams’ and Moorer’s failure to keep him informed about the deteriorating situation. In a telephone conversation with Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, Kissinger said, “I got a briefing this morning and they didn’t even mention Hill 31, and I pick up the newspapers and if someone asks me I don’t know what’s going on.”

As Kissinger’s ire increased, the situation in Laos worsened. Even while ARVN troops fought for their lives at FSB 31, the NVA had hit FSB 30. There, the 2nd Airborne Battalion came under heavy indirect fire, but the ARVN occupied a strong position on the high ground with vertical drops on three sides. The NVA, not easily able to get up the steep slopes to attack the South Vietnamese, chose to pound the ARVN with mortar fire while tanks, having a hard time in the muddy conditions, supported with direct fire. After nearly a week of this continual bombardment, South Vietnamese morale was low. Soldiers were running short of supplies, and nearly all the bunkers had been flattened.

Throughout the area of operations, NVA forces had beefed up their anti-aircraft capability. Nevertheless, on February 28, an attempt was made to resupply FSB 30, under the cover of smoke, artillery, helicopter gunships and tactical aircraft, with a flight of 10 CH-47 Chinook helicopters led by Colonel Peachey and Lt. Col. George Newton, commander of the 159th Assault Support Helicopter Battalion. As the helicopters approached the landing zone at treetop level, the North Vietnamese shot down one of the Chinooks, which crash-landed in a cluster of trees.

Despite the resupply effort, B-52 strikes and close air support, including fires from fixed-wing gunships, the situation at FSB 30 became untenable. The NVA launched a major tank-supported infantry attack late in the afternoon of March 2. With the aid of AC-119 and AC-130 gunships supported by C-123 flare ships, the South Vietnamese held on as darkness fell. An AC-119 Stinger gunship spotted and fired on a column of PT-76 tanks, destroying eight of them. The bitter fighting continued until 2100 hours, when a lull occurred.

In a message to Abrams, Lt. Gen. James W. Sutherland Jr. described the developing situation: “I am very concerned about the discipline and morale of the airborne division. General Dong has developed a defeatist attitude and this same attitude is reflected in some of his subordinate commanders. For example, an operation was planned and executed today [March 2] to resupply FSB 30, evacuate dead and wounded and transport some 21st Rangers to the Ranger FSB. The wounded and four bodies were evacuated. Ninety-four healthy troops, but not including all the Rangers, rushed to the choppers and boarded. The airborne infantry commander was among those who managed to get aboard the choppers. I have been told, but it has not been confirmed, that the brigade commander went to FSB 30 at approximately 1800 hours to take charge of the situation. I suspect that before this night is finished, the airborne troops may walk off and abandon FSB 30.”

The paratroopers made it through the night, but fighting at FSB 30 resumed in earnest the following morning. By late afternoon all the ARVN artillery—six 105mm and six 155mm howitzers—had been damaged by enemy fire, and the South Vietnamese troops were locked in deadly close combat. The decision was made to extract the artillery pieces and evacuate the 2nd Airborne Battalion, but Chinook helicopters were driven away by anti-aircraft fire. The South Vietnamese, ordered to destroy the guns and abandon the base, finally completed the evacuation three days later.

That night a battalion-size NVA force attacked the 17th Cavalry and 8th Airborne Battalion 5 kilometers north of A Luoi. Throughout the night more than 200 enemy soldiers were killed and 14 tanks destroyed. The ARVN force suffered more than 100 casualties, and 10 of its vehicles were knocked out.

A clear pattern had developed: The North Vietnamese strategy was to isolate and overwhelm the South Vietnamese fire support bases one by one. While attempting to drive away the tactical air and helicopter support with anti-aircraft positions entrenched on the hillsides, the NVA also poured indirect mortar fire and long-range artillery into the firebases, eventually following with massed ground attacks. Sutherland sent a message to Abrams saying, “Use of tanks in daylight hours is an indication of enemy determination to stand and fight to keep RVNAF [Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces] from advancing.”

The same pattern was developing south of Route 9. The North Vietnamese attacked the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Regiment, 1st ARVN Division, at Hotel II, 7 kilometers southeast of Landing Zone Don. Additional NVA forces attacked the regiment’s 3rd Battalion operating along Route 92.

U.S. aviation units had been very busy during these actions and had paid a heavy price. Helicopter crews flying multiple back-to-back missions throughout each day were landing to provide supplies and evacuate the wounded, often amid intense fire. Virtually every aircraft that flew sustained hits every time it crossed into Laotian airspace.

Some pilots were shot down more than once in a 24-hour period. One CH-47 pilot from 159th Assault Helicopter Battalion later recalled: “I can honestly say that I don’t remember a time when a Chinook returned from Khe Sanh for the evening without a Huey or a Cobra slung under it [headed] for the repair yards. Sometimes I’d make two trips late in the afternoon. Those ships were really shot to pieces!” Yet the pilots and crews pressed on, providing support to the beleaguered South Vietnamese soldiers as best they could despite increasingly heavy losses.

Despite massive air support, the South Vietnamese forces were struggling just to hold on to their bases in Laos. In the final days of February and continuing into March, the NVA simply “plucked those bases like ripe grapes, one by one,” according to an American adviser at the tactical operations center of the South Vietnamese Marines.

The American media began to suspect that the operation had gone awry. In response, Defense Secretary Laird held a press briefing on February 24. He said that Lam Son 719 was not focused on any terrain objectives, but rather was designed to “slow up, to disrupt, the logistics supplies, to cut off and to downgrade the capability of the North Vietnamese to wage any type of warfare in South Vietnam.”

In a White House meeting, a worried Laird said: “We must bear in mind that we don’t want to make these operations into either a victory or defeat….We don’t want the psychology in the country to end up like it did after the enemy’s Tet Offensive of 1968. Here an allied victory was turned into a defeat. The TV and newspaper assessments that Tet was a defeat could never be turned around.”

A story by the Associated Press repeated claims by MACV spokesmen that the invasion had disrupted the enemy’s dry season offensive plans, but the same piece also quoted an unidentified source who maintained that the ARVN had not improved as much as some American generals were claiming and that some of the South Vietnamese units had abandoned their wounded and “bugged out.” Such reports were not helpful to the administration, which needed to sell the idea that the operation was going well and, by extension, that Vietnamization was working.

Kissinger called General William Westmoreland to a meeting at the White House to get his assessment of the operation in Laos. Westmoreland, the Army chief of staff, was acting chairman of the Joint Chiefs while Moorer was away from Washington. By this time, military intelligence had reported the presence of the newly identified NVA 70B Corps, thought to be controlling the 320th, 304th and 308th divisions, with an additional three regiments that could be committed to the battle in Laos. With this new intelligence, Westmoreland’s assessment was bleak, asserting that the South Vietnamese forces in Laos were inadequate for the task at hand. He pointed out that during his tenure as commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam he had contemplated a cross-border drive into Laos (Operation El Paso), and his planners determined that four American divisions would be needed to take and hold the Tchepone area. The South Vietnamese were trying to do it with two. In Westmoreland’s opinion, Dong, the commander of the ARVN Airborne Division was “not a fighter” and, “The airborne troops will die easily….If they are defeated it will be a tremendous setback for Thieu.” Moorer pointed out that Westmoreland had not made any objections when the Lam Son plan had been briefed to the Joint Chiefs on December 18.

On February 26, Kissinger updated the president on the situation in Laos: “The North Vietnamese not only have moved substantial forces into the area, but they also seem to have s[h]elved the cautious, economical style of fighting that has been the hallmark of Communist forces for the most of the past two years.” Kissinger’s assessment would be borne out in the coming days and weeks.

At this point Thieu inserted himself into the action once again. He shifted the focus of the operation from destroying enemy supply bases throughout the area to “taking Tchepone.” It was purely a public relations ploy, but doing so would allow the South Vietnamese president to save face and gain political capital for the upcoming fall elections.

Accordingly, Lam devised a plan that called for elements of the ARVN 1st Division to conduct an air assault into Tchepone, seizing a series of landing zones to the south of Route 9 to secure the southern flank. Elements of the 1st ARVN would then air assault into a landing zone a few kilometers from Tchepone.

From March 3 through 6, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces mounted one of the largest protracted airmobile operations of the war. Despite heavy enemy opposition, the landing zones were secured. On March 7, two battalions from the 2nd Regiment, 1st ARVN Division, seized Tchepone.

With Tchepone secure, Thieu gave the order to withdraw. Over the next three weeks, the South Vietnamese forces fought their way back to the border. Although Thieu declared the operation a complete success, in truth the outcome was mixed. While the South Vietnamese forces had inflicted serious damage on the North Vietnamese and their logistical operations in Laos, they had sustained 1,160 killed, more than 4,000 wounded and over 200 missing. Some South Vietnamese units had fought very well, but others had not. The operation in Laos demonstrated only too clearly that Vietnamization was still a work in progress.

 

James H. Willbanks, a Vietnam veteran, is George C. Marshall Chair of Military History and director of the military history department at the Army Command and General Staff College. He is the author or editor of 14 books on the Vietnam War and military history.

Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.

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