The NVA’s Plan for a Great Escape | HistoryNet MENU

The NVA’s Plan for a Great Escape

By Erik Villard
February 2018 • Vietnam Magazine

A North Vietnamese Army battalion was ordered to free captured Viet Cong so they could join the fight during Tet, but U.S. gunships and the 173rd Airborne had other plans for the intruders.

On a clear and moonless night, about 200 soldiers from the North Vietnamese Army’s 5th Battalion, 95th Regiment, crouched in the rice fields just west of Tuy Hoa, a small fishing town that served as the capital of Phu Yen province about 200 miles from Saigon.

The battalion commander, Senior Capt. Le Xuan Cau, whispered final instructions to his three company commanders; nearby, a small group of local guerrillas who had led the NVA soldiers through the dark and unfamiliar countryside waited nervously for permission to leave before all hell broke loose. It was about 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 30, 1968, a time when most Vietnamese were enjoying the Lunar New Year holiday known as Tet.

Le dismissed the guides and sent his company commanders back to their men. The captain hoped that the second unit in the assault, the 85th Local Force Battalion of the Viet Cong, was waiting in the darkness somewhere to the south, ready to attack Tuy Hoa City when the moment came. Those 250 men were not as well-armed as Le’s soldiers. The local Viet Cong relied on single-shot rifles from the World War II era, while North Vietnamese troops used the Chinese version of the AK-47 assault rifles and SKS semi-automatic carbines, along with Soviet-made RPD light machine guns, B40 rocket launchers and a few heavy machine guns. The local force soldiers, however, were in better physical shape. Most of Le’s troops were gaunt from hunger and jaundiced from malaria, a result of their time in the mountains where food and medicine were difficult to obtain.

The 5th Battalion’s heavy support weapons, two 82 mm mortars and their crews, waited for Le to give the order to fire, the agreed upon signal to start the attack on Tuy Hoa. Every round needed to count. The mortar crews had only a dozen rounds for each tube; the B40 gunners no more than four rockets each; the machine gunners only a few boxes of ammo; and the riflemen less than a hundred rounds each. It had to be enough. There would be no withdrawal, no retreat from the battle to come, Le told his men. The city must be taken. Le nodded to his mortar crews. The first two rounds slid down the tubes and then shot out with a percussive bang. The attack on Tuy Hoa had begun.

The NVA 95th Regiment traced its lineage to a unit in Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh army that formed in Thua Thien province in 1945. In April 1962, the 95th Regiment was established as part of the NVA 325th Division. Its troops completed their training in the southern panhandle of North Vietnam and in neighboring Laos before crossing the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam in October 1964. Consisting of 2,000 soldiers organized into three battalions, several support companies and a headquarters element, the 95th Regiment headed to the Central Highlands, where it operated in Kontum, Pleiku and Darlac provinces until September 1965.

With more NVA regiments scheduled to arrive in the highlands that autumn, Hanoi shifted the regiment to the central coast to become the primary NVA unit in Phu Yen province. The 95th Regiment reported to the Southern Sub-Command of Military Region 5, a headquarters that also controlled the NVA 18B Regiment in neighboring Khanh Hoa province to the south. The 95th coordinated its activities with several Viet Cong units, most notably the 85th Local Force Battalion and the 30th Main Force Battalion, operating under the control of the Viet Cong province committee.

Between 1945 and 1965, Phu Yen had been a Communist stronghold, and most of its population (350,000 residents in 1965) knew only one government—the one represented by Ho Chi Minh’s political commissars. Only the provincial capital in the seaside city of Tuy Hoa and a handful of district towns were beholden to French and later South Vietnamese authority. When the NVA 95th Regiment arrived in late 1965, it enjoyed wide freedom of maneuver because the main South Vietnamese unit in Phu Yen—the 47th Regiment, 22nd Infantry Division, Army of the Republic of Vietnam—and local security units stayed close to Tuy Hoa and the settlements near Highway 1, the main north-south road through the populated lowlands along the coast. The 95th established several base camps in the hills overlooking the Tuy Hoa Valley. From there it could easily reach the lowlands when it chose to raid government targets or obtain food and intelligence from local Viet Cong units.

That favorable situation changed in early 1966 when the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, one of the elite American mobile units in Vietnam, moved into Phu Yen province. Supported by a battalion of U.S. helicopters, the airborne brigade managed to locate and engage the 95th Regiment nearly a dozen times in the coming year, reducing the Communist unit from 2,000 men to around 900 men by the end of 1966. The 95th retreated deep into the hills of Phu Yen province during the first six months of 1967 to escape allied sweeps and the growing weight of B-52 bomber strikes.

After receiving a large contingent of North Vietnamese replacements, the regiment returned to the populated coast of the Tuy Hoa and Tuy An districts in August 1967 to interfere with the upcoming elections for a new president and vice president of South Vietnam, members of a National Assembly and officials at the province, district and village level. The disruption effort yielded limited results. Voting took place as planned in most hamlets and villages, and the turnout was relatively high. Moreover, the NVA unit sustained several hundred casualties in clashes with the South Korean 26th Infantry Regiment from the “Tiger” Division that had taken over operations in the area after the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne left earlier in the year.

Enemy troops attacked Tuy Hoa with Soviet RPD light machine guns and B40 rocket launchers, being fired here in a 1972 battle. (Getty Images)

Pressure on the 95th increased in September 1967 when the 173rd Airborne Brigade moved from the Dak To area of Kontum province to the Tuy Hoa basin of Phu Yen province to begin Operation Bolling, a mission designed to protect the populated lowlands and the food produced there. The North Vietnamese stayed out of sight through the end of the year, choosing not to emerge even when most of the 173rd Airborne returned to Dak To in early November for a monthlong deployment.

The NVA soldiers of the 95th Regiment were dispersed in company- and platoon-size groups throughout the interior mountains, moving frequently to avoid detection by U.S. reconnaissance units and strikes by American bombers. They were cut off from regular food shipments that the regiment had received from lowland Viet Cong agents. The men were in low spirits as 1967 came to a close.

In the final months of the year, the command group of the 95th Regiment received word from the Military Region 5 headquarters that Hanoi was going to launch a massive, nationwide offensive early in 1968. The regiment’s mission was to liberate Tuy Hoa in conjunction with the 85th Local Force Battalion and a team of Viet Cong agents in the city. The 95th could not expect any reinforcements or additional supplies. The regiment would need to make do with what it had. Swallowing whatever misgivings it might have, the regimental command group worked on an attack plan, saying nothing to the soldiers about the coming offensive in order to preserve maximum secrecy.

Given the weakened state of the regiment, its commanders decided to commit their strongest unit, the 5th Battalion, to the attack and reinforce it with troops from the 4th and 6th battalions to reach a strength of around 200 soldiers. Guided by local Viet Cong guerrillas, the 5th Battalion would descend from its mountain camp and cross the Tuy Hoa Valley under the cover of darkness, skirting the handful of South Vietnamese outposts that lay along the route.

Once in position, the battalion would send a third of its troops to attack a U.S. artillery compound on the edge of a small airfield known as Tuy Hoa North and next to the Tuy Hoa district headquarters and a counterbattery radar site manned by artillerymen from the 173rd Airborne. The artillery compound, manned by Battery C of the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery Regiment, contained two 8-inch howitzers, two 175 mm guns, a pair of M42 Dusters (armored tanklike vehicles with twin 40 mm anti-aircraft guns) and four outer bunkers equipped with M60 machine guns. The attack force was to take out the artillery pieces and then advance on the airfield, destroying the aircraft already there and preventing helicopter reinforcements from landing on the strip.

The remainder of Le’s troops would storm the provincial prison just to the south of the artillery compound, seize the facility and release the 500 or so Viet Cong prisoners, arming them with captured weapons so they could join the fight. Meanwhile, troops from the 85th Local Force Battalion were to penetrate the heart of Tuy Hoa by moving west along the bank of the Da Rang River and then overrunning the small downtown area where the province headquarters was located. They would hopefully be greeted by hundreds of civilians who had been mobilized by Viet Cong agents and were ready to participate in a popular uprising. Perhaps even some South Vietnamese soldiers would decide to join the revolution.

Le chose to ignore the large, jet-capable airfield known as Tuy Hoa South that lay a few kilometers south of town, as well as the base camp of the 173rd Airborne and the South Korean 26th Infantry Regiment just beyond, near the hamlet of Phu Hiep. Hanoi’s objective was to decapitate the South Vietnamese government. If all went according to plan, Le’s forces could grab a victory before U.S. and South Korean troops were able to bring their superior firepower and mobility to bear. 

When the base camp of the ARVN 47th Infantry came under mortar attack at 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 30, the deputy province senior adviser, Lt. Col. Vernon J. Walters, alerted the 173rd Airborne that the city was under assault. The province chief, Lt. Col. Nguyen Van Ba, sent word to the South Vietnamese regional headquarters in Pleiku City and then ordered the 47th Regiment commander to muster all the troops he had in the city for its defense. The shelling lasted for 20 minutes. When it ended, the U.S. and South Vietnamese soldiers in Tuy Hoa braced themselves for a ground attack. What followed instead was a strange, pregnant silence.

Le and his 200 men strained their ears, hoping to hear the sounds of battle as the Viet Cong of the 85th Local Force Battalion began their attack. Ten minutes passed, and then 20. The silence stretched on until two hours and 30 minutes had elasped. Le finally gave the order to attack at 4 a.m., knowing that the coming daylight would soon expose his position. Unknown to the North Vietnamese battalion commander, the 85th Local Force Battalion turned back for home after running afoul of a South Vietnamese outpost on its approach to the city. The Viet Cong agents in the city chose to remain in hiding, knowing that it would be suicidal to emerge without the 85th to support them. The 5th Battalion was on its own.

One of Le’s companies headed for the U.S. artillery base, while the remaining two companies veered south to attack the prisoner of war compound. The first assault group managed to penetrate the western side of the artillery base despite taking severe casualties from the U.S. perimeter guards and the twin Dusters. The North Vietnamese attackers seized one of the outer bunkers and briefly overran one of the 175 mm guns, damaging its barrel with a grenade before being driven back by U.S. defensive fire. The soldiers of Battery C created a new defensive line to contain the enemy, holding them to a 30-meter pocket and preventing any attackers from reaching the airfield or nearby South Vietnamese sector headquarters.

About 200 meters to the south, the main body of the 5th Battalion was having problems as it tried to overrun the POW compound. A few NVA soldiers got into a guard tower at the northwestern corner of the facility, but none of the attackers penetrated the jail itself. Under constant fire from the South Vietnamese defenders, the Communist troops took cover in a drainage ditch along the western side of the compound. Le ordered his men to hold their position in hopes that the 85th Battalion would still make its appearance and break the stalemate.

The armament at the American artillery base at Tuy Hoa included M42 Dusters with twin 40 mm anti-aircraft guns. This Duster is near Saigon in February 1968. (Genevieve Chauvel/Sygma/Getty Images)

That decision sealed the fate of his unit. At 5:10 a.m., an AC-47 “Spooky” gunship arrived from Nha Trang, and the plane began pouring long bursts of fire from its six-barreled 7.62 mm miniguns into the rice fields where Le had left his mortar crews. Ninety minutes later, two CH-47 Chinook helicopters and a group of UH-1D Iroquois “Huey” helicopters began arriving at Tuy Hoa North with two platoons from Company D of the 4th Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, the 173rd Airborne’s ready reaction force at Phu Hiep. Enemy fire damaged one of the Chinook helicopters, but all of Company D landed safely. Le and his men were now trapped on the northern edge of Tuy Hoa City, unable to retreat to the mountains with the Spooky and several Huey gunships prowling overhead and ARVN troops from the 47th Regiment moving into blocking positions to the west.

Company D’s commander, Capt. Jim Jackson, sent his 2nd Platoon into the artillery compound to push out the North Vietnamese attackers. As the American troops advanced on the enemy salient, one of the Dusters used its 40 mm cannon to demolish the machine gun bunker the attackers had seized earlier that morning. Grenades and M16 rifle fire killed most of the other North Vietnamese soldiers who clung to the western perimeter of the compound, but not before an enemy bullet mortally wounded Lt. Col. Robert E. Whitbeck, commander of the 173rd Airborne’s 3rd Battalion, 319th Field Artillery Regiment, who was observing the fight from the counterbattery radar area. Within 30 minutes, the artillery compound was once again clear of enemy soldiers.

Squeezed from three sides, Le and his remaining men had no choice but to retreat south to Binh Tinh, a refugee hamlet on the edge of Tuy Hoa. They began to dig spider holes and build overhead cover using whatever pieces of wood and metal sheeting they could find in the hamlet. U.S. and South Vietnamese troops established a cordon around the hamlet while the commander of the 4th Battalion, 503rd Infantry, Lt. Col. James H. Johnson, landed at Tuy Hoa North with Company C to join the fight.

Viewing the hamlet from a sand dune between Binh Tinh and the city, Ba and Johnson agreed on a plan. Wanting to get as many civilians out of the hamlet as possible, Ba ordered a psychological operations team equipped with bullhorns to tell the residents to flee. Some civilians did, although the psy-ops troop couldn’t persuade the enemy to surrender. After Ba was satisfied he had done all he could do, Johnson arranged for U.S. aircraft to douse the hamlet with tear gas. As soon as the cloud formed, he sent a company of gas-mask wearing troops into Binh Tinh to drive out the enemy. The Americans gained a foothold in the hamlet, but the attack faltered when their eye pieces began to fog up with moisture. Taking heavy casualties from the well-hidden NVA troops, Johnson’s men withdrew.

Ba agreed that the time had come for stronger measures. After speaking with the 173rd Airborne’s commander, Brig. Gen. Leo H. Schweiter, who had just arrived by helicopter, Ba gave permission for air and artillery strikes on Binh Tinh. A flight of five U.S. Air Force F-100 Super Sabre fighter-bombers pulverized the hamlet with 500-pound bombs and burned it to ash with napalm. The airstrikes devastated the North Vietnamese survivors, killing or wounding everyone in the command group along with dozens of other soldiers. Artillery took over when the jets departed. The remains of Binh Tinh burned throughout the rest of the day. Le was badly injured during the airstrikes and likely perished sometime during the night.

The story of the 5th Battalion at Tuy Hoa illustrates many of the problems that other Communist battalions also faced during the Tet Offensive. The unit was well-armed but under-strength when it went into action the morning of Jan. 30. A key supporting unit, the 85th Local Force Battalion, did not show up on time (the 85th would end up attacking Tuy Hoa on Feb. 5, briefly occupying part of downtown before withdrawing). Le’s plan to liberate the Tuy Hoa prison and then arm the inmates did not succeed. The Viet Cong agents in the city failed to mobilize a popular uprising, and the South Vietnamese forces in Tuy Hoa did not fold, but instead fought with exceptional bravery.

When daylight came, the allied forces brought their superior firepower and mobility to bear on the outnumbered 5th Battalion, inflicting grievous losses. Though the 95th Regiment would reconstitute its destroyed battalion and make a second attack on Tuy Hoa during the morning of March 4-5, 1968, the second assault was no more successful than the first. That second attack on Tuy Hoa proved to be the last gasp of the Tet Offensive, but not the end of Hanoi’s ambitions for its general offensive-general uprising strategy, which produced another round of attacks in May, putting 1968 on track to be the bloodiest year of the Vietnam War. 

Erik Villard is digital military historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington, D.C., and author of the forthcoming book Staying the Course, October 1967 to September 1968: U.S. Army Combat Operations in Vietnam. He is also the founder and director of the Facebook group VietnamWarHistoryOrg.   

First published in Vietnam magazine’s February 2018 issue. 

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