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Taking on Tanks at Kontum

By Thomas P. McKenna
11/13/2017 • Vietnam Magazine

Only a desperately thin line of defense against a tank-led NVA assault stood in the way of a likely defeat of South Vietnam in May 1972.

In the spring of 1972, a dozen North Vietnamese Army divisions with hundreds of tanks and the latest Soviet and Chinese artillery and anti-aircraft guns invaded South Vietnam in what the Americans would call the Easter Offensive. It was the biggest cross border invasion and the largest military offensive anywhere since the Chinese attacked across the Yalu River into Korea in late 1950.

The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) struck first across the Demilitarized Zone in the north, next toward Saigon in the south, and then into Kontum Province in the Central Highlands. All three of the NVA attacks were initially successful because many Army of South Vietnam(ARVN) units crumbled, threw down their weapons and fled.

A few U.S. Army aviation units were still in Vietnam but virtually no U.S. Army ground combat units took part in the Easter Offensive––they were in the process of withdrawing. However, American advisers to ARVN remained and, after the invasion started, many U.S. Air Force units were redeployed to bases within range of Vietnam, and the U.S. Navy assembled the largest fleet since World War II off the coast of Vietnam.

The Communists were eventually slowed, then stopped in the north and at An Loc in the south. However, after the 22nd ARVN Division collapsed at Tanh Canh and Dak To in the Highlands, there was little confidence that the invasion could be stopped at Kontum City. Against three-to-one odds, over the course of 48 crucial hours, the combined actions of ARVN troops supported by U. S. and South Vietnamese air power and small teams of American advisers led by John Paul Vann, the II Corps senior adviser, fought valiantly to stop a tank-led NVA thrust that would have led to South Vietnam’s defeat in 1972.

Thomas P. McKenna was a U.S. infantry lieutenant colonel advising the ARVN 23rd Division and played an integral role in the desperate fight at Kontum. In this adaptation from his new book, Kontum: The Battle to Save South Vietnam, McKenna offers a firsthand account of the pivotal hours in the battle.

During the last two weeks of May 1972, Kontum was the scene of a violent struggle between the 23rd Division and the equivalent of three North Vietnamese divisions. About 30,000 refugees were packed into the city. Communist artillery, rockets and mortars were pounding Kontum, and  U.S. bombers were hitting targets just outside the defensive perimeter. By late May, the enemy held almost half of Kontum, and their troops and tanks were assaulting day and night to take the rest in close, brutal, often toe-to-toe combat. Helicopter and fixed-wing gunships and aerial bombing inside and outside Kontum aided the South Vietnamese troops. Day after day, aircraft were shot down, and hundreds of soldiers on both sides were killed or wounded. The air was heavy with the smell of cordite, smoke and rotting bodies.

During the battle, B-52 bombers alone dropped millions of pounds of ordnance near Kontum, and tactical air fighter-bombers dropped additional millions of pounds both in and around the city. The bombs were sometimes so close they knocked coffee cups off the tables in the division command post (CP) bunker. John Paul Vann, the ARVN II Corps senior adviser, remarked, “Any time the wind is blowing from the north, where the B-52 strikes are turning the terrain into moonscape, you can tell from the battlefield stench the airstrikes are effective.”

I was senior adviser to the 23rd Division’s 44th Infantry Regiment, which bore the brunt of the initial attacks on Kontum in mid-May.After those attacks were repulsed, our regiment was pulled back into a former hospital compound to become the division reserve behind the division’s 45th and 53rd regiments. As the fighting continued day and night, the ARVN troops were gradually ground down and pushed back by constant bombardment and fierce ground attacks.

By May 25, Kontum was completely cut off and surrounded by enemy troops with tanks. Heavy artillery, mortar and rocket fire forced the closure of the airfield, so our only supplies were coming in by helicopter and eventually only by parachute. At 1 a.m. on May 26, the tempo of incoming fire picked up. As we lay on our cots in the regimental CP bunker, my deputy, Major Wade B. Lovings, looked at his watch and started counting. Enemy artillery rounds were hitting us every 30 seconds. Nearly 1,000 artillery and rocket rounds fell on Kontum that night.

At 3 a.m., the NVA launched human wave attacks from the north against the positions of the 44th and 53rd Regiments. The enemy artillery continued pounding us while their infantry and tanks broke through our front-line positions. The 44th Regiment was hit with an enemy infantry regiment and about 20 tanks. Possibly because our position was the highest point in the city, the enemy’s main attack was against the 44th Regiment, and they assaulted directly toward our regimental CP.

The NVA’s secondary attack was against the 53rd Regiment, and they also assaulted our forces elsewhere around the perimeter. Our troops took a terrible battering. By dawn on May 26, the area around our CP was mostly rubble and burned-out buildings. The intensity of fighting near our bunker increased until we could hear the “knuck, knuck” of enemy AK-47s firing just outside. A sapper could toss a big satchel charge into our bunker at any minute.

Then Major Lovings and I heard something neither of us had ever heard before, but we knew instantly what it was: the extraloud, sharp “CRACK!” of a T-54 tank firing its main gun at us. It missed. Major Lovings ran to the bunker entrance and saw an enemy tank with a battle streamer flying from its turret only 50 yards away. From one of the nearby bunkers, an ARVN officer fired an M-72 light anti-tank weapon at the tank. Its impact could be heard above the other battle din as it made a hole in the turret and the engine stopped. Seeing the lead tank destroyed, the next T-54 turned to move away and, as it did, another ARVN soldier took advantage of the broadside shot, knocking it out with an M-72.

My ARVN counterpart, Lt. Col. Tran Quang Tien, was standing near the bunker door, surrounded by his staff, and shouting into his radio. His voice and manner reflected our critical situation. I stood nearby with my interpreter and told him to translate. He gave only the briefest summaries: “He ask battalion commander what is situation.”

Our 3rd Battalion was the main element defending our positions. So many soldiers were coming into the bunker that we began to wonder how many were still manning the perimeter. Then we were told the 3rd Battalion had broken and run. Next, the battalion commander himself came into our bunker.

Major Lovings slung our radio onto his back, picked up his rifle and said, “We’re in deep shit, colonel.” I nodded agreement and slammed a magazine into my M-16. Colonel Tien looked my way, said, “We go,” and headed for the door, followed by his entourage. As we started after him, I radioed a last message to the division CP, “My counterpart is leaving the bunker!” The division senior adviser, Colonel R.M. Rhotenberry, asked, “What are you going to do?” I said, “We’re going with him.” He responded, “We’ll try to get you out of there.” Lovings and I exchanged a quick glance. We knew there was no way for anyone to extract us from the middle of such an intense firefight, we would have to fend for ourselves. We would come out shooting, but this gunfight would probably end like the climax of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Nevertheless, we would rather die that way than from a satchel charge tossed into our bunker.

Colonel Tien kept shouting into his radio as he moved toward the bunker door. Suddenly he stopped. Perhaps he realized we would not get far outside the bunker, or perhaps this was when he learned that in fact only one company of the 3rd Battalion had cut and run and the other companies were holding firm. Regardless, we were still in bad trouble. In the old cowboy movies, just when things looked hopeless for the pioneers, the U.S. Cavalry would save them by galloping in with flags flapping and bugles blowing. This morning the “bugle” was Brig. Gen. John G. Hill Jr., the II Corps deputy senior adviser, calling on our radio. The “cavalry” he brought to save us was a pair of Cobra AH-1G helicopter gunships and two UH-1B helicopters armed with TOW (Tube-launched, Optically tracked,Wireguided) anti-tank missiles and using the call sign, “Hawk’s Claw.”

General Hill had been certain there would be another enemy attack on the morning of May 26, so he alerted the crews of the TOW helicopters and their Cobra escorts to be ready to take off at 5:15 that morning. The old UH-1B Hueys armed with the TOWs could not keep up with the new, fast Cobras, which arrived over Kontum just before daylight. By then, the 53rd Regiment in front of us had already been overrun and our 44th Regiment, the reserve regiment, was partially overrun. From his vantage point overhead, General Hill said he could see six enemy tanks moving toward us across an open area north of our bunker and enemy infantry advancing through the buildings in our compound. Major Lovings told him our northern line of defense bunkers ran along the 90 map grid line and anything north of there was a free-fire zone. The Cobras immediately made a strafing run, firing their rockets and machine guns to separate the NVA troops from their tanks.

After a loud and animated radio conversation, my agitated counterpart complained that the fire from the Cobras was hitting his troops and causing casualties. I relayed this information to Hill. He could see the situation was worse than we realized and said I had to make a choice, “If we hold fire, you are going to be overrun in about three minutes!” I told him to let the Cobras continue attacking. As the strafing Cobras separated the NVA infantry and their tanks, two of the T-54s tried to hide by backing into deserted buildings. This effectively removed them from the fight for the time being, and the TOWs destroyed all the other attacking tanks.

Hawk’s Claw turned the tide in this early-morning battle but the 44th Regiment troops got some of the T-54s with M-72s. One ARVN soldier fired an M-72 at a tank and knocked off its left track. The tank could still turn to the left using just one track, but it could not move in a straight line. Other ARVN soldiers moved in on the crippled tank and knocked it out. However, enemy forces had seized two-thirds of our compound, and we were now only minutes away from being completely overrun.

Fortunately, tactical airstrikes started at 7:30 a.m. and they smashed the enemy attacks. An AC-130 gunship killed one tank with its 105-mm gun, and either a mine or an M-72 knocked out another one. The TOW teams’finest hours were in that early morning of May 26. When they arrived they fired 21 missiles and destroyed five T-54 tanks, five PT-76 amphibious tanks, a truck, a bunker and two successive machine guns in a water tower. All the tanks were knocked out while they were stationary. None of them took any evasive action or fired at the TOW aircraft.

We finally stopped them, but the two enemy tanks knocked out only a stones’throw from our bunker door showed how close a call it was. When the firing died down, Major Lovings climbed into an unoccupied enemy tank not far from our bunker and lowered himself into the driver’s seat. After experimenting with various switches, he discovered the fuel tank was empty. This is what stopped it dead in its tracks. President Richard Nixon’s orders to bomb North Vietnam’s fuel storage facilities and pipelines and to mine its ports paid off for us that day.

Over Kontum, the TOW team flew through smoke and dust while threatened by anti-aircraft fire. Their ability to hit pinpoint targets saved many structures and prevented friendly casualties that would have occurred in tactical airstrikes on the same targets.

The afternoon of May 26, the division commander, Colonel Ly Tong Ba, ordered the division reserve, a battalion of the 44th Regiment reinforced by eight of his M-41 tanks, to counterattack the penetration between the 44th and 53rd Regiments. This attack did stop and contain the penetration, but did not retake the lost ground. It was the same story all over Kontum: Our forces were able to limit the NVA gains but were unable to eject the enemy and restore the defensive perimeter. The tactical situation was stabilized for the remainder of the day, but the air cavalry sighted a large enemy force moving to reinforce their penetrations.

After dark the evening of May 26, indirect fire on the 45th and 53rd Regiments’ CPs increased. Then three battalions of the 64th Regiment, 320th NVA Infantry Division assaulted the 45th Regiment, penetrated between the 45th and 53rd and cut off the 45th. All available air support was diverted to the embattled regiment. Lieutenant Colonel John C. Grant, the senior adviser to the 45th, conferred with Colonel Rhotenberry, who agreed to divert two scheduled B-52 strikes to hit the attacking NVA troops. The B-52s’bombs hit at 2:30 a.m. on May 27 and broke up the enemy attack. AC-130 gunships fired in support of the 53rd through the night, as Grant relayed targets from the front lines.

At dawn on May 27, the situation was still critical. Enemy penetrations from the north and southeast were close to linking up at the airfield and splitting the defending forces. The action started early when NVA infantry and tanks attacked all three of the 23rd Division’s regiments. The enemy was consolidating positions already seized and attacking from all sides, pushing hard to expand their penetrations. Two NVA tanks were destroyed by M-72s, and at 7:30 a.m. Hawk’s Claw attacked two more tanks just north of the city. Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) and U.S. Air Force airstrikes, gunships and the U.S. air cavalry also supported us. With all that air support and the front-line soldiers’ continuing struggles, by 10 a.m. the defenders were able to stop the enemy’s advance. However, they were still unable to restore the original perimeter by ejecting the Communists from positions they already held.

Early that morning, an enemy mortar round hit the main ammo dump a kilometer north of the airfield. The ammo started exploding and set a large petroleum, oil and lubricants (POL) dump on fire, bellowing a huge cloud of black smoke that limited visibility for the aircraft overhead. Sixty percent of the ammunition in the dump, including 10,000 rounds of artillery ammunition, was destroyed. The division artillery was down to only 3,500 rounds before it was resupplied.

The airfield was still closed to fixed-wing aircraft, so all resupply missions were flown by U.S. CH-47 “Chinook” helicopters landing on the Kontum soccer field. The same Chinooks evacuated refugees and seriously wounded ARVN soldiers. However, so many lightly wounded ARVN soldiers tried to escape the beleaguered city on these flights that armed American security guards were required to stop them. By afternoon, even helicopter flights into the soccer field were curtailed because of the tactical situation. The division staff started planning airdrops of critical supplies.

In his May 27 “Daily Commanders Evaluation” sent to General Creighton W. Abrams, commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), John Paul Vann was realistic and sober, but also confident about eventual victory: “The overall situation in Kontum city is critical but not at all hopeless. However, it is extremely doubtful that the former perimeter will be restored or that the present penetration will be eliminated in the near future. I expect that Colonel Ba will consolidate his forces within that area of the city still under his control and that future fighting will closely resemble that which is taking place in An Loc. U.S. air support will continue to be vital to a sustained defense of the city….In this connection, my 7thAir Force liaison officer states that this support cannot be brought closer than 700 meters to friendly troops although the corps commander has stated that they want the support into 500 meters and will assume responsibility for the consequences.”

The enemy continued to push us throughout the morning of May 27, and by noon they held scattered areas behind the ARVN positions across the city’s northern front. In the afternoon, a VNAF forward air controller (FAC) located a large enemy troop concentration and requested a VNAF airstrike on it. No aircraft were immediately available, so he contacted the ARVN ground commander, who requested and received a U.S. airstrike. It killed 60 of the enemy.

The NVA were using a captured ARVN M-113 armored personnel carrier. When the TOW helicopters were attacking targets in Kontum, this vehicle was pointed out to them, and Hawk’s Claw knocked it out with a broadside shot. The TOW missile left a big hole in the side, destroying the vehicle and the enemy inside.

Some of the ARVN soldiers could not take it any longer. During the heaviest fighting, Major Edgar F. “Bear” Burch, who worked in the division CP as assistant operations adviser, went out with an interpreter to stop ARVN soldiers who were trying to flee to the rear. The American captain in charge of the helicopter resupply operation at the soccer field sent refugees out on the helicopters bringing ammo in. He said that the only way he could hold off ARVN soldiers trying to escape Kontum with the refugees was to threaten to shoot them.

As the day wore on, near the embattled 53rd Regiment positions north of the airfield, a pair of NVA .51-caliber machine guns were firing at every aircraft within range. Two daring VNAF A-1E pilots made pass after pass in the face of a deadly crossfire and finally took out those two weapons. They also destroyed a 23-mm anti-aircraft gun when it fired at them.

With the airfield closed and resupply by parachute delayed until a drop zone could be secured, our only source of resupply was by those Chinooks landing on the soccer field. Between 10 a.m. on May 26 and 10 a.m. on May 27, those valiant crews had brought in 100 tons supplies and taken out more than 200 wounded.

At 6 p.m. on May 27, VNAF helicopters begin shuttling supplies from the soccer field to the regiments by kicking the supplies out the door as their helicopters made low passes over the CPs. In the 53rd Regiment’s area, Lt. Col. Norbert J. Gannon, senior adviser to the 53rd, organized ARVN troops into teams to retrieve the supplies being dropped. The enemy artillery was constantly firing on the teams while they worked, and Gannon was wounded in the upper leg while moving back to his bunker.

The enemy attacks and gains had emphasized the urgency of changing our troop dispositions. The NVA came close to cutting off the 45th Regiment on Fire Support Base (FSB) November northwest of the city and then cutting off the 53rd. The situation continued to deteriorate as the NVA reinforced its attack near the airfield. Colonel Rhotenberry and Colonel Ba had a heart-to-heart talk about the troop dispositions. Rhotenberry pushed Ba to withdraw from an isolated outpost named Nectar, but Ba said the corps commander had ordered him to hold it. When Maj. Gen. Nguyen Van Toan, the II Corps commander, and Vann came to Kontum on May 27, Colonel Ba briefed them and pointed out the penetrations on a map. In regard to tightening the perimeter, Toan said: “No withdrawal! If you do withdraw, you demoralize the troops.”

Colonel Rhotenberry had a 1:12,500-scale map of the city covered with acetate, and he used grease pencils to draw our troop dispositions on it in black and the enemy penetrations in red. It was a startling picture of how bad our situation was. The enemy held almost half of Kontum. Worse yet, the two penetrations from the northeast and the southeast were close to seizing the airfield and linking up to split our defenses in half. The only thing preventing this was the ARVN’s stubborn defense of the airfield’s final defensive line of bunkers, which were only 100 meters from the runway, running parallel to it on both the north and south sides.

Rhotenberry used his map to brief Vann on the situation and recommended contracting to reduce the perimeter, “Or we may lose the city.” Vann took the map to where Toan and Ba were talking. Vann showed Toan the map and said: “This is where we stand right now. An enemy regiment has penetrated here, another regiment has penetrated here, and a regiment coming from the south has almost seized the airfield and linked up with their regiment coming from the north. They have the ability to reinforce these penetrations. If we don’t establish a concentrated defensive position, we could lose the city.”

General Toan asked Colonel Ba, “What do you think about this plan?” Ba agreed it was a good plan. Toan ordered that it be implemented. Rhotenberry thought when Toan asked Ba for his opinion it was just an attempt to cover his own posterior if the changes he approved did not save the city.

Airdrops would be vital to our defense, so some C-130E(I)s were rushed to Thailand to supplement the 374th Tactical Airlift Squadron’s C-130s. These special operations C-130E(I)s were equipped with an all-weather airdrop system that used an onboard computer and radar rather than visual references to determine the release point. They could drop parachute bundles without slowing down. A drop zone was established near the river in the city’s southwest corner. Starting on May 27, over five days, the C-130E(I)s parachuted more than 20 loads into this drop zone, using the ground-radar, high-velocity method.

Outpost Nectar was finally pulled in, and its troops repositioned to guard a streambed behind the 45th Regiment. But the NVA still controlled a graveyard between the 45th Regiment troops on FSB November and the 44th Regiment in the hospital area. ARVN troops repeatedly attacked the graveyard, but each time the determined NVA would replace them with a fresh battalion.

On May 27 alone, a total of 137 airstrikes by U.S. and VNAF fighter-bombers hit enemy positions on the north and northwest sides of city. After dark that evening, we could see fires burning in the enemy-occupied areas. The NVA infantry and sappers remained firmly entrenched in the hospital compound where the 44th Regiment was located. Their forward positions were only 40 meters from our forward positions. We received the usual small-arms fire and a few incoming mortar rounds, but this night passed without a major attack. Gunships supported us until dawn.

We were now in worse danger than ever before. The only medical evacuation was by helicopter and the only resupply was by helicopter or parachute. Enemy anti-aircraft fire threatened every aircraft flying over, into or out of Kontum. Most of the ammo dumps had been blown up by enemy artillery or mortar fire. Each of the 23rd Division’s infantry battalions was supposed to have 826 men, but because of combat losses and desertions, they were all hard-pressed to put more than 300 men in the field. One of the battalions of the 44th Regiment was down to 200 men.

But when the first 23rd Division soldiers stood up and knocked out T-54 tanks with M-72s, it had demonstrated that the division’s troops would stand and fight. During weeks of constant combat, they stood their ground when they could and counterattacked when they were pushed back by overwhelming force. They did all that while under almost continuous artillery, mortar and rocket fire. But now they were worn out, the outcome in Kontum still uncertain.

Every day I burned the previous day’s codes and put the new ones in my code wheel. As I went through the days of May: 14, 15, 16…25, 26, 27, I was glad to have lived through another one, but was concerned about what the next day would bring.

The ARVN 23rd Division suffered heavy losses in Kontum and the battle’s outcome was often in doubt. However, the NVA suffered even heavier casualties, mostly from bombing. After coming perilously close to cutting South Vietnam in half, they were finally forced to withdraw. The South had held. On May 31 John Paul Vann declared the battle over. Ten days later, “believing he had won his war,” Vann died in a helicopter crash flying back to Kontum.

 

Thomas P. McKenna enlisted in the 82nd Airborne Division in 1948 and graduated from West Point in 1953. After he served two tours as an adviser in Vietnam, McKenna retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel in 1975.

Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.  

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