The rangers shielded their eyes while the UH-1 slicks slowly hovered down to the landing zone, blowing red dust everywhere. Each soldier’s small frame was weighted down with three or four M-72 light antitank weapon (LAW) rocket launchers in addition to his standard combat load. Their faces all bore a look of grim, almost fatalistic determination. They knew what they were up against; many of them would not survive the next few hours. These were the soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 81st Airborne Ranger Group, a tough bunch by any army’s standards.
Had the outcome of the Vietnam War been different, the 81st Rangers would be forever remembered in the annals of the greatest combat units of modern times. But the men who crouched beside the incoming Hueys on January 4, 1975, were facing a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) conventional-force juggernaut bearing down on the provincial capital Phuoc Long with three divisions’ worth of armor and artillery. The ARVN troops who defended it had given an excellent showing of themselves, throwing back wave after wave of armored assaults for weeks. But now the line was breaking, and once again the 81st was being thrown from the frying pan straight into the fire.
This was hardly a new predicament for the 81st Rangers. At An Loc during the 1972 Easter Offensive and at Quang Tri in 1973, they had gone toe-to-toe with the better-equipped NVA. At Quang Tri they had slugged it out in bitter street fighting, knocking out NVA tanks with little more than LAWs, grenades and pure guts. So, when they got the order to do it again two years later at Phuoc Long, the men were prepared. But this time the Americans were gone; the ARVN were on their own. There would be no B-52 strikes to counterbalance the North Vietnamese superiority in numbers and firepower. As the NVA barreled down Route 1, capturing Dong Ha, Hue and Da Nang in quick succession, many units simply disintegrated.
Confusing orders from Nguyen Van Thieu’s government did not help. The units in Military Region 1 had dug themselves into excellent defensive positions, but President Thieu panicked and ordered the region abandoned without a fight. On top of that, he gave the order too late for an orderly withdrawal, and the ARVN were decimated as they left the safety of their positions and attempted to retreat south.
The NVA had started its assault on Phuoc Long Province in December 1974, and by early January 1975 it had the province capital surrounded. Thieu called an emergency meeting of his Joint General Staff, which agreed that the ARVN Airborne and Marine divisions would not be able to reinforce Phuoc Long before it fell. The Airborne and Marines had taken heavy losses during the abandonment of Military Region 1. The only remaining option was the highly regarded 81st Rangers, but the Joint General Staff was hesitant to commit its best unit to a mission that offered so little hope of success. The town of Phuoc Long was completely surrounded and subjected to a daily 300- round artillery bombardment, usually followed by a joint armor/infantry ground attack. So a decision was made to piecemeal the already woefully small 81st Ranger Group by creating a tactical headquarters manned by two companies of rangers, specially equipped with LAW rocket launchers and 90mm recoilless rifles. Without U.S. airpower, however, these weapons would be hard-pressed to take out T-54 tanks.
The 81st was not so resigned to its fate back in 1968 when it was deployed across Saigon during the Tet Offensive. Unlike the ARVN Airborne Division, which was really more of a palace guard for President Thieu, the 81st Rangers fought the NVA and VC wherever and whenever needed. They were a professional and deadly force, and were never seen carrying their prized M-16s by the carrying handle. Nor did rangers wear the tightly tailored camouflage fatigues so typical of other ARVN units.
The men of the 81st Rangers boarded choppers for the desperate air assault into Phuoc Long, all but abandoned by the free world. There were reports that Soviet advisers were riding with NVA armored divisions.
The rangers were part of a last-ditch South Vietnamese bid to hold Phuoc Long, in hope that the Americans might come back into the picture. Many of the rangers had been fighting since the mid-1960s and were in it for the long haul. Thieu and his commanders hoped that they could hold off the NVA until a cease-fire could be brokered with the help of the United States. This would at least assure a future for South Vietnam, even if reduced to an area around Saigon.
The first waves of rangers air-assaulted into Phuoc Long at noon on January 4, led by Lt. Col. Vu Xuan Thong. They linked up with the ARVN garrison and immediately deployed around the police station. Ninety-five percent of Phuoc Long was already overrun when the small band of rangers hit the ground. Communist tanks supported by infantry soon attacked the rangers, driving them back toward the Dak Lung Bridge. The South Vietnamese Air Force was able to muster a few F-5 jets for an airstrike that knocked out some tanks and forced the NVA to withdraw. The rangers fired and maneuvered back toward the town center and were attacked once again. A fierce battle raged as the rangers managed to knock out four T-54s, despite the tanks’ reinforced armor skirts. The rangers climbed onto the tanks and clawed at their hatches in desperate bids to get grenades inside. The town’s tight quarters offered them an advantage as the tank crews buttoned up inside their T-54s. Small teams hid until a tank was abreast or past their position. The men then made a mad scramble to mount it and knock it out by pouring rifle fire into the gun ports or dropping grenades in the hatches.
As the day sank into evening, the rangers tried to consolidate and reorganize. By this time, all of their LAWs had been expended. The recoilless rifles had proven ineffective against the T-54s, and the rangers doubted that they would be able to hang on through the night. No attack came, but on the morning of January 5, the 81st was hit by a horrendous artillery and rocket bombardment. The troops were preparing to be overrun, but once again, no ground assault followed. The artillery continued into January 6, when the sound of tank treads clanked in the air. The men of the 81st quickly stood-to and waited for what they believed would be their final curtain call. The small band of rangers gathered up whatever ammo they had left and crouched low among the hellish ruins of Phuoc Long. But at the last minute, orders finally came to pull out. About 100 men of the original 300 broke out and were rescued by Vietnamese Air Force helicopters.
Phuoc Long was not the 81st Rangers’ final chapter. They again took the honor of the ARVN and South Vietnam into their hands and desperately resisted the final NVA assault on Saigon. The rangers held out at Tan Son Nhut Airbase even after President Duong Van “Big” Minh capitulated and ordered all South Vietnamese units to surrender. They used “mini-grenades” to break up an armored column outside the airbase gates, destroying five tanks in the process. The rangers fought valiantly into early May, until civilians finally convinced them that further resistance was futile.
When the end came, as thousands of ARVN troops stripped off their uniforms and tried to hide among the population, the rangers of the 81st formed up on Highway 1 and marched fully equipped in formation until they came upon a Viet Cong unit. Then they surrendered.
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.