Creeping unseen into Quang Tri, the 20 elite commandos of the Communist sapper platoon struck at 0200 hours on January 31, 1968, hitting critical points throughout the city. The surprise assault was the spearpoint of a larger attack on the northernmost province of South Vietnam; North Vietnamese Army infantry was poised just outside city limits. The capture of Quang Tri City would open an avenue of attack straight through the strategically important city of Hue.
The Communist high command, as well as many in the American news media, expected the supposedly unmotivated, poorly led South Vietnamese soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam who were defending the city of Quang Tri to just melt away. Instead, the ARVN troops stayed, fought and held the city. Like the GIs at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, the South Vietnamese paratroopers became a breakwater against the Communist flood, resisting and waiting for relief. They held the fort until, as in the old American West, cavalry troopers rode to the rescue — this time with the snarl of rotor blades.
Capital of the province of the same name, Quang Tri was about 20 kilometers south of the DMZ, along the east bank of the Thach Han River. The city, which was the largest of the province, developed into a major communication and logistics center during the war. It was situated on the national coastal highway, Highway 1, squeezed between provincial roads 560 on the west and 555 on the east. The road network, north-south and east-west corridors, passed through Quang Tri. Square-shaped with a citadel, Quang Tri City stood like a miniature of Hue, the old imperial capital. More important, Quang Tri was located only 45 miles north of Hue. Quang Tri was built on the coastal plain, and thus vulnerable to attack from all directions. Despite the presence of U.S. Marine and Army units in I Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ), the defense of the small city lay in the hands of the ARVN 1st Division.
The 1st Division had operated around Hue since the unit’s establishment. Many Americans considered it the best division in the ARVN. Like the heavy armor divisions of the U.S. Army during World War II, the ARVN 1st Division was an exception to the standard military organization. Each regiment had four battalions instead of the standard three.
Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam, a quality officer and a veteran, was the commanding general of I Corps. The Quang Tri province chief, Lt. Col. Nguyen Am, had formerly been commander of the ARVN 1st Infantry Regiment, which was stationed at Quang Tri. Am’s former relationship with the unit would pay dividends in the coming battle.
American advisers rated the 1st Infantry Regiment, commanded by Lt. Col. Nguyen Huu Hanh, as the weakest in the 1st Division. The U.S. 3rd Marine Division, in a report toward the end of 1967, noted that ‘Hanh had a mediocre reputation but was not incompetent.’ At the start of 1968 the 1st Infantry Regiment was participating in the Revolutionary Development program, to which Hanh had committed two battalions. These were scattered and immersed throughout numerous villages north and northwest of Quang Tri. To compensate, Lam had attached the ARVN 9th Airborne Battalion to Hanh’s command.
Activated October 1, 1965, the 9th Airborne Battalion was part of the ARVN 1st Airborne Brigade. The paratroopers were all volunteers, with nine weeks of intensive combat training at the Airborne Training Center, capped by a three-week jump school at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. The airborne troops were high-quality veterans who received better pay, rations, weapons, quarters and family benefits than the common ARVN soldier. Hanh also had additional units available for the city’s defense. A National Police Field Force company was quartered in the city proper. The 1st Regiment’s armored personnel carrier squadron was stationed inside Quang Tri, and Regional and Popular Forces were available as well.
Hanh deployed his forces to screen the city. His 2nd and 3rd battalions conducted security missions north and northwest of the city, while the 9th Airborne Battalion quartered northeast of the city in the Catholic hamlet of Tri Buu. The 1st Battalion, along with the APC squadron, guarded military installations in Quang Tri’s western suburbs. The National Police patrolled throughout the city proper. The 1st Regiment’s CP was established at La Vang, east of Highway 1.
The U.S. Marines had been operating in I CTZ since 1965. The 3rd Marine Division covered all of Quang Tri Province. With units spread along the DMZ and Highway 1, together with their commitment to pacification operations and the defense of the Khe Sanh firebase, the Marines were stretched thin. As the official Marine Corps history describes the situation: ‘The 3rd Marine Division had no men to spare for the defense of Quang Tri City, which was an ARVN responsibility. Marines deployed units out to mortar and sniper range to screen vital areas of the city.’
Just prior to Tet, General William Westmoreland took major steps to reinforce I Corps. After assessing both intelligence reports and captured enemy documents, Westmoreland believed the primary threat was in the extreme north. Associated Press reported Westmoreland’s thinking on January 17, 1968: ‘Westmoreland said he expects the next major Communist campaign in the northernmost I Corps areas, primarily in Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces, just below the DMZ.’
Westmoreland planned to move his ‘First Team,’ the entire 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), into I Corps. The division’s 3rd Brigade was already there, attached to the 23rd (Americal) Infantry Division. The 1st Brigade, at Bong Son, received orders on January 17 to move into the Hue–Phu Bai area; on January 25, it shifted farther north into the Quang Tri area. The 2nd Brigade, meanwhile, remained committed to an operation in the Binh Dinh area, and Westmoreland attached the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division to the 1st Cavalry Division.
Colonel Donald V. Rattan commanded the 1st Air Cav’s 1st Brigade. Since the perceived threat in the province focused on the border regions, he did not receive the mission to secure the city. Rattan was in constant communication with the American provincial adviser, Robert Brewer, who helped coordinate the actions of the South Vietnamese and American units as well as the Civil Operations and Rural Development Support program.
Rattan positioned his battalions south and west of Quang Tri City. The 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry (1-8), covered Fire Base Area 101, west of Quang Tri. The 5th Battalion, 502nd Infantry (5-502), from the 101st Airborne Division, covered Landing Zone Betty, about three miles southwest of Quang Tri, while 1-12 and 1-5 cavalry were left a free hand to maneuver against any enemy forces. As the American and Vietnamese units went about the business of pacification, search-and-destroy missions and the improvement of their logistical base, some 21,000 NVA troops in nine regiments were deployed to strike the small city at Tet.
General Vo Nguyen Giap, North Vietnam’s defense minister and architect of the Tet Offensive, had been preparing for the campaign since the summer of 1967. Giap’s goal was the capture of Hue as the linchpin of the ambitious, war-winning offensive. Like Antwerp in Adolf Hitler’s 1944 Ardennes offensive, Hue was both a political and military target. The direct land route to Hue stretched along the coastal plains on Highway 1. Like Bastogne, Quang Tri was a crucial transportation hub, which had to be taken to facilitate the Communist offensive. Its capture would open an avenue for the B-9 Front, a corps-size force just north of the DMZ, to advance down the coast along Highway 1 to capture Hue.
The plan to overrun Quang Tri called for a joint operation by the NVA and Viet Cong. A platoon from the NVA 10th Sapper Battalion would infiltrate the city at night and hit key spots, just before the main attack by four battalions of the 812th Regiment of the NVA 324B Division, and the VC 814th Battalion. The 324B Division, consisting mainly of volunteers from the south, was rated by American intelligence as one of the NVA’s best units.
Sappers were the elite force of the NVA. It was sapper units that had led the 1954 assault on Dien Bien Phu. Sapper platoons attached to infantry battalions had the mission of clearing obstacles and leading attacks on built-up positions. Trainees in these battalions received as much as three months of special training at a base near Son Tay, North Vietnam, or on the job with their units in the south. Trained to move in complete silence, a sapper unit was an assault engineer force designed to oppose a greater force. Typically, such a unit consisted of a security element, an assault element, a fire support element and a reserve.
The NVA 812th Regiment’s four battalions, K-4, K-5, K-6 and K-8 (detached from the NVA 90th Regiment), consisted of three infantry companies of 130 men each. Along with signal, reconnaissance and heavy weapons support companies, the regiment totaled about 2,600 troops for the assault. The 600-man VC 814th Battalion would strike from the northeast, while the K-4 Battalion would hit from the east and K-6 Battalion from the southeast. The K-8 Battalion screened in the northwest and K-5 Battalion remained as the reserve in the southeast, with the heavy weapons company.
The unexpected insertion of the 1st Cavalry Division into I Corps during January did not cause the NVA to alter their plans. Committed to the all-out assault throughout I Corps, Giap took the gamble. The capture of Quang Tri, with its road network and one of only two large airfields in the province, was essential for the offensive to be able to drive deep into South Vietnam. Throughout January, NVA and VC units meticulously infiltrated close to the cities and towns they would attack. The NVA 812th Regiment first infiltrated into the hamlets and countryside around Quang Tri City, and then sent thousands of ‘local people’ to the city.
This indicator did not go unnoticed by the ARVN. On January 28, General Lam flew to Quang Tri and consulted with Lt. Col. Am. They decided to place the city in a state of emergency and impose martial law. Colonel Am also provided weapons to various cadres and government civil servants. The two officers then waited and watched for the strike they sensed lurking just out of sight.
When the 20 NVA sappers struck Quang Tri on the morning of January 31, they destroyed communications lines and attacked critical points. They intended to create an even bigger advantage for the simultaneous surprise attack of the 812th Regiment. But due to rain, swollen streams and unfamiliarity with the terrain, the K-4 Battalion did not launch its assault until 0420. During the two-hour gap, the South Vietnamese concentrated on the sappers. Local police isolated the sapper platoon and, after a nasty firefight, captured the few remaining survivors. With the elimination of the sappers, Hanh ordered the regular ARVN units to stand-to for the expected assault.
At 0420, rocket and mortar attacks hit bases inside and outside the city. The 812th Regiment attacked along multiple axes. The K-4 Battalion advanced along four routes to penetrate the city and seize key objectives, including the left gate of the city wall, the province section headquarters, the artillery unit compound and the city prison. The K-6 Battalion, advancing between Highway 1 and the railroad, struck the ARVN compound at the La Vang base just south of the city. The VC 814th Battalion struck from the northeast through the small village of Tri Buu. The two remaining battalions, K-5 and K-8, screened southeast and northwest of the city respectively, to ambush and prevent anticipated allied ground reinforcements from interfering.
As the Germans had done during the Battle of the Bulge, the VC attempted to use subterfuge at Quang Tri. Wearing ARVN paratrooper uniforms, VC elements approached the ARVN 9th Airborne Battalion at Tri Buu. The ruse failed when a sharp-eyed ARVN sentry observed that the impostors were wearing sandals instead of government-issue jungle boots. The ARVN paratroopers opened fire, and fierce hand-to-hand fighting ensued. While the VC pressed their attack, the paratroopers gradually withdrew to just outside Tri Buu and re-formed their lines. The 814th Battalion never reached the city limits. Lieutenant General William Pearson later reported, ‘The South Vietnamese airborne decisively engaged the VC and halted the advance.’
East of Quang Tri, the K-4 and K-6 battalions rushed the city walls. They encountered withering fire from the defenders, but the Communists moved forward. As the NVA continued to exert great pressure, the ARVN troops fought for every foot of ground. The 1st Regiment’s 1st Battalion maintained its resistance, as Hanh committed his armored personnel carrier squadron. As the APCs laid down fire support, the ARVN troops gave ground grudgingly. Heavy fighting went on throughout the morning along the city’s edge.
Sheer numbers and effective fire support from their heavy weapons enabled the NVA to edge into the city, as the ARVN 1st Battalion slowly fell back toward the sector headquarters. By noon the outcome of the battle still hung in the balance. The South Vietnamese held on by their fingernails. Communist pressure continually increased. If the NVA committed their other battalions, the defenders would be overwhelmed. The South Vietnamese needed reinforcements as soon as possible, and the only available force was the 1st Cavalry Division’s 1st Brigade.
Robert Brewer, the Quang Tri senior provincial adviser, choppered into LZ Betty shortly after noon on January 31 to confer with Colonel Rattan at his brigade command post. Brewer urgently requested American units, telling Rattan: ‘The situation is desperate. One enemy battalion has infiltrated inside the ARVN lines. The enemy is reinforcing from the east and has established fire support positions on the east and south fringe of the city.’
Rattan contacted Maj. Gen. John Tolson, commanding general of 1st Cavalry Division, and requested authority to reorient his brigade and attack east of Quang Tri City. The Communists, anticipating such a move, had been rocketing and mortaring LZ Betty since dawn to pin down part of the brigade.
Tolson was the perfect officer to make a decision on how to deploy the relatively new resource of air mobility. Commander of 1st Air Cav since April 1, 1967, Tolson had been the commandant of the U.S. Army Aviation School in 1965 and 1966. He was a West Point graduate of the Class of 1937 and also a veteran of combat jumps in New Guinea, Corregidor and the Philippines during World War II. He had long been on the cutting edge of airmobility development. But the 1st Brigade was limited in maneuver battalions and could engage only one area. It had to be the right point. Tolson immediately approved the request. ‘I agreed with [Rattan’s] assessment,’ he later wrote. ‘I trusted his judgment implicitly.’
Rattan learned from Brewer the most probable enemy location and infiltration routes. Brewer indicated that enemy troops were northeast, east and southeast, and Rattan selected LZs adjacent to the Communist forces. As General Tolson later noted, ‘The LZs were selected for the purpose of reducing the enemy’s reinforcement capability by blocking his avenues of approach and to eliminate his fire support capability by landing in his support areas.’
Meanwhile, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam in Saigon reacted slowly to the initial Communist attacks. It fell to local commanders and individual soldiers to take action in their immediate locations to affect the outcome of the fighting. Working swiftly and efficiently, Rattan’s staff put together a plan and called up the lift assets. Within two hours after the alert, the first slicks touched down almost on top of the NVA battalions.
Like George S. Patton in the Ardennes turning the Third Army 90 degrees in just three days, Rattan redirected his 1st Brigade 180 degrees in just two hours. The 1st Brigade had only two available battalions: 1-12 Cavalry and 1-5 Cavalry. The 1-8 Cavalry was fogged in on its mountaintop base, and the 1-502 Infantry was defending the brigade base. Vaulting over the enemy blocking forces, the two cavalry battalions landed in five locations in the Communist rear. Rattan designated Lt. Col. Daniel French’s 1-12 to land east around the village of Thon An Thai and positioned Lt. Col. Robert Runkle’s 1-5 southeast of Quang Tri City. Priority for lift went to the 1-12. Rattan also asked for, and received, additional divisional air support assets in the form of 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, including aerial rocket artillery.
As the American preparations continued, the ARVN infantry and paratroopers refused to yield. Their relief would come from above. Alerted at 1345, the first skytrooper set foot on the objective LZ at 1555. B/1-12 air assaulted into LZs east of the city. A few minutes later, intense fire met C/1-12 as it came into the hot LZs defended by an enemy company. The battalion’s assault bracketed the heavy weapons supporting the NVA battalion, and the cavalry troopers overran them. The enemy battalion, now wedged between the 1-12 and ARVN 1st Regiment, fought back.
Right behind the 12th Cavalry, the 1-5 landed two companies southeast of Quang Tri, near the village of Thong Thuong Xa, right on top of the K-6 Battalion. As one of the troopers remembered the action: ‘We air assaulted southeast of Quang Tri. We were in the rear of an NVA battalion. The entire company was airmobiled onto one side of Highway 1. We went forward and ran into elements of the 812th NVA Regiment. Along with supporting helicopter gunships, we quickly destroyed this fighting unit.’
The surprised NVA used machine guns, mortars and recoilless rifles against the Americans. The 1st Brigade’s scout helicopters directed aerial rocket artillery fire and called in additional fire from divisional artillery. As the American firepower pounded the enemy forces, it created pandemonium in the K-6 Battalion’s rear.
Struck from above by gunships and artillery, and wedged between the ARVN and the Americans, the K-6 Battalion was shattered as an effective fighting unit. By landing directly on top of the NVA units attacking the city, the cavalry units cut off the support those units were providing to, and receiving from, the Communist infantry inside the city. Relief was on the way. The ARVN defenders knew it as they redoubled their efforts to hold on.
B Company, 1-5, but attached to 1-12, arrived in a relatively calm LZ northeast of Tri Buu. The ARVN airborne troops ‘were in pretty good contact, but holding their own,’ remembered Captain Michael Nawrosky, the company commander. ‘Our company’s position remained quiet for the most part. On two occasions enemy soldiers retreating from Quang Tri and Tri Buu skirted our perimeter. In both cases, we engaged with mortar, M-79s, and machine guns, but had negative assessment that night.’
Allied units blocked the 814th Battalion from striking the LZs from the north or from reaching the city. According to 1st Brigade’s war diary, ‘It was obvious that the NVA were completely unfamiliar with air cavalry techniques of warfare.’
The fighting continued into the afternoon. It was a close-quarter, nasty engagement. The Communist units began to buckle, and the commander of the 812th Regiment made a crucial decision. Instead of committing the K-5 and K-8 Battalions, he decided to withdraw. Around 1900 hours the NVA along the east wall of the city broke contact, leaving behind 29 dead.
North Vietnamese soldiers who had reached the city during the morning now tried to get away among the crowds of civilian refugees. Nawrosky recalled his company discovering two who had ‘donned civilian clothing over their uniforms, thrown away their rifles, and tried to slip through our lines.’ They were caught and taken prisoner.
The shattered, demoralized NVA soldiers now tried to withdraw south to reach the protection of the K-5 Battalion. The airmobile assault had crushed the Communist attack and relieved the ARVN defenders. By nightfall the enemy attempted to escape north and south of the town in small elements. The cavalry troopers pressed the attack throughout the night, and into the morning.
By noon of February 1, the ARVN 1st Regiment finished clearing all the NVA stragglers from Quang Tri, while the 1st Brigade pursued the remnants of 812th Regiment into the hills. The brigade expanded in ever-increasing concentric circles around the city. Rattan was now able to commit the 5-502 Infantry. When he did, A Company hit the jackpot: It found an NVA contingent holed up in a cathedral south of the city. A firefight ensued, and Rattan committed D Company, 1-12, to gain numerical superiority. The engagement resulted in 76 Communists killed. Meanwhile, the ARVN airborne troops, with support from U.S. fixed-wing aircraft, retook Tri Buu on February 1. Rattan continued the pursuit during the first 10 days of February. When the operation concluded, the ARVN 9th Airborne Battalion and the American units were shifted to the fighting at Hue. Communist losses at Quang Tri amounted to 86 captured and 914 dead, of which 553 were killed by ARVN forces. General Earl Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later commented that ‘it was touch and go’ — but Quang Tri was saved.
The swift intervention of the 1st Cavalry Division had prevented Hanoi from achieving one of its major objectives for the Tet Offensive — the capture of a provincial capital and a transportation hub that would have allowed the Communists to commit their mobile reserves deeper into the countryside. In the process, their overall offensive timetable in I Corps was completely disrupted.
The reasons for the allied victory included the tenacious defense of Quang Tri City by the ARVN forces, the accurate evaluation of the tactical situation by Rattan and Brewer and the airmobile capabilities of the 1st Cavalry Division. The South Vietnamese performed above expectations. As Maj. Gen. Phillip Davidson, Westmoreland’s J-2, evaluated the South Vietnamese afterward: ‘The ARVN troops did not surrender or defect, and the South Vietnamese people refused to join the enemy even in towns where the Communist held temporary sway.’
The ARVN performance had been absolutely crucial. In this, the unexpected and tenacious resistance of the poorly regarded, outnumbered ARVN 1st Regiment was the center of gravity that formed the base for commitment of U.S. airmobile forces. Rattan’s quick but correct assessment of the situation was also a key factor. The air cavalry’s vastly superior mobility had introduced a new factor to warfare. Although it was deployed in the north by Westmoreland only weeks before the outbreak of Tet, the outcome might have been different if the 1st Cavalry Division had been a conventional infantry or mechanized unit. As at Bastogne, where American armored columns provided the relief to a besieged town, so too did the helicopters of the 1st Cavalry Division provide the relief at Quang Tri during Tet.
This article was written by James Marino and originally published in the February 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today.