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South Vietnamese general Le Van Hung (center) and president Nguyen Van Thieu (second from right) reveled in the victory at An Loc—a victory for Nixon's Vietnamization policy. (U.S. Army Center of Military History)

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From the Winter 2012 issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History.

Today, not one American in ten thousand knows about the Battle of An Loc. But for a few months in the spring of 1972, An Loc looked as if it would assume the same mythic importance as the battles of Saratoga, the Argonne, and the Bulge. In that climactic year of the Vietnam War, U.S. president Richard M. Nixon gambled his presidency on a program he called “Vietnamization.” Its goal was to gradually transfer responsibility for the fighting to the South Vietnamese, betting that—aided by a handful of American advisers on the ground and the might of U.S. air power—their troops could stand against the veteran battalions of North Vietnam. Under way for several years, this new style of warfare had seen limited success; An Loc was the first chance to test it in a major battle. To the surprise of both sides, Vietnamization worked. An Loc became its seminal triumph, and the most important Vietnam battle of Nixon’s presidency. Why then, is Vietnam now synonymous with failure and loss? The answer lies in An Loc, and the events that followed.


The Battle of An Loc proved that Nixon had found the key to victory in Vietnam

An Loc is a city of about 15,000 people, the capital of rural Binh Long Province in South Vietnam, near the border with Cambodia. The surrounding countryside is thick with French-planted rubber trees that once made it a rather prosperous place. After more than a decade of savage civil war between North and South Vietnam, no one thought of An Loc or the province as militarily important. Only one division of South Vietnam’s million-man army was stationed there. But An Loc sat on a paved highway, Route 13, just 65 miles from the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon. For General Vo Nguyen Giap, commander of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), that made the city significant.

In distant Paris in spring 1972, North Vietnamese diplomats were pretending to negotiate a peace treaty with South Vietnamese and American representatives. President Nixon had refused to yield to massive protests against American involvement in the war. Again and again he touted Vietnamization as the only honorable way to end America’s role in the conflict. By 1972, there were fewer than 100,000 combat GIs in Vietnam; none was in or near Binh Long Province.

In November that year, Nixon would run for reelection. The leading Democratic challenger, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, was calling for immediate and total withdrawal of American troops, planes, and warships. He claimed the South Vietnamese army, the ARVN, was hopeless. He had even harsher things to say about the new republic’s politicians.

Had Vietnamization, then, been a failure? Quite the contrary. In 1968 the South Vietnamese and Americans had inflicted a shattering defeat on the Viet Cong, the communist guerrilla army in the south, when the VC launched an all-out offensive during Tet, the traditional Vietnamese holiday. In the wake of this victory, the ARVN and U.S. armed forces had been able to pacify the countryside, producing a remarkable approximation of peace for nearly four years.

John Paul Vann, a former army colonel who had become a key civilian adviser, said in January 1972: “We are now at the lowest level of fighting the war has ever seen.” There was “an air of prosperity throughout the rural areas” of South Vietnam, Vann claimed. On the highways a traveler was in more danger “from hustling Hondas and Lambrettas than…from the VC.”

Given the relative success of Vietnamization and pacification, the NVA’s General Giap had only one hope of victory: a massive invasion with his regular army. In the spring of 1972 he prepared a three-pronged assault to conquer large chunks of South Vietnam. The centerpiece of Giap’s plan (later known as the Easter Offensive) was to capture An Loc and claim it as the provisional capital of Revolutionary South Vietnam. Communist politicians would muster there, while Giap readied a tank-led army to rumble down Route 13 to Saigon after disgusted, war-weary American voters elected McGovern, and the demoralized South Vietnamese “puppets” realized the United States was about to abandon them.

At U.S. Army headquarters in Saigon, there were no illusions that the war was over. Intelligence from NVA deserters and other sources detected General Giap’s buildup of forces on South Vietnam’s borders in preparation for the Easter Offensive. General Creighton Abrams, the U.S. Army commander, increased his air power at bases in South Vietnam and Thailand. Two aircraft carriers were ordered on station off the coast, with two more carriers on standby. B-52 long-range bombers on Guam were told to prepare for an all-out effort. “The stakes in this battle will be great,” Abrams said.

At noon on March 30, 1972, the NVA attacked across the supposedly demilitarized zone between the two Vietnams. Fifteen North Vietnamese regiments poured thousands of rounds of mortar, rocket, and artillery fire into ARVN bases along the border and surged toward the district capital of Quang Tri. The second of Giap’s three invasion forces burst from NVA sanctuaries in Cambodia into South Vietnam’s Central Highlands, heading for another major city, Kontum. From farther south in Cambodia came Giap’s biggest thrust: Three NVA divisions backed by hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces rumbled toward An Loc.

The 5th NVA Division had orders to clear the ARVN out of Loc Ninh, a small town on Route 13 about 20 miles north of An Loc. Seven American advisers, led by Lieutenant Colonel Richard Schott, who had recently transferred—at his request—from a desk job in Saigon, were in Loc Ninh. Colonel Nguyen Cong Vinh, the commander of the town’s defenders, the 9th ARVN Regiment, had been fighting the communists since 1950. He was frankly dismayed by the withdrawal of American combat troops and had no confidence in the ARVN’s ability to stand alone. Despite strong opposition from American air forces, the NVA’s tanks and infantry smashed through Loc Ninh’s defenses and overran the town in three days. Remnants of the 9th ARVN Regiment and the advisers fled into the countryside. Badly wounded in the head, Colonel Schott killed himself so his fellow advisers wouldn’t risk their lives trying to save him.

Loc Ninh’s fall was not a good omen for the defenders of An Loc. Inside the city was a team of American advisers headed by Colonel William “Wild Bill” Miller, a veteran of three previous tours in Vietnam. His relationship with Brigadier General Le Van Hung, commander of the 5th ARVN Division, was tense; Hung did not like to take advice from Americans. When the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) warned of the coming offensive, Hung stubbornly resisted Miller’s urgent pleas to withdraw men from isolated firebases and concentrate them in An Loc. Eventually, some 35,000 NVA troops surrounded the city. The besieged, including 2,000 lightly armed provincial militia, numbered 7,500. On April 7, the 9th NVA Division attacked the crucial Quan Loi airstrip, two miles northeast of An Loc, where American and ARVN helicopters rearmed and refueled. Human wave assaults preceded by canisters of tear and nausea gas overwhelmed the two companies of the 5th Division’s 7th Regiment defending the field. Onto the hills around An Loc the NVA dragged dozens of guns, ranging from mortars to 130mm Soviet-made artillery pieces. A few hours before dawn on April 13, they began a bombardment of horrendous intensity. In the next 15 hours, more than 7,000 shells and rockets crashed into An Loc, driving its defenders and trapped civilians underground.

At dawn the NVA launched an assault on the city’s northern streets that panicked the South Vietnamese defenders. Swarms of T-54 tanks led the attack—the first time most of the South Vietnamese troops had confronted these death-dealing machines. Within hours, much of the northern section of the city was in enemy hands. It seemed that by equipping the NVA with this armored fist, North Vietnam’s Soviet backers had ensured that Vietnamization would unravel in a matter of days.

But even as the ARVN retreated, South Vietnamese resistance stiffened. In An Loc, a young member of the provincial militia, Pham Cuong Tuan, peered from the roof of an elementary school and realized that the tanks were rolling far ahead of the infantry, virtually on their own. Tuan aimed his M72 Light Antitank Weapon (LAW) at one coming down the street. The tank exploded into flames. The North Vietnamese had violated a cardinal principle of urban armored warfare: Tanks need infantry to protect them. The news whirled through An Loc: LAWs kill tanks. Within hours, tank after isolated tank met a similar fate and the emboldened ARVN defenders began greeting the oncoming NVA infantry with blasts of machine gun and automatic rifle fire.On March 30 ,some 20,000 North Vietnamese troops poured into South Vietnam in a massive gamble to win the war with a three-pronged offensive. The plan's centerpiece lay in taking An Loc and rolling down Route 13 to Saigon. (Map by Baker Vail)

One tank crew was so certain they had an unbeatable weapon, they rolled all the way to the southern end of the city with their hatches open. A South Vietnamese soldier with a LAW ended their joyride.

Another tank clanked to a stop in front of a Catholic church and fired round after round through the front doors until it ran out of ammunition. The shells massacred some 100 men, women, and children who had taken shelter inside, hoping God would protect them. The tankers, perhaps realizing they were surrounded by LAW-wielding ARVN, climbed out of their killing machine and put up their hands. ARVN infantrymen shot them to death.

At the same time, the American commanders injected into the battle a second crucial ingredient for victory—powerful, coordinated tactical air strikes. Cobra gunships from the Blue Max Squadron of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) fired high-explosive antitank rockets with deadly effect. A column of 12 tanks coming down Route 13 was paralyzed when Cobras blew up the lead tank and the last one. The forest on either side of the road was too thick for the others to turn around, leaving them easy prey to U.S. tactical aircraft—A-6s, F-4s, and A-37s making constant sorties with the guidance of daring Forward Air Controllers (FACs) in light planes.

At least as important were the B-52 strikes, code-named Arc Light. Every strike saw three of the huge planes, each carrying more than a hundred 500-pound bombs, hit targets close to An Loc. One strike destroyed an entire NVA battalion and its tanks. Still, the partnership between the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces was nearly stretched to the breaking point that first day defending An Loc.

Captain Harold Moffett, the adviser to the ARVN 3rd Ranger Group, considered an elite force, was appalled when the men and their officers fled in panic. Moffett sprang into the street in front of the runaways, brandishing his rifle, and told the officers to do their duty. The shock treatment worked. The Rangers rejoined the battle and held their ground.

In the division command bunker, Colonel Miller had to prod and push General Hung and his staff to stay in the fight. Miller persuaded Hung to shift ARVN Ranger units from parts of the city not yet under attack to the endangered northern section.

By the end of the day, every NVA tank that had broken through the lines had been destroyed, and the NVA infantry’s advance had stalled. ARVN fighting spirit was repeatedly buoyed by the planes and hovering Cobra helicopters. An unexpectedly robust version of Vietnamization was being forged in the struggle for An Loc.

After four days of fighting, the defenders were almost as battered as the attackers. Colonel Miller grimly assessed the situation for his MACV superior, Major General James F. Hollingsworth, on April 17. The enemy was still flinging 2,000 shells a day into An Loc. “Casualties continue to mount, medical supplies are low, wounded a major problem, mass burials for military and civilians,” Miller said.

Evacuation of the wounded was almost impossible, because of intense North Vietnamese antiaircraft fire. South Vietnamese helicopters that attempted to land were almost invariably shot down, and the effort was soon abandoned.

The NVA’s high command was infuriated by the 9th Division’s failure to quickly take An Loc, even denouncing the division’s poor performance in letters to officers. General Giap insisted on meeting his timetable, which called for announcing An Loc as the Revolutionary capital on April 20.

Giap was soon frustrated. General Hollingsworth had persuaded the South Vietnamese to airlift two airborne battalions to An Loc’s southern outskirts, and they disrupted an NVA attempt to stage a diversionary attack from that direction. Meanwhile, three fresh North Vietnamese regiments got nowhere in the northern streets. American air support pulverized tanks and men, and the ARVN defenders held firm. On April 22, emboldened South Vietnamese Rangers went on the offensive, hoping to eliminate NVA companies entrenched in the wreckage. They were assisted by one of America’s most awesome airborne weapons, the AC-130 Spectre gunship, a plane whose 105mm cannons created nothing less than a rolling barrage behind which the ARVN advanced.

Although the NVA was forced to retreat a few blocks, the stalemate continued. Several groups of desperate civilians tried to escape the city. But the North Vietnamese artillery slaughtered them the moment they emerged into the open fields. The city’s defenders had to figure out a way to feed both soldiers and civilians.

High-altitude airdrops tended to fall into NVA hands, thanks to inexperienced Vietnamese parachute riggers at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airfield. Low altitude drops resulted in several lost planes. To fix this problem, MACV flew in a team of trained American riggers from Okinawa. Soon drops were coming down in free fall from 8,000 feet, opening close to the ground, and landing in the arms of the hungry South Vietnamese.

The standoff lasted until the night of May 10–11. Then came an ominous increase in the artillery bombardment. No less than 7,000 shells crashed into An Loc in four hours. By the end of the day, another 10,000 shells had fallen. Behind this curtain of fire came tanks and infantry trying to drive two powerful salients into the city and finish off the ARVN defenders piecemeal. With this assault came many mobile antiaircraft guns and units equipped with heat-seeking antiaircraft missiles to drive the Cobra gunships and FACs out of the sky.

Everyone sensed the battle of An Loc was reaching a climax. The Americans answered the new NVA challenge with redoubled punishment from the sky. Despite losing two Cobra gunships, two FAC planes, and an A-37, the airmen stayed in the battle, wreaking havoc on the enemy. Jittering all over the sky to escape the metal flying up at them, FACs guided 297 tactical aircraft missions on the crucial day of May 11. At least as important were B-52 strikes, which by this point in the war were amazingly precise. As they approached the city, the big planes could quickly change targets and come to the rescue of a hard-pressed ARVN unit in response to a FAC’s emergency call. On May 11, the B-52s flew some 30 sorties, dropping 1,500 bombs.

Rain set in on the night of May 12. The NVA, hoping the weather would limit air support, launched another attack, this time with PT-76 amphibious light tanks, evidence that it had run out of the fearsome T-54 main battle tanks. They made little progress. After midnight, the weather cleared and two Spectre gunships were soon overhead, spouting destruction from their cannons. In the morning, B-52s arrived to add to the mayhem.

It was too much punishment for flesh and blood to endure. Facing ARVN counterattacks, the NVA abandoned its salients and retreated into the rubber trees. Several tank crews leaped out and ran, leaving their motors running. On May 15, the NVA launched another attack, but it was a pale imitation of previous assaults. The attackers seemed content to exchange random sniper fire in the ruins. The tanks stayed out of the fight, firing from far enough away that hits from LAWs were rare.

It would take more than another month of fighting to clear Route 13 and regain control of An Loc’s airport. But the NVA had lost the initiative and the ARVN went over to the attack. They soon recaptured the city of Quang Tri, which they had abandoned in April. By that time General Giap’s North Vietnamese army was a wreck. Almost all its armor and artillery had been destroyed. The 14 divisions and 26 regiments thrown into the battle had suffered crippling losses. Giap himself was dismissed as commander in chief.

South Vietnam trumpeted this victory in An Loc to the watching world. Nguyen Van Thieu, the president of South Vietnam, visited the battered city on July 7 and compared the battle to Dien Bien Phu, the 1954 communist Viet Minh victory that drove the French army out of Vietnam. The French forces had collapsed after a 56-day siege. At An Loc, the ARVN had held out for 70 days—and won. It was, Thieu said, “a victory of the free world’s democracy over communist totalitarianism.”

Many observers agreed. Paris Match compared the battle to Verdun and Stalingrad. “The South Vietnamese army proved it could stand on its own two feet,” the editors wrote. American advisers and the MACV commanders who had directed the crucial air support also praised the stubborn courage of the South Vietnamese on the ground.

President Nixon, meanwhile, hailed An Loc as proof that Vietnamization had succeeded. The crucial combination of air power and the steadying influence of advisers with the ARVN had vindicated and given teeth to the policy: It appeared the United States was poised to clasp South Vietnam’s hand in victory over the communists.

Most American newsmen saw things differently. By 1972 the war had few defenders in the media. “Perhaps the best that can be said is that the city died bravely,” one reporter wrote.

Most in the press ignored the tremendous losses suffered by the North Vietnamese and were seemingly indifferent to An Loc’s significance—that the South Vietnamese had stood up to the NVA’s finest troops without the aid of American ground soldiers. The North Vietnamese had neither the weapons nor the strategy to counter America’s awesome air power.

In the November presidential election, Nixon routed George McGovern. He won a staggering 61 percent of the popular vote; his 18-million-vote margin of victory was the largest in U.S. history. The American people, ignoring the media and the protesters, overwhelmingly approved Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization, with its victorious centerpiece, the Battle of An Loc. Seldom had American voters watched a president and a challenger clash over an issue as specific as Vietnam—and responded with such massive support for the man in the White House.

At the Paris peace talks, meanwhile, the North Vietnamese and the Americans reached an agreement of sorts. It called for a cease-fire that ratified the status quo—and left large numbers of NVA regulars holding territory in South Vietnam. President Thieu went on television and denounced this decision, made in secret by Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser. When Nixon told Kissinger to obtain changes to mollify Thieu, the North Vietnamese walked out of the talks.

On November 30, in the wake of his election victory, Nixon met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss the situation. He reassured his military advisers that leaving the NVA in South Vietnam did not in any way signal that the United States was abandoning its ally. The president said he would “react strongly” to violations of the treaty by North Vietnam and would maintain a potent military presence in Southeast Asia.

Even more significant was Nixon’s decision when the North Vietnamese continued to boycott the Paris talks. He ordered a bombing campaign, dubbed Linebacker II, that gave Hanoi, after years of hesitation and limitations by previous presidents, its first taste of all-out air war. Navy planes swooped down and mined the harbors of Haiphong and Hanoi. For 11 days, 149 B-52s from Guam pounded the two cities, with support from hundreds of smaller bombers. No targets were off limits. Warehouses, docks, rail yards, petroleum storage tanks, and electric power plants were methodically smashed.

Afterward, the humbled North Vietnamese returned to Paris and signed the peace treaty. The president had showed an obstinate enemy that the United States, with air power alone, could amply support its South Vietnamese allies. The implication was clear; any attempt to restart the war would trigger a renewal of this destruction from the air.

For the first months of 1973, there was peace in Vietnam. By any measure, Nixon could claim a resounding victory. The war was essentially over, and the Republic of Vietnam was intact.

But on March 30, Watergate intervened. On that day, Federal District Judge John Sirica—who had presided at a trial of five men who had broken into the Democratic Party’s headquarters in the Watergate apartments during the presidential campaign—read aloud in his courtroom a letter he had received from one of the convicted men. The man claimed he had been ordered to plead guilty to the break-in to protect high officials in the Nixon administration. Reporters raced to telephones.

At that moment, the astonishing victory at An Loc began fading from public consciousness, and the United States started to abandon South Vietnam. Though Nixon would remain in office for some time, the forceful president who had ordered Linebacker II receded to a dim historical phantasm, a weak, morose man who flailed in vain as an antiwar Congress seized control. Despite the victory at An Loc and the clear success of Vietnamization, many lawmakers wanted only to get out of Vietnam. The Watergate scandal became the cover behind which they achieved a ban on further U.S. military activity in South Vietnam. Equally fatal, they reduced American economic aid to the vanishing point.

The impact on the ARVN’s morale and ability to fight was catastrophic. As Watergate simmered, the Soviet Union and China resupplied and re-equipped its communist ally’s army with the latest tanks and artillery. In August 1974, Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment. His replacement, Vice President Gerald Ford, was a leader with neither power nor prestige.

The end came in March 1975, almost exactly three years after General Giap launched his assault on An Loc. Overwhelming North Vietnamese attacks drove the ARVN out of the Central Highlands. Frantic attempts to regroup and save the southern half of the country collapsed. “Our friends are dying!” a desperate President Ford told Congress. On April 30, NVA tanks rolled into Saigon.

It was the beginning of an agonizing ordeal for the South Vietnamese who had sided with the Americans. Many leaders, including General Hung, the ARVN commander at An Loc, committed suicide. Millions of people fled to sea in small boats and confronted pirates and terrible storms to seek refuge in other countries. Their nation, the Republic of South Vietnam, ceased to exist—and with it went the memory of the victory at An Loc.

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