At about 0830 on April 16, 1975, a reinforced mechanized infantry battalion of North Vietnamese Army troops hit the Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s 5th Infantry Regiment defending Thanh Son Air Base’s main gate. Demoralized South Vietnamese troops fed as tanks crashed through the gates and supporting infantry surged toward the base’s control tower. By 1100, Thanh Son and two thirds of its aircraft and helicopters were in NVA hands. Nearby Phan Rang fell the next day. News footage of Saigon’s fall to Communist forces 13 days later showed a T-59 tank smashing down the Presidential Palace gates.
The tank was the Chinese version of the Soviet T-54A. The T-54, a follow-on to the famous T-34/85 of World War II, entered production in 1948. It received regular upgrades using American tanks captured in Korea.
Those improvements—including a bore evacua- tor to reduce smoke buildup inside the turret—began with the 1954 model, the T-54A. A gun stabilization system based on that of a captured U.S. M-47 tank was added after 1957, and the tank was designated T-54B. Its diesel engine provided good speed and range. The armor protection, with a maximum thickness of 205mm, exceeded that of most early postwar Western tanks.
The Soviet Union gave China licensing rights to produce the T-54A in 1958-59. The Chinese designated it Type 59, or T-59. The Soviet Union frst shipped T-54s to Haiphong in 1967. China began delivering T-59s by 1968. T-54 crews frst saw action during South Vietnam’s 1971 Operation Lam Son 719 in Laos.
The NVA did not fare well in those engagements or during the 1972 Easter Offensive when its 198th Tank Battalion crossed the Demilitarized Zone in its drive toward Dong Ha. American helicopters’ anti-tank missiles and the ARVN’s superior M-48A3 tanks devastated the North’s armored batta
lions. More than 400 T-54s/59s were destroyed in the failed Easter Offensive. China and the Soviet Union quickly replaced the losses, however.
The North Vietnamese Army spent much of the next three years applying the lessons from its 1972 failure. Units improved their combined arms tactics and practiced procedures to ensure the smooth movement of their now largely mechanized forces.
When the Politburo ordered a limited offensive in South Vietnam, the tanks led the way. Once it was clear that no support for Saigon was forthcoming, the army was ordered forward. The NVA’s armor-mechanized units drove on to victory, seizing Saigon on April 30, 1975.
The T-54 and its Chinese variants remain in Vietnamese service to this day.
Height: 8 ft. 11 in
Weight: 34.5 tons
Engine: 520shp V12 diesel
Main gun: D10 100mm
Rounds carried: 34
Machine guns: One 12.7mm; one coaxial 7.62mm; one hull-mounted 7.62mm
Top speed: 32 mph/20 mph off-road
This feature originally appeared in the June 2014 issue Of Vietnam Magazine. Click here to subscribe!