The Vietnam War’s best historian examines the costly attack on an enemy sanctuary.
On February 8, 1971, less than two years after U.S. President Richard Nixon announced his intention to “Vietnamize” the war, troops (ARVN) crossed the border into Laos. The primary objective of the operation, named Lam Son 719, was to destroy supply dumps and sever the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the logistical corridor running through eastern Laos from North Vietnam south to Cambodia. The ARVN forces, led by ARVN I Corps commander Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam, were to seize Base Area 604 west and south of Tchepone, a small town located at a strategic junction of supply routes 42 kilometers from the border with South Vietnam. After securing Tchepone, the South Vietnamese would, for the remainder of the dry season, interdict the trail and destroy logistical facilities in the area.
Because of the Cooper-Church Amendment passed by Congress in late 1970, U.S. ground troops and advisers were prohibited from entering Laos. However, U.S. helicopters would support the operation and U.S. fighter-bombers, fixed-wing gunships and B-52 bombers would provide air cover.
The South Vietnamese attack into Laos was preceded by a phase called Operation Dewey Canyon II, in which 1st Brigade of U.S. 5th Infantry Division cleared the routes inside South Vietnam to Khe Sanh and facilitated the movement of South Vietnamese forces to attack positions adjacent to the border. Additionally, from Khe Sanh and surrounding fire support bases, some 9,000 U.S. troops provided logistical support to the ARVN and long-range artillery fire into Laos in support of the South Vietnamese attack. Lieutenant General James W. Sutherland Jr., commander of XXIV Corps, commanded the U.S. effort.
The plan called for an ARVN armored/infantry attack along Route 9 to seize Tchepone. A series of firebases would be established along the northern and southern flanks to cover the advance to the objective. (See Lam Son 719 map, p. 46.) Once Tchepone was secured, South Vietnamese forces would conduct search and destroy operations in Base Area 604 before retiring back down Route 9 or through Base Area 611 to the A Shau Valley. It was hoped that the force would stay in Laos until the beginning of the rainy season in early May.
After a massive artillery bombardment and 11 B-52 bombing missions, the lead elements of the 4,000-man armored/infantry task force, made up of ARVN 1st Armored Brigade reinforced with 1st and 8th airborne battalions, crossed the Laotian border at Lao Bao on the morning of February 8. Initially, the task force made excellent progress against only light resistance.
At the same time, ARVN ranger and airborne units were inserted by helicopter into positions north of the main advance. Meanwhile, troops from ARVN 1st Division were inserted into a series of positions along the escarpment south of the Xepon River to cover the southern flank of the advance. Once the infantry had secured its respective areas, artillery was flown in and fire support bases were established.
U.S. 101st Airborne Division was assigned the mission to provide helicopter support for the South Vietnamese forces attacking into Laos. Because the 101st still had to cover its assigned area of responsibility in Military Region I, which had been greatly expanded with the redeployment of ARVN forces in preparation for the upcoming operation, the division was augmented with additional helicopter units from other U.S. divisions. The 101st Aviation Group commander would control all aviation assault, assault support, and aerial weapons units, to include both the U.S. aviation units attached for this operation and the few South Vietnamese helicopters participating. By the time augmentation was completed, 101st Aviation Group controlled an additional four assault helicopter companies, two assault support helicopter companies, two air cavalry troops, two assault helicopter battalion headquarters, and an aerial rocket artillery battalion, as well as the aviation group’s own three helicopter battalions. This force of more than 600 helicopters would provide transportation, aerial fire support, resupply and medical evacuation for ARVN troops attacking into Laos.
Intelligence estimates before the operation indicated that around 11,000 troops of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN, also known as the North Vietnamese Army or NVA) were in the area of operations. About half of these were combat troops assigned to protect the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but the other half were thought to be support troops responsible for maintaining the enemy supply route. It was believed that it would take up to a month for the PAVN to reinforce these troops with an additional division, which would have to move from the panhandle of North Vietnam. This proved to be a major miscalculation.
After the operation, there were claims that the PAVN had advance warning of ARVN intentions, but these reports were never substantiated. In the wake of the 1970 U.S.-South Vietnamese Cambodian Incursion, the PAVN anticipated that the Allies might try something similar in Laos. If that were to happen, the most likely avenue of approach from South Vietnam into Laos would be along Route 9. Accordingly, in the fall of 1970, the PAVN formed a new headquarters, 70B Corps, to control the defense of this critical area, assigning 304th, 308th and 320th divisions, along with artillery, armor, engineers and anti-aircraft units. Although the ARVN attack did not come exactly when the PAVN had first expected, when it did arrive, the enemy was fully prepared to respond.
By the end of the first day of Lam Son 719, 6,200 South Vietnamese troops were inside Laos. Contact had been relatively light and ARVN troops had suffered only three killed in action, 38 wounded and three missing in action. While the ground fighting had not been heavy, the anti-aircraft fire had been intense and continuous since the beginning of the operation. During the course of the day, when helicopters made up to 15 trips each into Laos, a total of seven helicopters were shot down by enemy fire and several others were damaged. Still, the operation was moving fairly smoothly.
On February 10, the ARVN armored column, which had been hampered by bad weather and poor road conditions, began moving slowly west. By early evening, it had linked up with ARVN airborne brigade paratroopers who had been inserted by helicopter near Ban Dong, a point halfway to Tchepone, opposed only by light enemy resistance.
By this time, a string of 10 blocking positions had been established on the high ground on both the northern and southern flanks of Route 9. South Vietnamese forces in Laos now totaled more than 10,000 troops in 13 infantry battalions, two ranger battalions, two artillery battalions and one engineer battalion.
On February 11, for reasons inexplicable at the time, the main South Vietnamese attack along Route 9 came to a halt on the road about five kilometers west of Ban Dong. General Creighton Abrams, commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, had expected a much more rapid thrust, but the ARVN forces were less concerned about speed and more worried about securing their flanks. The armored column waited for orders from General Lam, yet nothing but silence came from I Corps. In the absence of orders from higher headquarters, ARVN commanders along Route 9 demonstrated little initiative or inclination to move aggressively toward Tchepone. At this point, the westward thrust lost all momentum.
After the operation, it was determined that South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu had a hand in halting the ARVN attack. On February 12, when several intense firefights broke out near A Loui, Thieu flew to Lam’s headquarters at Dong Ha, just south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Upon arrival, he warned Lam to be careful as he moved west and directed him to cancel the operation if his forces incurred 3,000 casualties. Thieu apparently was worried about how potentially high casualty figures in Laos would affect the upcoming Vietnamese national elections to be held in the fall. He also was concerned about losing the ARVN general reserve (consisting of the airborne division and the South Vietnamese marines, both of which were committed to the operation).
The pause in the ARVN attack along Route 9 gave the North Vietnamese an opportunity to move in additional reinforcements as well as the time and the chance to respond to the invasion. Yet in the first few days of the operation, PAVN forces were slow to react. A postwar history of the campaign admitted there were “a number of weaknesses” in their effort to understand the situation and noted they “did not correctly predict the timing of the enemy’s attack.” However, as the lead ARVN units crossed the border into Laos, the commander of 70B Corps restrained his forces until he decided whether the attack along Route 9 was for real or merely a deception to cover the main attack elsewhere.
Realizing that the ARVN thrust along the highway was in fact the main attack, the PAVN corps commander ordered 308th Division, located in an assembly area near the DMZ, to begin moving toward the area north of Route 9 to reinforce PAVN units already there. At the same time, the North Vietnamese high command ordered 2d Division to move from positions farther south to the vicinity of Tchepone and eastward to blunt the ARVN armored column moving west along Route 9.
Speed and momentum provided the ARVN its only chance for success; however, when the advance faltered, the troops soon found themselves under attack by a much stronger enemy than anticipated. They quickly came under heavy rocket and long-range artillery fire as more PAVN troops moved into the area. Additionally, the enemy had increased the number of anti-aircraft weapons on the mountain slopes north and south of Route 9, which made airmobile operations and aerial resupply increasingly dangerous as Lam Son continued.
With the South Vietnamese attack stalled along the road and the ARVN units on the flanks in largely static defensive positions, the PAVN committed new reinforcements, which immediately launched attacks against the more lightly defended ranger and airborne bases on the northern flank. Meanwhile, additional PAVN forces kept the pressure on the southern flank.
As the situation in Laos continued to unfold, President Thieu visited I Corps’ forward command post (CP) in Dong Ha late in the day on February 19 and met with Lam and his division commanders. Lam briefed the president on the situation, stressing the sightings of new PAVN units in the area and the increasing pressure on the northern flank. He told Thieu that enemy reinforcements made the push toward Tchepone extremely risky. In response, Thieu told Lam “to take his time” and to expand search activities toward the southwest in an effort to cut Route 914, which ran between Tchepone and Route 92. This was a meaningless order that essentially told Lam to keep doing what he was doing.
The enemy’s intent soon became clear. With the identification of elements of 2d and 304th PAVN divisions, it was apparent that the North Vietnamese had sent in additional reinforcements. More ominous, South Vietnamese forces began to sight enemy tanks, and a captured North Vietnamese soldier stated that a PAVN tank regiment was in the area.
The North Vietnamese, with elements of four divisions now in the area of operations, increased the intensity of their attacks on South Vietnamese positions, attempting to isolate the fire support bases and defeat them one at a time. As part of this effort, they would ring ARVN positions with anti-aircraft weapons to cut aerial resupply lines while demoralizing the defenders with round-the-clock mortar, rocket and artillery fire. Having done that, they would assault the ARVN positions, using combined infantry/armored forces where possible. In an attempt to negate the impact of B-52 strikes, PAVN forces would refrain from massing until just before they attacked. Once the PAVN attacked the ARVN positions, they would “hug the ARVN’s belt,” moving in as close as possible to the South Vietnamese defenders.
During the battle for Ranger North, one of the firebases guarding the northern flank, an incident occurred that set the tone for the lasting public perception of Lam Son 719. Although most of the ARVN rangers there stood and fought valiantly against overwhelming odds, a few uninjured soldiers lost their nerve and tried to climb aboard helicopters attempting to evacuate the seriously wounded. The aircrews tried to prevent these troops from escaping the battle, but some panicked ARVN soldiers deserted by clinging to the helicopters’ skids and riding back to South Vietnam. Several of these soldiers were photographed hanging on for dear life, and this became the shameful enduring image of Operation Lam Son 719.
The remaining rangers demonstrated remarkable courage and tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds, standing as long as they could against intense rocket, mortar and artillery fire as well as repeated “human wave” attacks. When they were low on ammunition, these men went out and took PAVN rifles off enemy bodies and continued to fight.
Despite the valor of these rangers, the damage was done and the fact that they had fought so well under such adversity was overlooked. The initial impression that media coverage gave of panic-stricken ARVN soldiers fleeing the Communists was difficult to overcome. There would be several similar instances before the operation was over, and these images proved to be blows not only to ARVN pride but also, by extension, to the policy of Vietnamization itself.
While the rangers and paratroopers fought for their lives on the northern flank, a similar pattern was developing south of Route 9. By this time, ARVN troops were in heavy contact throughout the area of operations. What had been envisioned as a lighting raid on a key node of the Ho Chi Minh Trail had devolved into a pitched conventional battle of pure attrition. Despite the massive amount of air support being provided by helicopters and fixed-wing attack aircraft, the South Vietnamese forces, having lost the initiative, were fighting desperately just to hold on to their bases in Laos.
By the end of February, the South Vietnamese northern flank was collapsing, the southern flank was under intense enemy pressure, and the column along Route 9 was effectively stalled and under heavy attack. General Sutherland reported the developing situation to General Abrams, saying, “The enemy is all over that goddamn area, and seems to be getting stronger, if anything.”
At this point, President Thieu inserted himself into the action once again. Given the enemy’s strong reaction to the South Vietnamese thrust along Route 9, he had decided that the mission of Lam Son 719 should shift from destroying PAVN base areas to “taking” Tchepone, which by itself had no real military value. Although the surrounding jungles and mountains contained enemy supply caches, civilians had abandoned the town years ago and it was now nothing more than a collection of broken-down hovels. Focusing on Tchepone was purely a public relations ploy. “Capturing” the town would permit Thieu to declare victory and withdraw ARVN forces from harm’s way, thereby allowing him to save face and gain political capital for the upcoming fall elections.
Responding to guidance from Thieu, General Lam devised a plan that called for ARVN 1st Infantry Division, reinforced with its 2d Regiment, which had been moved from its previous position near the DMZ, to conduct an assault by helicopter into Tchepone. The Vietnamese marine division, less one brigade, would follow 1st Division, and the airborne division would assume the mission of securing Route 9 while continuing to protect the northern flank.
The plan was for U.S. 223d Combat Aviation Battalion (CAB) to lift ARVN soldiers into three landing zones (LZs) located along the escarpment south of Route 9 and the Xepon River, which were to be sequentially occupied. Once these LZs were secured, another force would be inserted by helicopter into a fourth LZ just a few kilometers from Tchepone to make the final assault on the town itself. These LZs were named for four actresses: Lolo, for Gina Lollobrigida; Liz, for Elizabeth Taylor; Sophia, for Sophia Loren; and Hope, for Hope Lange.
From March 3-6, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces at Khe Sanh mounted one of the largest protracted airmobile operations of the war. The assault on Tchepone involved more helicopters in a single operation than any previous combat air assault in U.S. Army aviation history. Moreover, it was carried out in what proved to be the most hostile air defense environment encountered to that point in the war. The helicopter crews had their work cut out for them.
LZ Lolo was atop the highest peak on the southern escarpment, 13 kilometers southeast of Tchepone. The plan for the assault on Lolo called for the insertion of three infantry battalions and one reinforced artillery battery. On the morning of March 3, 223d CAB, with additional helicopters from 14th and 158th aviation battalions, airlifted ARVN troops from 3d Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, from LZ Delta into LZ Lolo. The insertion was preceded the night before by eight B- 52s bombing enemy positions south of the LZ and six fighter strikes on and around the LZ.
The first helicopters landed and ARVN soldiers dismounted and began to deploy. Initially, there was no enemy response; however, when the following flight tried to land to offload troops, enemy forces opened up with everything they had. Seven of the next 10 Huey helicopters into the LZ took hits as enemy fire increased. Of the first 20 troop-carrying helicopters participating in the Lolo insertion, PAVN gunners shot down one en route and destroyed four others at the landing zone; another eight were damaged as they touched down to unload. Two Huey gunships were also shot down just east of the LZ. One pilot in the lift to Lolo later observed, “They put in five hours of airstrikes and Cobras [attack helicopter gunships] on the hillside. Then we went in and it sounded like a million people opened up on us.”
A second lift had to be postponed for a while, but by the end of the day the ARVN had occupied Lolo. However, in the process, a total of 11 helicopters were shot down and 44 others were damaged by the withering fire in the vicinity of the LZ, making this one of the darkest days in U.S. Army aviation history.
On March 5, two more battalions from ARVN 2d Regiment were inserted by helicopter into LZ Sophia, four kilometers west of Liz and just four and a half kilometers southeast of Tchepone. Once again, PAVN anti-aircraft gunners fiercely contested the insertion, shooting down three helicopters in the first lift. U.S. aviators pressed on against heavy enemy fire, but while inserting ARVN troops at Sophia, two Cobras, two Huey gunships and two more Hueys were shot down. Most of the other aircraft in the flight sustained heavy damage as well.
By the end of the day on March 5, South Vietnamese forces had established a string of LZs and FSBs along the escarpment south of Route 9. The next phase of the final assault on Tchepone began on the afternoon of March 6, preceded by a heavy pounding of PAVN positions around Tchepone by fighter-bombers, B-52s and long-range 175 mm guns firing from inside South Vietnam.
Meanwhile, two battalions from 2d Regiment of ARVN 1st Division waited 77 kilometers away at Khe Sanh aboard 120 U.S. Huey helicopters. The airlift from Khe Sanh to LZ Hope, four kilometers northeast of Tchepone, was controlled by 223d CAB and supported by Cobra gunships, aerial rocket artillery and fighter-bombers in what was one of the largest and longest helicopter assaults of the war. By the end of the day, 276 helicopter sorties (with some aircraft making three trips) landed about 5,000 ARVN soldiers at LZ Hope.
The assault on Tchepone itself began March 7 when battalions from 2d Regiment that had landed at LZ Hope attacked cross- country to secure the town. The ARVN had reached its objective; it took Tchepone and struck a blow against the enemy and its supply buildup. This was the high watermark for the South Vietnamese forces in Laos. At this point in the campaign, South Vietnamese strength in Laos was 16,844 troops, which included 18 battalions of infantry (including airborne), four artillery battalions, three armored cavalry squadrons, two engineer battalions and six marine battalions.
From President Thieu’s perspective, the objective of Lam Son 719 had been accomplished; the PAVN had suffered heavy losses in the bitter fighting and ARVN troops had found and destroyed a large volume of enemy supplies. However, with his battered forces now outnumbered about 2-to-1 and strung out all along Route 9 from the border to Tchepone, Thieu was unwilling to risk more casualties or the potential destruction of his best division (1st Division) and the bulk of his strategic reserve. Intelligence reports indicated that the North Vietnamese were still rushing reinforcements to the area and their air defenses showed no signs of weakening. Accordingly, Thieu decided that it was time to get out before the situation grew worse. He gave the order to terminate the operation and begin the withdrawal.
I Corps’ plan for the withdrawal from Laos called for a “phased delay operation” in which ARVN forces would fall back toward South Vietnam in leapfrog fashion, destroying base areas and supplies in their path as they went. Withdrawal of a force in contact was an extremely difficult maneuver, but particularly so when that force was greatly outnumbered by the enemy.
By this time, the PAVN had moved a total of five divisions, 12 infantry regiments, two tank regiments, an artillery regiment and 19 anti-aircraft battalions – more than 60,000 troops – into the area to inflict as much damage as possible on the ARVN. With these forces, the North Vietnamese did everything they could to prevent the South Vietnamese from escaping, pursuing them with tanks and other armored vehicles while continuing to pound them with artillery, rockets and mortars. Route 9 became a tangle of disabled and destroyed ARVN tanks and other vehicles. The panic that ensued in some South Vietnamese units during the bitter fighting that followed was reminiscent of that displayed earlier by the deserters at Ranger Base North.
As the South Vietnamese forces fought their way back toward the border, PAVN forces increased pressure on the retreating troops. Poor weather and difficulty in coordinating tactical air support made matters worse. Casualties on both sides were very high.
By March 25, 45 days after entering Laos, most ARVN troops had finally withdrawn back to South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese leadership in Hanoi promptly declared victory, claiming their forces had killed 20,000 ARVN troops and captured more than 1,000, “eliminating” three regiments and brigades, 13 infantry and artillery battalions and four armored squadrons. Additionally, they asserted they had destroyed 1,100 vehicles, including 528 tanks and armored personnel carriers and more than 100 artillery pieces, plus shot down more than 500 helicopters. These claims by the North Vietnamese were grossly exaggerated, but the actual figures were bad enough.
President Thieu proclaimed Lam Son 719 “the biggest victory ever … a moral, political, and psychological Dien Bien Phu.” President Nixon, in a televised address to the nation, stated, “Tonight I can report [that] Vietnamization has succeeded.”
In fact, Lam Son 719 was far from a victory. Some South Vietnamese units had fought valiantly in Laos; others had not. The cost of the fighting had been high. Saigon reported the operation had resulted in 1,160 government troops killed, 4,271 wounded and 240 missing. Many in the media challenged these figures and put actual ARVN casualties at 3,800 killed, 5,200 wounded and 775 missing.
According to XXIV Corps’ official figures, which were close to those reported by the media, ARVN casualties included more than 7,000 killed, wounded or captured – a casualty rate of nearly 40 percent. Combined U.S. casualties for both Lam Son 719 and Dewey Canyon II included 253 killed or missing in action and 1,149 wounded.
In terms of equipment, the U.S. lost 107 helicopters destroyed and 601 damaged (20 percent of which were so badly damaged that they were not expected to fly again). The U.S. Air Force lost six fighter-bombers and a forward air controller aircraft, and four pilots were killed in action (or declared missing). The ARVN lost 211 trucks, 87 combat vehicles, 54 tanks, 96 artillery pieces and most of the combat engineer equipment (bulldozers, graders, etc.) that had accompanied the attackers.
On the plus side, General Abrams reported that of the 33enemy battalions engaged, at least 16 had been rendered combat ineffective. The Allies also reported 1,963 crew- served and 5,170 individual enemy weapons captured. Additionally, 106 tanks, 13 artillery pieces, 2,001 vehicles, 170,346 tons of munitions, 90,000 gallons of fuel and 1,250 tons of rice were destroyed. It is important to note that while these results are impressive, most of them occurred in the early part of the campaign before the South Vietnamese lost the initiative.
There is ample evidence that the operation at least temporarily disrupted the PAVN buildup in Laos, costing the Communists dearly in men and equipment that probably would have been used in a major enemy offensive against Military Region I later in 1971. While South Vietnamese losses had been severe, North Vietnamese forces had suffered as badly, if not worse, losing by some counts up to one-half of their troops committed to the operation.
PAVN casualties inflicted notwithstanding, the operation had a devastating effect on South Vietnamese morale and esprit. Despite President Thieu’s bombastic statements about the operation’s success, the ARVN forces that retreated from Laos believed they had been defeated. Even General Abrams acknowledged, “Field reports indicate that morale of certain combat units in the 1st ARVN Division, marine division, and the airborne division suffered as a result of the Lam Son 719 operation.”
The operation raised serious questions about the progress of Vietnamization, and Nixon was privately distressed over how poorly the South Vietnamese had performed. As General Phillip B. Davidson, former MACV J2 (intelligence), later said, “Lam Son 719 demonstrated that, while Vietnamization had made progress, the South Vietnamese government and its armed forces had deep flaws which made final success of the concept years, probably decades, away. Above all, the operation showed ARVN’s complete dependence on the United States forces.”
In the aftermath of Lam Son 719, General Abrams and his MACV staff accelerated their efforts to increase the combat capability of South Vietnamese armed forces. Unfortunately, they would not have much time – the North Vietnamese were planning a major offensive in South Vietnam for 1972.
James H. Willbanks is an “ACG” advisory board member and the editor or author of 13 books, including “Abandoning Vietnam,” “The Battle of An Loc,” and “The Tet Offensive: A Concise History.” His new book, “A Raid Too Far: Operation Lam Son 719 and Vietnamization in Laos,” will be published by Texas A&M University Press in early 2014.
Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Armchair General.