Reviewed by Captain Carl O. Schuster, U.S. Navy (ret.)
By James Willbanks
Indiana University Press, 2005
The 60-day siege of An Loc was one of the Vietnam War’s most heroic battles. It pitted a handful of South Vietnamese ground units and massive American air power against a multidivision North Vietnamese offensive involving tanks and artillery. The North Vietnamese had every reason to be confident of victory in 1972. The United States was in the final stages of its withdrawal from South Vietnam. Massive demonstrations beset America’s campuses; a presidential election campaign was underway. Vietnamization was the official U.S. policy, and the few American combat units remaining were directed not to become engaged unless attacked directly.
It was in that strategic setting that North Vietnam launched its Easter Offensive in 1972, a three-pronged combined arms invasion of the South. One arm drove across the DMZ, a second blitzed out of southern Laos and a third launched out of North Vietnam’s Cambodia sanctuaries. This third advance, intended to cut South Vietnam in half and seize Saigon, is the focus of James Willbanks’ book The Battle of An Loc (Indiana University Press, 2005, hardcover $29.95).
This short and sharp treatment of the battle is written from the perspective of one who was there, but it is more than a memoir. Colonel Willbanks has incorporated the latest information released by both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments to place the battle and combatants in their strategic context. The reader sees the expansion of the adviser effort, the structure and organization of the contending forces, the key personalities involved on the ground and in the respective capitals, and the political debates underway in the three countries involved—the United States and both Vietnams. More important, Willbanks presents a picture of how different levels of command and leadership drew radically different lessons from the battle. Tragically, and to South Vietnam’s cost, America’s political leaders appeared to have learned nothing at all.
The North Vietnamese buildup for the Easter Offensive began in late 1971. By January 1972, U.S. and South Vietnamese intelligence knew the North was moving tanks and troops into Laos and Cambodia. The NVA’s ultimate objective was to inflict heavy losses on the ARVN, defeat it in the field and capture as many key cities as possible to provide launch points for the final conquest of South Vietnam. Lying on Highway 13 and only 65 miles from Saigon, Binh Long’s provincial capital of An Loc was the last major city
between the Cambodian border and South Vietnam’s capital. Hanoi committed to the attack three infantry divisions, an artillery division, a tank regiment, two additional infantry regiments, a special weapons unit, some sapper units and a support group. The VC were not major players in this action—it was an NVA show.
Facing them was the 5th Infantry Division supported by a handful of fire bases, three ARVN ranger battalions and Task Force 52, a composite force of artillery units and two infantry battalions. The division headquarters was assisted by the members of Advisory Team 70, of which author Willbanks was a member. The division had no heavy tanks or antitank weapons, other than artillery, when the North Vietnamese offensive began on March 30, 1972. More important, the ARVN’s artillery was outranged by the more powerful NVA artillery. Air support and helicopter units entering the battle area faced North Vietnamese anti-aircraft fire and, for the first time in the war, SA-7 infrared-guided surface-to-air missiles. The ARVN forces fighting in An Loc would fight outnumbered, outgunned and with their air support inhibited by enemy air defenses.
The situation was exacerbated by the North’s successes in the other operations, which drew Saigon’s attention away from Binh Long, thereby masking the movement of two NVA divisions into that province. Further, the ARVN 5th Division commander, Maj. Gen. Le Van Hung, ignored advice to prepare for the coming attack. He refused to move without specific orders, despite the near destruction of an ARVN reconnaissance unit north of An Loc, followed by the first assault on Loc Ninh. Suddenly the ARVN officers in and around the city abandoned their posts and surrendered or made their way to An Loc. Loc Ninh fell to the NVA on April 9. Two days later, the NVA moved against An Loc.
As Willbanks and Major Raymond Harvey flew into An Loc on April 12, 1972, NVA artillery, mortar and rocket units were already shelling the city. Major General James F. Hollingsworth, commander of the 3rd Regional Assistance Command, had ordered his advisers to join their units in the city rather than risk a repeat of the debacle in Quang Tri province, where the adviser withdrawal had collapsed ARVN morale.
Five NVA regiments surrounded An Loc, supported by tanks, artillery, anti-aircraft guns and SA-7 teams. Unlike at Loc Ninh, however, An Loc’s senior ARVN officers were resolute leaders. Also, Saigon had awakened to the danger and reinforced the province, even flying the 1st Airborne Brigade into the city. The ensuing six-month siege involved almost continuous close-in fighting. Units were deployed and destroyed in a campaign of attrition. American air power inflicted heavy losses on the NVA, which ultimately withdrew.
Despite its early operational successes, North Vietnam’s Easter Offensive did not achieve its strategic or operational objectives. South Vietnam’s political and military leaders took pride in the outcome, but they didn’t recognize that the fighting had exposed the ARVN’s shortcomings. They had been too reliant on their American advisers for tactical leadership and expertise in coordinating air support, a critical element in the allied victory.
Colonel Willbanks has written an informative and consuming account that can be appreciated on several levels. It is an engrossing read. It is also educational for those who want to understand the battle of An Loc itself, the state of the war in 1972 or the sacrifices of those who advised the ARVN during the war’s final years. As such, it is a must-read for those who think the Vietnam War was only about defeating a jungle insurgency.