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John O. Truby, COL, USA, SENIOR ADVISOR, ARVN 23rd Infantry Division  

REFLECTIONS ON THE BATTLE OF KONTUM FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE SENIOR ADVISOR, ARVN 23RD INFANTRY DIVISION

Personal Situation: 1972 was my second year in South Vietnam, more specifically, II Corps, commanded by John Paul Vann. At this time, the upcoming battle with the NVA was expected to occur in II Corps, who had received a supply of Russian tanks. Vann, a very experienced tactician with ARVN forces, advisor and leader, expected to handle the defense based in his headquarters in Pleiku. He assigned me the mission of traveling around to the other provinces and helping out with local battles occurring with the VC. This was necessary since province advisory jobs were being taken over by Foreign Service Officers from the State Department. They had been trained in indirection and negotiations rather than military and political direction and action. This proved to be a great job, since the FSOs and the military in the provinces were all fine people and learned each otherís roles very quickly.

Military Situation: On April 30th, I received a call from Vannís headquarters that he would be in Nha Trang the next day to pick me up and take me to Kontum for an interim job as Senior Advisor to Colonel Ba. Ba was the respected commander of the ARVN 23rd Infantry Division; currently wrapped around the town of Kontum in a perimeter defense. The scheduled advisor to the 23rd had been delayed in the US for physical reasons, and was expected in about two months

In Vannís helicopter on the way, he gave me clear and firm guidance. Specifically this was:

ē provide advice to Col Ba at my own discretion;
ē carefully manage requests for B52 (ARC LIGHT) strikes and keep ARC LIGHT planning covered in the operations center so this could remain a full US commitment; donít stray too far from the operations center as ARC LIGHT needs and use could develop very quickly;
ē TOW anti-tank missiles to strengthen the perimeter were arriving in country Ė place them on the perimeter carefully; and
ē the perimeter was now occupied by good units, but not organic to the 23rd, thereby limiting their cooperative effort.

After becoming involved in the divisionís defensive planning and after reflecting on Vannís guidance, it was clear that the preponderance of power in the ARC LIGHTS over our battlefield weapons was so great that they probably could be employed in a similar way to the to the battlefield tactical nuclear weapons tactics taught at the Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth in the mid-1950s to 1960s. They probably would be the decisive weapon, rather than the use of a counterattack against the penetration, as Col Ba knew the limitations of his forces in offensive action. Also, the ARC LIGHTS had not been overly successful in II Corps because intelligence was so fleeting and the NVA was careful not to mass. The NVA attack of a defensive perimeter would cause a massing of forces that was unusual and probably very lucrative.

It wasnít long before Vann had skillfully arranged for the 44th Infantry Regiment and the 35th Infantry Regiment to move to Kontum to join the 53rd so that the division was now complete; the other units were let go for assignments elsewhere.

Conduct of the Battle: Just before the battle began, B/G Hill, John Vannís deputy, entered the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and placed his hand on the map near the highway, just north of Kontum. He said that he had seen enough tracks in a nearby field that a tank assembly area must be located there. This seemed entirely logical since tanks had previously been sighted coming down what I thought was the main avenue of approach. That night, lights were seen on the same road, typical of inexperienced tank drivers struggling to get out of an assembly area at night.

On the phone, Vann was skeptical that the battle was about to start since no preparation had been fired. I then told him the Col Ba had just received an intercept of the NVA. The attack would jump off at 4:30 AM. I requested that he get what air assets were available started early.

At 4:30, nothing happened, but at 5:30 the attack started. Heavy fighting ensued with the 44th Regimentís defensive fires, ARVN artillery and the TOW missiles causing considerable damage. US air support came about 10:30 AM, causing more destruction and separation between the tanks and infantry. A lull occurred with a later attack carrying up close to the 44th positions so that it seemed both prudent and even urgent to request an ARC LIGHT up close to defensive positions. This occurred with considerable success, effectively ending the dayís ground action.

The next day was quiet until an attack started against the 53rd Regiment in the north sector on the second expected avenue of approach. It started at 8:00 PM, probably to avoid as much US air support as possible and by 10:00 PM the attack had penetrated the perimeter to an alarming degree. Although the 53rd had deployed its regimental reserve at the nose of the penetration, by midnight the enemy force was close enough to make a breakthrough of the perimeter appear possible; the enemy force was also heavily massed in the penetration.

Our request for an ARC LIGHT drop was, however, turned down by Mac V because it was too near a town on the map, which we believed was deserted. After some struggling with my TOC staff over available alternatives, I remembered instruction on tactical nuclear weapons where defensive forces were pulled back, small nuclear weapons were fired, and defensive forces were then slowly moved forward again. Col Ba then agreed to pull back perimeter forces and increase artillery fire into the penetrated area to pin down enemy movement until 2:00 PM. This time MacV approved the new strike location. B52s received the change in location while in the air and at 2:00 PM the blast came down over the massed forces. Enemy forces had moved into old existing strike holes but the blast was such that the lethality and shock effect had huge impact. Army gun ships cleared up the remnants.

Results of the Battle: The capability of well-led ARVN forces to defend a town against a major NVA attack was well established. The strength of the defense also caused the attacking forces to mass thereby presenting lucrative targets and permitting the B52s to strike the decisive blow. The enemy force was clearly defeated and was forced to eventually withdraw from II Corps.

John O. Truby, COL, USA, SENIOR ADVISOR, ARVN 23rd Infantry Division <Beth.Truby@denvergov.org>
Denver, CO Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 09:41:21 (PDT)

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