THE BATTLE FOR THE FIRE SUPPORT BASES AND TAN CANH
During the latter part of March, the FSBs on "Rocket Ridge" had received sporadic probing attacks and attacks by fire (ABF) from a mixed caliber of weapons. The intensity of the attacks increased until the first major assault took place on the 4th of April. Although these small bases were relatively autonomous, they were not isolated. Helicopters, both U.S. and VNAF, operating in and out of these FSBs linked them together both physically and psychologically with each other, and other friendly units involved in the battle. Even though there were periods during which helicopters were very restricted because of enemy fire and bad weather, there was a belief among the defenders that eventually, the "choppers" would get through to them. As a result, the FSB defenders, for the most part, did not perceive their situation as hopeless even in the face of large-scale attacks by NVA forces.
April 4th: This early morning attack against FSB "D" (Delta) marked the beginning of Phase I, the battle for the fire support bases. The attacks were made by elements of the NVA 320th Infantry Division and consisted of heavy infantry assaults supported by direct and indirect artillery and rocket fire. Numerous NVA anti-aircraft weapons were positioned around the FSB in order to prevent aerial re-supply or fire support. However, helicopter Cobra gunships were dispatched by the Commanding Officer of the 52nd Combat Aviation Battalion, LTC Charles "Chuck" Bagnal "Dragon 6," and they were able to neutralize many of these anti-aircraft positions. During the infantry attacks, these gunships, along with artillery and Air Force TACAIR, were able to deliver extremely effective fire against the concentrated and vulnerable NVA infantry soldiers. Although the enemy was, at times, able to penetrate the defenses of the compound, the positions held, and the attack was beaten back with heavy losses to the attacking NVA forces.
For the next several days the enemy pounded the FSBs located on "Rocket Ridge." Several ground assaults were successfully repulsed with enemy forces suffering heavy losses from the concentrated fire of gunships, TACAIR, and artillery. The ARVN soldiers did well defending their positions, although it was clear to all concerned that their survival was due in large measure to the immediately available fire support. The enemy was taking a beating against the hardened, well-defended FSBs. In fact, it seemed the enemy would continue to smash himself against these small strong points indefinitely. This was very much to the advantage of the defenders in that NVA losses expended against this "hedgehog" type defense would not be available for the main assault on the city of Kontum.
These strong defensive positions, although greatly effective against attack, did not allow for effective counter-attacks. Though the U.S. and Vietnamese coalition forces had tremendous quantities of fire available, it could not be employed effectively against the NVA units if the enemy was not attacking. Most of the time, the NVA forces were dispersed and well hidden in prepared positions. The problem was how to get the NVA units to concentrate in such a way that it would be vulnerable to effective fire. By locating the FSBs on terrain that dominated the area, "key terrain", it became necessary for the enemy to eliminate them in order to insure freedom of movement in the area. These small FSBs became the focal point of enemy activity and provided many opportunities for the coalition forces to deliver effective fire against the exposed, attacking NVA soldiers.
These FSBs were almost totally dependent on outside fire support if they were to survive these large-scale, enemy attacks. This created a difficult situation for the NVA in that their estimates of the strength within the bases, however accurate, could not account for how much fire support would be committed to defend any particular base at any particular time. Although the enemy could count ARVN soldiers, they could not accurately estimate the potential fire that could be generated in support of the FSB. In my opinion, the NVA consistently underestimated this crucial element of the combat power equation. Eventually, some of the FSBs were overrun; however, even if one base was destroyed, the other bases continued to resist.
As the battle for the FSBs wore on, there were numerous reports that NVA armored vehicles were operating in the area. Although helicopter crews reported sighting what appeared to be tank tracks in the valley west of "Rocket Ridge", the presence of armored vehicles could not be confirmed. The importance of these tank sightings will become more apparent as the focus of the battle shifted from the FSBs to the 22nd Division headquarters at Tan Canh.
Mid- April: During the early and middle part of April, the FSBs continued to come under heavy attack by NVA forces. This increased pressure on the FSBs on "Rocket Ridge" was a clear indication that the Division headquarters at Tan Canh was a likely target. There was serious concern on the part of the U.S. advisors that the ARVN commanders were not providing accurate information on their locations in the field. The ARVN were not aggressive in their reconnaissance to the north and northwest of the Division headquarters.
The most glaring weakness in the overall ARVN defensive plan was the vulnerability of the 22nd Division command post located at Tan Canh. This relatively small compound was located on a small hill southwest of the town of Tan Canh. The ARVN forces had 155mm and 105mm howitzers at the base as well as four M-41 tanks from the 22nd Division's 14th Armored Cavalry Regiment. Located within the compound were approximately 500 logistical support troops and the better part of a battalion from the 42nd Regiment. The base lacked defense in depth and was located on relatively low ground. There were no significant forces to the north to counter a serious threat from that direction.
April 23rd: The 22nd Division headquarters located at Tan Canh had received sporadic artillery fire throughout the month of April. The intensity of these artillery attacks intensified until they reached more than 1,000 rounds per day. On the 23rd of April there were clear signs that an attack on the Division headquarters was imminent. Surface to surface wire guided missiles were used by NVA forces to destroy the ARVN tanks located within the compound and also to destroy the Division command bunker. Several of the American advisors were injured during these attacks. Colonel Philip Kaplan, the senior advisor to the 22nd Division, recognized the seriousness of the situation and began making plans for the eventual evacuation of the American advisory team. In addition to the tanks being destroyed, one of the two 106mm recoilless rifles was also destroyed. By the evening of the 23rd, the situation at Tan Canh was grave. The only remaining antitank defenses rested primarily on light antitank weapons (M72 LAW) and air support.
The 22nd Division command post was reestablished across the compound in the 42nd Regiment TOC, but the morale of the ARVN Division commander, Colonel Duc Dat, and his staff, was very poor. It was believed that Colonel Dat was fatalistic about the outcome of the battle and was convinced that the NVA could not be resisted. This situation made it particularly difficult for Colonel Kaplan to get the division to adopt a more aggressive attitude.
Late in the evening of April 23rd, there were reports that enemy tanks were approaching the Tan Canh area from the northwest. An Air Force AC-130 "Spectre" gunship was called to the scene and with its onboard night vision equipment was able to detect a column of tanks, approximately 12, on the road north of Tan Canh. The gunship engaged the tanks with a 105mm cannon and reported hitting three tanks. The column continued its advance toward Tan Canh. There were two bridges between the approaching tanks and the 22nd Division headquarters that were being secured by Regional Force/Popular Force (RF/PF), sometimes referred to as "Rough Puff," troops. These RF/PF troops did not offer any significant resistance to the tanks nor did they destroy the bridges. The introduction of enemy armor and the employment of the wire guided missiles, were both materially and psychologically shocking to the defending ARVN units. This was the first large scale, introduction of armored vehicles into this area of South Vietnam and the defenders were ill prepared to cope with them. It should be noted that, to our surprise, the antitank rockets being used on the AH-1G gunships were only marginally effective against the Soviet and Chinese T-54/T-59 tanks. These tanks, with their 100mm main guns, totally out-gunned the ARVN M-41 tanks, with their 76mm guns. (As a note of interest, six American M-48 tanks were flown into South Vietnam during the first week of May on Air Force C-5A aircraft. These tanks, with their 90mm main guns, were more than a match for the NVA tanks.)
April 24th: When the tank column reached the town of Tan Canh, antitank hunter/killer teams, made up of ARVN infantry from the 42nd Regiment, engaged them with M-72 LAWs. Using the M-72 LAW, the hunter/killer teams disabled two of the enemy tanks. However, the enemy tank column continued their approach during the early morning hours of April 24th. Some of the tanks, about 10, split off from the main column and moved into positions north of the 22nd Division headquarters compound, in order to provide direct fire support for the attack of the main body. Large numbers of infantry were observed moving into positions around the compound. Some of these formations were taken under fire by the Air Force AC-130 gunship and also by artillery fire however, early morning fog limited visibility in the battle area.
At about 0530 that morning, the tanks began their attack on the 22nd Division headquarters. The tanks approached through the fog with their lights on and firing their machine guns at positions along the perimeter. The tanks that had taken up firing positions earlier supported the attack with direct fire from their main guns. Large infantry formations assaulted the compound from the north. One of the American advisors, Captain Ken Yonan, directed fire against the enemy from a water tower located in the compound. Unfortunately, many of the ARVN support troops located within the compound panicked and ran away from the attacking NVA forces. This exodus of troops over the wire on the southern side of the compound spread a general sense of hopelessness among the remaining defenders. By 0600, the situation was critical. Fog and low clouds greatly restricted the effective employment of air support. The Senior U.S. advisor to the 22nd ARVN Division, Colonel Kaplan, made the decision to evacuate the American advisory team once it became evident that the compound was about to be overrun. His decision to leave the compound was supported by the Senior U.S. Advisor for Military Region II, John Paul Vann. Mr. Vann, a civilian advisor who had over ten years of experience in Vietnam, was flying over the besieged compound in an OH-58 helicopter directing the air support which was finally able to work as the weather improved. Some of the enemy tanks were engaged by the U.S. advisors using M-72 LAWs as they fought their way out of the compound. Although some of the tanks were hit, it did not appear that the LAWs were being effective against the tanks at close range. The last time Colonel Dat the Division commander and his staff were seen, they were located in the men's room of the compound and had resigned themselves to eventual death or capture. It was reported some weeks later that Colonel Dat had, in fact, been captured and taken to North Vietnam.
Once outside the compound, Mr. Vann picked up the U.S. advisors in a daring rescue. John Vann was flying in his light OH-58 helicopter. Mr. Vann and his pilot Captain Dolph Todd made several trips in the rescue effort and ferried some of the advisors to the Dak To II airstrip located about six kilometers to the west. It was necessary to keep the distance short because some of the ARVN soldiers had grabbed the skids of the helicopter as it departed and were hanging beneath it. On one of the trips, Mr. Vann's helicopter crashed while attempting to pick up the last of the advisors. Fortunately, he and the advisors were rescued by another helicopter. ARVN armored units that had been located west of Dak To II, at the Ben Het border camp, were ambushed by NVA infantry as they approached Dak To. Enemy infantry weapons destroyed all of the ARVN tanks in the relief column. Several of the ARVN M-41 tanks located at the Dak To airstrip were destroyed by NVA tanks, which were, in turn, destroyed by TAC AIR strikes. The ARVN M-41 tanks, which were armed with a 76mm main gun, were no match for the T-55 tanks of the NVA. Even though some of the ARVN tanks were able to get direct hits on the NVA tanks, their fire had no effect on the enemy due to the inability of the 76mm guns on the M-41 to penetrate the T-55s' armor. However, when the NVA tanks fired their 100mm guns, they were able to totally destroy the ARVN M-41 tanks. As this truth became more apparent, several ARVN tank crews abandoned their vehicles rather than being killed in their tanks. Later in the morning, several of the enemy tanks were engaged by helicopter gunships; however, even though the tanks were hit by anti tank rockets, again they were not destroyed.
The psychological shock created by the appearance of these enemy tanks from the 202nd NVA tank regiment was greater than the physical damage they wrought. This appeared to be a perfect example of the classic "shock effect" of armor on infantry troops. Fortunately, the NVA were either unable or unwilling to exploit their initial success. One might argue that this was a major tactical, if not strategic, error on the part of the NVA. After overrunning the 22nd Division headquarters, they had the chance to exploit their success, however, it appeared they out-paced their own plans or logistical support and were forced to wait until they could consolidate their positions. This provided crucial time for the ARVN defenders to reorganize, reinforce and prepare for the NVA's next move.
The destruction of the 22nd ARVN Division headquarters on April 24th was a shock to the entire II Corps Headquarters. The Division, now in disarray, ceased being an effective fighting unit, and the only thing that stood between the NVA and Kontum City were a few airborne units located on the highway, QL 14, north of Kontum City. Reports of two separate NVA regiments operating in the area subordinate to the B-3 Front brought the size of the enemy effort against Kontum to about three divisions, essentially a Corps sized operation.
Although the FSBs had been extremely effective against attack, their entrenchment limited their combat efficacy once the 22nd Division headquarters had fallen. General Ngo Dzu, the II Corps Commander, ordered the evacuation of the remaining FSBs on "Rocket Ridge." The troops walked out of these bases leaving their 105mm artillery pieces behind. Some of the units made heavy contact and took many casualties as the withdrawal turned into an exercise in escape and evasion. Some of the troops made it to the border camp at Ben Het and were extracted several days later by helicopter. Others were able to make their way to QL 14 and eventually followed that back to Kontum City. Many ARVN soldiers were lost -- either captured or simply not able to make their way back to friendly locations.
The 22nd ARVN Division units operating in Kontum province were considered no longer combat effective and were withdrawn from the area to reorganize and refit at Camp Enari, Pleiku, which used to be the home of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division when it was in Vietnam. Most of the airborne units were pulled back to the Saigon area to assist in the defense of An Loc. The 23rd ARVN Infantry Division from Ban Me Thuot was assigned the mission of defending Kontum.
A general sense of gloom and pessimism, sometimes bordering on panic, infected both U.S. and Vietnamese troops alike. U.S. aviation units at Camp Holloway were preparing to leave with essential equipment if the NVA continued their attacks South unchecked. If they had wanted to, the NVA units could have driven their tanks all the way to Pleiku without significant resistance from ARVN ground forces. The fate of Kontum, and the Central Highlands, rested on the speed and determination of the 23rd ARVN Division and especially, of its commander, Colonel Ly Tong Ba.
April 29th: On the 29th of April, Colonel John A. Todd, Deputy Commander of the 1st Aviation Brigade, arrived at Pleiku. His presence was requested by BGEN. John G. Hill, Deputy Senior Advisor for II Corps. Colonel Todd was the third member of a planning and control group consisting of the Senior Advisor, Mr. Vann, his deputy, General Hill, and Colonel Todd. These three men, along with the II Corps Commander, LTGEN Dzu, made the key decisions each day on the conduct of the battle. On a personal note, I worked very closely with Col. Todd during this period and found him extremely dedicated, courageous, and competent. As the senior aviator, he made key decisions on the employment of aviation assets and made a significant contribution to the overall effort. He was a man I greatly admired.
April 30th-May 4th: The next week was devoted to preparing for the defense of Kontum City. Initially there was confusion, and attempts at establishing a perimeter defense were frustrated by command and control problems. The air cavalry, H troop (provisional) 17 CAV, conducted reconnaissance missions north and northwest of Kontum City. The importance of the role played by this single air cavalry troop can't be overstated. This unit was responsible for a very large operating area and consistently provided timely, crucial intelligence on enemy movements and actions. In spite of sustaining significant combat damage to its aircraft and casualties to the crews, H troop 17 CAV continued to perform its essential mission throughout the battle. The highly mobile firepower provided by the AH- 1G, Cobra gunships, from the CAV and the Cobras from the 361st AWC was an important factor in delaying the efforts of the NVA to organize for the attack on Kontum City.
The air cavalry was able to pick up on enemy movement north and west of the city and there were strong indications that the battlefield was being prepared. Numerous reports of tanks throughout the area resulted in much lost time as the air cavalry tried to verify these reports. In fact, during this period most activity centered on attempts to locate and destroy tanks. However, the NVA were very successful in keeping their tanks hidden. Large bunker complexes and fighting positions were located north and northeast of the city and targeted for B-52 air strikes (ARC light strikes).
Another very significant event had taken place on April 29th. At about 1600 hours, two NUH-1B helicopters, mounting the only airborne TOW (tube launched, optically tracked, wire guided) antitank missile system in the world, arrived at Camp Holloway, Pleiku. These aircraft, tested in battle in the following weeks, would soon make Army aviation history and prove themselves as a viable concept that had only recently been in the testing stage. Previous to this, no helicopter had had this level of "antitank" capability. I never dreamed that, twenty years later, my nephew, Mike Mahony, would thunder into the desert skies of Iraq to kill tanks with his missile-firing "Apache" helicopter.