Wednesday, April 26, 1972

S. Viet Response Too Little, Too Late?

Highlands Staggering Under NVA Assault


PLEIKU, Vietnam
(AP) --South Vietnam's rolling unpopulated central highlands used to be a war theater where neither side tried very hard to win, an "economy of force" war in military terms. Until Sunday night.

Then North Vietnamese tanks roared in along a dirt road from Laos. Heavy artillery guns opened up from hidden mountain positions. A South Vietnamese division headquarters was engulfed and overrun.

Americans and South Vietnamese in Pleiku, the highlands capital, have for weeks been forecasting that the major drive of the current general offensive would come here.

"The enemy actions at Quang Tri and An Loc are limited. He wants Kontum, Pleiku and Binh Dinh provinces and will try for them soon," argued the senior American advisor for the region, John Paul Vann.

Saigon was slow to get the message. Government forces have always been extremely thin in the highlands. In Kontum Province the two regiments of the 22nd Infantry Division had been beefed up earlier in the year with a division of airborne troops. But when the Communist offensive began across the demilitarized zone three weeks ago, President Nguyen Van Thieu tried to take the airborne from the highlands and send them north.

"We fought like hell to keep them here," one senior American said. "Saigon was not interested in us. They thought it was the same war up here, the economy of force war, and that the enemy objectives were limited."

It took the loss of the coastal district of Hoai An, and three fire bases on "Rocket Ridge" above Kontum last week to get Saigon's joint general staff really interested in what was happening.

The air over Pleiku got thick with generals in helicopters. U.S. Air Force transports swarmed through the skies with supplies, recalling the huge American buildup in the highlands in 1966-67.

But American military advisers in the Kontum area say it's too late and too little.

"We will just have to get used to the idea of losing a lot more territory," commented an American major wounded early last week. "The other side obviously means business, and there is little we can or will do about it."

Hanoi has amassed a powerful force in Kontum, twice as big as anything sent there in the past, according to American intelligence assessments.

Two full North Vietnamese infantry divisions, the 2nd and the 320th, are aimed at the Dak To valley, Highway 14 and Kontum, assisted by two independent regiments of infantrymen, an artillery regiment and a sapper regiment.

This means 15,000 men backed by tanks and heavy artillery threatening Kontum. The massive power of the North Vietnamese was exhibited last week when Fire Base Charlie, a 500-man position held by the airborne, was overrun, and the defenders scattered to the mountains. Two other nearby fire bases, Yankee and Delta, fell later in the week almost by default.

"If the airborne gets any weaker, then the NVA will have a straight shot at Kontum City," commented an advisor at the province capital.

The Hanoi battle plan goes far beyond Kontum. Senior Americans have expressed amazement at its boldness. It apparently calls for isolating the cities in the highlands by cutting the highway arteries, then taking the airstrips under direct fire. The ultimate aim seems to be to defeat Saigon on the highlands battlefield and capture major cities.

Step One was to take the An Khe pass and cut Route 19 between the coastal supply bases and Pleiku and Kontum. North Vietnamese forces did that two weeks ago and have not budged from the pass. Americans believe the enemy will soon cut the secondary route to the highlands, Highway 21 from Nha Trang.

Step Two is to slice up the region some more, cutting Highway 14 between Pleiku and Kontum cities, and Highway 1 between Qui Nhon and the northern districts of Binh Dinh Province, which is the most densely populated province in the country with one million people.

Step Three is to start battering the regular Saigon forces in the region. Bruising preliminary battles have already cut several infantry and airborne battalions to pieces.

The Kontum battlefield is getting all the attention. But Americans in coastal Binh Dinh see a major enemy effort against the population there. Hoai An District and its 32,000 people were lost last week. Nearby Hoai Nhon District seems destined next, with vulnerable Tam Quan District following.

"This means 200,000 people lost, and to think that two months ago we thought the war here was won," said a senior American in Qui Nhon.

The pessimistic outlook for Binh Dinh is based on the imbalance of the sides. The North Vietnamese have two tough infantry regiments threatening a couple of South Vietnamese battalions and a handful of regional force soldiers.

Senior Americans believe the only hope for the highlands and the coastal region in the long run is the proven inability of Hanoi to long sustain military drives.

"Eventually they will run out of supplies and men," said one senior adviser. "The weather will close in on them also. That will defeat their intentions in the end."

However, two important factors could change this picture radically. The performances of Saigon's regular forces in the region have been spotty at best. There have been frequent reports of infantry battalions fleeing in panic. At Hoai An District the defenders threw away their weapons and changed into civilian clothes. A panic among the remaining forces in Kontum could bring disaster.

The second factor is the endurance of the North Vietnamese. Hanoi has been preparing this drive for at least two years. Already new elements have been introduced, notably armor and very effective antiaircraft fire. Another new element-- the prior stockpiling of enough supplies to sustain the general offensive indefinitely--- could sweep the North Vietnamese to dominance of the highlands.

"Highlands Staggering Under NVA Assault", by Peter Arnett, published in the Pacific Stars and Stripes on Wednesday, April 26, 1972 and reprinted from European and Pacific Stars and Pacific Stars and Stripes, a Department of Defense publication copyright, 2002 European and Pacific Stars and Stripes.
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