On 30 March, 1972, the army of North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam. An article in the Pacific Stars and Stripes newspaper read:

President Nixon was reported Saturday to be closely watching North Vietnam's long-awaited major offensive as a test of the success of his Vietnamization program to shift the burden of the war effort to South Vietnam. [1]

Other headlines indicated the magnitude of the invasion:

South Vietnam's northern quarter erupted Saturday into the bloodiest battlefield since the 1968 Tet offensive, and the commander of government forces said more than 30,000 North Vietnamese troops had invaded Quang Tri Province. [2] The battle that had been in the making for years had finally begun. The enemy opened three major fronts. [3] The first was in I Corps where he sent 30,000 troops streaming across the DMZ. The second was in III Corps where the enemy attacked out of his Cambodian sanctuaries and tried to capture the city of An Loc. The third was in II Corps where two NVA divisions tried to capture the provincial capital of Kontum. This paper deals only with the battle of Kontum. [4] For the first time in the Vietnam War, both U.S. and Vietnamese forces depended completely on the other for victory. Neither of the allies could win alone. The U.S. forces could support the Vietnamese; however, the responsibility for the ground combat rested squarely on the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). The Battle for Kontum typified the combat on all the fronts. The weaknesses and strengths that became obvious as the battle developed are a source of pride and sometimes shame for all involved. Although there were no U.S. ground combat troops directly involved, there were a large number of Americans acting as advisors and flying U.S. aircraft in support of the South Vietnamese effort.

Map Overlay

Kontum, a city of about 30,000 inhabitants, is located about 30 kilometers north of Pleiku in the Central Highlands. During January, February, and March, of 1972, a large build up of enemy forces was detected in the valley area southwest of Dak To and northwest of Kontum city. Elements of the 22nd ARVN Division were located northwest of the city and deployed in a broad arc which extended from the southern end of "Rocket Ridge" to the district headquarters of Dak To (see Map A). Most of the ARVN units were located in fortified positions known as fire support bases (FSB). These FSBs were occupied by units which ranged from company size organizations to full battalions. Most of the FSBs were located on the peaks of large hill masses or mountains. These bases were prepared to accept attacks from any direction and usually had interlocking artillery fire for mutual support.

In addition to the positions occupied by elements of the 22nd Division there were two Ranger camps located along the Laos and Cambodian borders (see Map A). These camps were manned by Ranger battalions from the Ranger Group and were placed under the operational control of the 22nd Division. The Division headquarters was located in Binh Dinh Province; however, a forward headquarters was established northwest of Kontum city near the village of Tan Canh.

For the purposes of this discussion, I have divided the Battle of Kontum into three distinct phases. Phase I was the battle for the fire support bases, Phase II was the battle for the border camps, and Phase III was the battle for the city of Kontum. Phase I lasted most of the month of April; Phase II the first two weeks of May, and Phase III from the middle of May until the first week in June.

As the threat mounted in Kontum Province, the 22nd Division was reinforced by elements of the strategic reserve, two brigades of an airborne division. Elements from the airborne division were located in FSBs on "Rocket Ridge," and the division headquarters was established near the village of Vo Dinh (see Map A).

ARVN units operating in Kontum Province were provided helicopter support by the 17th Combat Aviation Group operating out of Camp Holloway in Pleiku and Vietnamese helicopter squadrons operating out of Pleiku Airbase. The U.S. aviation units primarily supporting the 22nd Division and airborne units were as follows:

* This was the approximate number of aircraft.
The numbers varied dependent on combat losses and replacements.
57th Assault Hel. Co.820  
180th Assault Support   16
361st Aerial Weapons Co.12   
B Troop 7/17th Air Cavalry Squadron
(This unit was redesignated
H Troop 7/17th in April 1972)

Phase I - Battle for the Fire Support Bases

Map Overlay

During the latter part of March the FSBs on "Rocket Ridge" had received probing attacks and attacks by fire (ABF) from a mixed caliber of weapons. [5] The intensity of the attacks increased until the first major assault took place on the 4th of April. This early morning attack against FSB D (see Map B) 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 antiaircraft weapons were positioned around the FSB inorder to prevent aerial resupply or fire support. However, helicopter gunships (AH1G) were dispatched (by LTC Charles Bagnal, the Commanding Officer of the 52nd Combat Aviation Battalion) to provide fire support. These aircraft, along with artillery and airforce TACAIR, were able to deliver effective fire against the concentrated and vulnerable NVA infantry mass. Although the enemy penetrated the defenses of the compound, the position held, and the attack was beaten back with heavy losses to the attacking 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 he would continue to smash himself against these small strong points indefinitely. This was very much to the advantage of the defenders in that enemy losses expended against this "hedgehog" type defense would not be available for the main assault on the city of Kontum. I believe it is important to understand the role these small bases played during this battle. Though the allies had tremendous quantities of fire available, it could not be employed effectively against the enemy mass because it was dispersed and well hidden. The problem, therefore, was how to get the enemy to concentrate his mass in such a way that it would be vulnerable to concentrated fire. By locating the FSBS on terrain which dominated the area, it became necessary for the enemy to eliminate them inorder to insure freedom of movement in the area. Thus, these small bases became the focal point of enemy activity because they occupied "key" terrain (i.e., terrain which gave the side occupying it an advantage). These small bases were relatively autonomous and were not dependent on overland lines of communication. Though they appeared isolated, they were not because their lines of communications were through the air. The helicopters operating in and out of these small bases linked them both physically and psychologically with other units. Even though there were periods during which helicopters were very restricted because of enemy fire, there was a belief extant among the defenders that eventually the "choppers" would be back. They did not perceive their situation as hopeless.

A point which must be emphasized is that these FSBs were almost totally dependent on outside fire support if they were to survive a large scale attack. This created a difficult situation for the NVA in that their estimates of the strength within the base were accurate;however, they could not know for sure how much fire would be committed to support that particular base. Thus, in terms of combat power, an accurate assessment of the ARVN mass could be made at the point of contact but the amount of fire that would be brought to bear was an unknown until it was actualized. It is my belief that the NVA consistently underestimated the amount of effective fire which could be actualized. (The Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968 is another example.)

Eventually, some of the FSBs were overrun. [6] It is interesting to note however, that even if one base were destroyed, the others continued to resist. There were numerous reports during this period that NVA armored vehicles were operating in the area. Helicopter crews reported sighting what appeared to be tank tracks in the valley on the west side of "Rocket Ridge;" however, the presence of tanks could not be confirmed.

The most glaring weakness in the overall 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. There were 155mm and 105mm howitzers located at the base as well as 4 M-41 tanks from the division's 14th Armored Cavalry Regiment. Located within the compound were a large number of support troops and approximately one 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.

The division headquarters located at Tan Canh had received sporadic artillery fire throughout the month of April. [7] However, the intensity of the attacks increased until they reached more than 1,000 rounds per day. On the 23rd of April there were clear signs that an attack on the base was imminent. Surface to surface wire guided missiles were used by NVA forces to destroy the ARVN tanks located within the compound and 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 1O6mm recoiless rifles was also destroyed. By the evening of the 23rd.the situation at Tan Canh was grave. The only remaining antitank defense rested primarily on light antitank weapons (LAW) and air support. The division command post had been reestablished 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 quite 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 the 23rd there were reports that enemy armor was approaching the Tan Canh area from the northwest. An Air Force C-13O Spectre gunship was called to the scene and with its onboard night vision equipment was able to detect a column of tanks on the road north of Tan Canh. The gunship engaged the tanks with a 1O5mm cannon and reported hitting three tanks. The column continued its advance toward Tan Canh. There were two bridges between the approaching tanks and the division headquarters; however, these bridges were being secured by Regional Force/Popular Force (RF/PF) troops who did not offer any significant resistance to the tanks nor did they destroy the bridges. When the tank column reached the town of Tan Canh some of them were engaged by tank hunter/killer teams from the 42nd Regiment. It was reported that two of the tanks had been destroyed by these teams using M-72 LAWs. However, the tanks continued their approach during the early morning hours of the 24th. Some of the tanks, about l0, split off from the main column and moved to positions north of the division compound in order to support the attack by fire. Large numbers of infantry were observed moving into positions around the compound. Some of these formations were taken under fire by the Air Force gunship and artillery. At about 0530 the tanks began their attack on the division headquarters. They approached in the early morning fog with their lights on and firing their machine guns at positions along the perimeter. The tanks which had taken up firing positions earlier supported the attack with direct fire from their main guns. The tanks were Soviet T-54 and Chinese produced versions of this tank, the T-59. Large infantry formations assaulted the compound from the north. One of the American advisors, Captain Ken Yonan, directed fire from a water tower located in the compound. Unfortunately there was a large number of ARVN support troops (about 600) located within the compound. At the sight of the approaching tanks many of these troops panicked and ran away from the attacking forces. The exodus of these troops over the wire on the southern side of the camp spread a general sense of hopelessness among the remaining defenders. By 0600, the situation was critical. Fog and low clouds precluded the effective employment of air support. The Senior U.S. advisor, 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 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 and directing the air support which was finally able to work as the weather improved. Some of the enemy tanks were engaged by U.S. advisors as they fought their way out of the compound; however, the LAWs did not appear to be effective against the tanks at close range. The last time Colonel Dat 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. [8]

Once outside of the compound, the U.S. advisors were picked up in a daring rescue by Mr. Vann in his light OH-58 l helicopter. [9] Mr. Vann and his pilot Captain John Todd made several trips in the rescue effort and ferried some of the advisors to the Dak To airstrip located about six kilometers to the west. [10] 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 which had been located west of Dak To II, at the Ben Het border camp, were ambushed by NVA infantry as they approached Dak To. All of the ARVN tanks in the relief column were destroyed by infantry weapons. Several ARVN tanks located at the Dak To airstrip were destroyed by NVA tanks which were themselves later destroyed by TAC air strikes. Several of the enemy tanks were engaged later in the morning bv helicopter gunships; however, even though the tanks were hit by rockets, 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.

The destruction of the 22nd Division Headquarters on the 24th of April was a shock to the entire II Corps Headquarters. The Division ceased being an effective fighting unit, and the only things which stood between the NVA and Kontum city were a few airborne units located on the highway, QL 14. The attack on Tan Canh was made by elements of the 2nd NVA Division. Reports of two separate regiments operating in the area subordinate to the B-3 Front brought the size of the enemy effort against Kontum to about three divisions. [11]

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 1O5mm 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 l4 and then, later, 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 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. 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 Thout was assigned the mission of defending Kontum. A gloom and pessimism bordering on panic infected U.S. and Vietnamese alike. The fate of Kontum rested on the speed and determination of the 23rd Division and especially, of its commander, Colonel Ly Tong Ba.

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 men, along with the II Corps Commander, LTGEN Dzu, made the key decisions each day on the conduct of the defense.

Another very significant event took place on 29 April. At about 1600 hours two UH-IB helicopters, mounting the airborne TOW antitank missile system, arrived at Camp Holloway, Pleiku. These aircraft soon made army aviation history and proved a concept that had only been in the testing stage. [12]

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 conducted reconnaissance missions north and northwest of the city. Enemy movement was detected, 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). It is important to note that the single air cavalry troop operating in Kontum province was the primary source of information. The cost, however, was high in both men and equipment.

Phase II - The Battle for the Border Camps

Map Overlay

On 5 May, the Ranger camp of Polei Kleng came under intense enemy artillery fire (see Map C). The rounds were impacting in a tight pattern within the perimeter. Enemy forces had closed in around the camp and were placing accurate small arms fire on the defensive positions. The defenders reported tanks approaching from the north. A forward air controller (FAC) working in the area also observed the tanks but lost sight of them when they moved into a wooded area. Elements from the air cavalry were called in to relocate the tanks. In addition, the airborne TOW aircraft had been called in to engage the tanks. It should be noted that these aircraft were the only ones in existence;and, therefore, great caution was exercised in employing them. For example, only one TOW aircraft went out at a time;and, then, they were escorted by a team of AH-1G gunships plus a UH-1 (commonly called a "slick") to act as a command and control aircraft. The airborne TOW aircraft used the call sign "Hawk's Claw." Shortly after the helicopters arrived in the area, a steady stream of F-4 attack aircraft began arriving over the target area.

The gunner on the TOW aircraft spotted two of the tanks, which appeared to be painted black. He acquired one of the tanks in his sight but elected not to fire when a helicopter from the cavalry troop flew into his field of vision. Subsequently, the targets were spotted several times, but the gunner was unable to acquire the targets early enough in his approach to engage them because of the thick jungle canopy in the area. TACAIR, both U.S. and Vietnamese, dropped bombs on the suspected target locations in an attempt to blow away the jungle cover so that "Hawk's Claw" could get a clear shot. F-4's and VNAF A1-E's struck the area; however, the tanks were not visible. Several secondary explosions and what appeared to be oil base fires indicated that the airstrikes may have destroyed at least one of the tanks. As the aircraft orbited the camp they were sporadically engaged by a 23mm antiaircraft gun as well as numerous 51 cal. machine guns and small arms fire. All aircraft were forced out of the area early in the evening due to weather. The ordeal by fire for the camp continued throughout the night. Intense artillery fire scored direct hits on the command bunker and other defensive positions in the compound. Many of these structures were damaged to the point that the defenders were forced to seek cover in individual foxholes. The enemy moved his assault troops to within l0O to 200 meters of the camp. Late in the afternoon of 6 May the decision was made by Mr. Vann and General Hill to pull out the two U.S. advisors. [13] This was a difficult decision in light of the fact that Polei Kleng was located on one of the main enemy avenues of approach into the city of Kontum. Many of the camp defenders had become casualties, and there was a shortage of supplies, especially water. It was decided to extract the two U.S. advisors in the evening when it was dark enough to afford some concealment for the light observation helicopter (LOH) from the cavalry troop that would make the extraction. Just at dusk the LOH flew into the camp through a hail of enemy fire and successfully extracted the U.S. advisors. It had been planned to replace the ARVN camp commander however, the VNAF pilot of the UH-1 carrying the new commander refused to fly into the camp.

Another dramatic event took place on the 6th of May. A FAC, flying in support of the Polei Kleng operation received a radio call from "Gladiator 715." This aircraft had been shot down on 24 April south of Dak To and it had been assumed that there were no survivors, as it was reported that the aircraft (UH-1H) had exploded on impact. The FAC established contact with a small group of survivors from the crash, and elements from the cavalry troop were dispatched to try and locate them. At first a trap was suspected because no one believed there could still be survivors from the crash. After locating the small party on the ground and insuring that they were in fact U.S. personnel, an LOH went in and picked up two survivors. They were accompanied by a group of ARVN soldiers and Montagnards who grabbed the aircraft when it landed and almost pulled it out of the air. Some of the aircraft in the area started receiving fire, so the U.S. personnel were the only ones recovered. These men told of three other badly wounded survivors located in the vicinity of the crash site. A "slick" (UH-1) from the cavalry landed in the reported location and recovered the three injured men. They reported that they had been helped by some ARVN troops who were in the area. It was also reported that a large number of these troops were wandering around in the hills south of Dak To, probably survivors from Tan Canh, Dak To, and the FSBs on Rocket Ridge. [14] A group of Montagnards had provided food and other assistance, to include an old PRC-25 radio. It was with this radio that Spec/4 Lea finally made contact with the FAC.

This was indeed a bright point in an otherwise dismal picture. Polei Kleng took several ground probes during the night. Enemy attacks by fire continued throughout the day on 7 May. Most of the camp was destroyed, and all the defenders were living underground.

It was reported that the camp commander and other key officers attempted to escape from the camp during the night by way of a tunnel; however, it had collapsed during the heavy shelling. The ARVN S-3 (operations officer) organized the defenders and generally took control of the situation. Mr. Vann spent a great deal of time flying over the besieged camp trying to offer assistance and encouragement to the defenders. On several occasions he attempted to have his counterpart, Gen Dzu, talk to the camp commander however, the camp commander was too shaken to talk to anyone.

Late in the afternoon of the 7th a very serious problem arose when one of the Montagnard battalions, the 71st, located at the Ben Het border camp, apparently mutinied. They shot one of their commanders and seized several Vietnamese officers as hostages. They threatened to shoot them all unless aircraft were made available the next day to transport them to Pleiku so that they could spend some time with their families. The dissident troops held a portion of the compound while the other battalion, still loyal, held the rest. Mr. Vann immediately flew out to the camp and worked out an agreement with the Montagnards and Vietnamese.

A plan was drawn up to airlift the mutinous battalion out of the camp the next day. This seemed to appease the mutinous troops; and, for the moment, the situation stabilized. During the night Ben Het came under intense attacks by fire, and large numbers of enemy troops were observed to the northwest of the camp.

On the 8th, the enemy continued to put heavy fire into both Ben Het and Polei Kleng. The situation at Polei Kleng improved somewhat when an ARVN captain, who spoke fairly good English, virtually assumed command of the situation. He was promoted to the rank of major by General Dzu and put in command. The most serious problem facing the defenders was their critical shortage of water. A plan was devised to air drop 3,000 pound loads of water into the camp before sunrise from CH-47 helicopters. Colonel John A. Todd A organized and led the mission, however, it was aborted due to poor weather in the vicinity of the camp.

The Commander at Polei Kleng estimated that 1,000 rounds of 130mm artillery had hit the camp during the night and early morning of 9 May. Reports vary on the size of the attacking force; however, it is estimated that it was regimental size and supported by an unknown number of tanks. The defenders fired a 106mm recoilless rifle at the tanks, but missed. Allegedly, small arms fire became too intense to even use the M-72 LAW. Approximately 350 defenders (including some dependents) moved out of the camp to the south, leaving an unknown number of wounded behind. At 1700 hours there were reports of tanks leaving the area to the west and that 180 of the defenders were 6 km west of Kontum city. As of 1800 hours, 250 of the camp's defenders had joined with friendly units. In response to the loss of Polei Kleng the ARVN airlifted a battalion from the 45th Regiment (23rd Division) into a blocking position 12 km west of Kontum city. The enemy antiaircraft fire was quite heavy in the vicinity of Polei Kleng, and a VNAF A1-E was shot down 3 km northwest of the camp.

In response to the reported tank attack at Polei Kleng, the Hawk's Claw package which consisted of one UH-1H C&C (Command and Control), one UH-1B TOW equipped aircraft and two AH-1G gunships for fire support was launched at about 0645 from Camp Holloway. After arriving on station and not being able to locate suitable targets, the package was diverted to Ben Het.

At Ben Het, the revolt of the previous day subsided, and all personnel within the camp turned their attention to the defense of their position. One of the Vietnamese held captive by the mutinous unit was released so that he could coordinate the defense.

On the morning of 9 May, Ben Het came under an intense combined arms assault. Prior to the attack the NVA sent dogs through the wire from the north to detonate the mines; the infantry followed. The fighting continued at close quarters with the positions on the eastern perimeter trading hands several times. Late in the afternoon a small enemy force still occupied several bunkers. The defenders stopped one tank at the main gate with an M-72 LAW. An estimated 10O enemy were killed in the immediate vicinity of the camp. Due to low clouds TACAIR was not able to work; however, our TOW ship was able to acquire and destroy the tanks easily.

During the early morning a decision was made to send in a slick from the 57th AHC to resupply the defenders with M- 72 LAW's. The aircraft was escorted by two AH-1G's from the 361st AWC. All of the aircraft received hits. The drop was successful; however, while escorting the slick out of the camp, one of the gunships received multiple hits and crashed several hundred meters southeast of the camp. The aircraft exploded shortly after impact. The front seat pilot was observed climbing out of the aircraft and falling down nearby. The aircraft commander, Captain Reeder, was observed running to the southwest into a wooded area. After numerous airstrikes, an LOH from the cavalry was able to locate and pick up the front seat pilot; however, Captain Reeder was not seen again. (It was learned later that he was a POW.) The other AH-1G also received several hits and the pilot, WO Allen, was shot through the chest. After the copilot/gunner, Captain Gamber, landed the aircraft on QL 14, east of Dak To, WO Allen was administered life saving first aid by Captain Roy Sudec who was flying the C&C aircraft for Hawk's Claw. After administering first aid Captain Sudec evacuated the wounded pilot to Pleiku.

The attack on Ben Het was successfully beaten off, with the enemy taking very heavy losses. The situation was relatively stable on 10 May; and, by 0900 hours 11 May, the defenders had eliminated the enemy inside the camp and secured the entire perimeter. During the fighting four bunkers and some of the perimeter wire were destroyed.

It can be assumed that the enemy considered these border camps important enough to expend so much of his strength on them. Although Polei Kleng was lost, the cost to the enemy in his attempts to take Ben Het and the time he consumed must be considered a big plus for the allies. Preparations for the defense of Kontum were proceeding at a rapid pace, but time was the critical factor. The question was whether the defense would be well-enough organized and prepared to survive the attack everyone knew was soon to come.

The battle for the border camps was significant to the defense of Kontum for a number of reasons. First, it delayed the main attack on the city. Secondly, the resources expended on these well-fortified camps would not be available to the enemy in his main effort. Third, and probably most important, was the fact that the successful defense of Ben Het was the first really positive action since the disaster at Tan Canh. The fact had been established that the enemy could be stopped. On the llth of May, the Vietnamese II Corps commander was replaced. LTGEN Ngo Dzu was replaced by MGEN Nguyen Van Toan. [15] General Dzu departed smiling and apparently quite happy, remarking that he had been fired but at least he had not lost any province capitols. General Toan made a favorable impression. He was reputed to be both a fighter and a lover. Mr. Vann had remarked that if you didn't do one you wouldn't do the other, and he had hopes that things would improve. The staff had not changed and was still very weak. Mr. Vann recommended strongly that General Toan use his personal influence to get some top notch people from Saigon. A matter of serious concern was that the briefings and other information presented to the Corps Commander bore no discernible resemblance to the actual facts. The daily staff update for the CG was known as the "fairy tale hour." This lack of factual information created obvious problems in determining what should be done.

Kontum airfield continued to receive daily attacks by rocket and artillery fire. A special note of praise should go to the courageous tower and Ground Control Approach (GCA) operators who continued to man their positions even when hardened veterans were ducking for cover. Though the defensive preparations were proceeding at a feverish pitch, it was essential to have the airfield open and operating. Most of the supplies were being delivered by Air Force C-130 cargo aircraft.

The decision had been made to laager the cavalry troop and the Hawk's Claw package at Kontum airfield. This presented some problems in that the airfield received sporadic ABFs throughout the day. It was believed however, that the high degree of risk was warranted. A great deal of wasted blade time was saved by having the aircraft on standby at the airfield. Several aircraft were damaged; but, fortunately, no one was killed.

On 12 May while conducting a visual reconnaissance, one of the cavalry LOH's, piloted by Lieutenant Smith, located a T-54 tank. Unfortunately, the tank fired his main gun at the aircraft along with his machine gun. Although the LOH was not hit by the large caliber round, the aircraft was shot down by small arms fire. Both crew members were successfully extracted but the aircraft was destroyed.

In response to the tank sighting the TOW package was launched. The Hawk's Claw had considerable difficulty acquiring the target because of the jungle canopy and camouflage. Several observers from the cavalry substantiated the report that three T-54 tanks were in the area. After several unsuccessful passes by the TOW ship two missiles were fired into bamboo-camouflaged clumps in the area where the tanks were hidden, with unknown results. TACAIR strikes were used in an attempt to blow away the camouflage. The camouflage was blown away from one tank, and it received a direct hit by a TOW missile. The tank erupted into flames and was still burning as of 1900 hours. Numerous attempts were made to hit the other tanks with TOW missiles, but they could not be acquired by the gunner due to the dense jungle and camouflage employed. The area appeared to be a tank park or assembly position and was nominated for an ARC light (B-52 strike) that night.

TACAIR was used against the enemy anywhere he was found. There were over 50 U.S. TACAIR sorties and 28 VNAF sorties in the Kontum area on the l2th of May. In addition there were 25 ARC light strikes. The approaches to Kontum city took on the appearance of the carpet bombing area for the breakout at St Lo. The resemblance stopped there, however, for the ARVN were not interested in breaking out, especially to the north.

The new Corps Commander, MGEN Toan spent the night of 11 May in Kontum city. He visited several positions and then met with the 23rd Division Commander and his staff. He told him there would be no retreat from Kontum city. [16] Early on the morning of the 12th, he conducted inspections of units and forward positions, and was highly critical of most prepared positions.

The 44th Regiment was scheduled to arrive in the city on the night of the 12th. The 44th was reported to be one of the best ARVN regiments in the 23rd Division, and everyone was anxious to get it into position before the main attack. Although most officials were publically voicing confidence that the city would be held, these were dark days; and most harbored grave doubts as to the ARVN's ability to hold the city. Most of the GVN officials had evacuated the city, and population control was becoming a serious problem. Chinooks (CH-47s) from the 180th ASHC were doing a marvelous job of carrying in much needed supplies. Often the aircraft were forced to orbit until the shelling slowed enough for them to get into one of the landing zones. The chinooks were taking civilian refugees and wounded out of the city. The civilian population was in a state of near panic, and many of them would rush the aircraft in a desperate attempt to get out. Throughout the battle, the problem of refugee control was continual. Often it was necessary for armed police to fire their weapons into the air to control the mobs.

During this period the city of Kontum was beginning to fill up with several hundred ARVN deserters. These men were probably from units of the 22nd Division who had deserted in the confusion of battle. ARVN authorities were reluctant to round these men up and return them to their units. In order to force the ARVN authorities to take action, a false report was released that NVA soldiers were in the city masquerading as ARVN soldiers in uniform. This had the desired effect. During the afternoon of the 13th, the great tank hunt continued. The LOH pilots of the cavalry troops continued their perilous work of hovering around suspected tank locations trying to get a visual fix on them. The significance of the role played by the air cavalry cannot be over-empha- sized. They were the most important source of hard, timely intelligence, and the methods they used to gather it were extremely hazardous to say the least. This fact is attested to by the heavy losses they suffered in men and material. (See Table II, helicopter vulnerability. Also see Map D for locations of aircraft shot down and destroyed.)


aThese vulnerability data apply only to those units from the 17th Combat Aviation Group which actually conducted operations within the battle area -- Kontum Province.

bThough the Easter Offensive officially began on 30 March, there was a significant increase of activity in Kontum Province throughout the month of March.

cAircraft listed here were destroyed on the ground and not recovered. Some of the aircraft listed as hit were actually shot down but were later recovered. Some of these aircraft had sustained major damage. Aircraft listed as destroyed are also listed as hit.

Map D
overlay Map

An armored personnel carrier (APC) was located by the cavalry, and Hawk's Claw was launched to engage the target. The APC was successfully engaged and was set ablaze. One of the scout aircraft spotted a tank; however, due to the camouflage and jungle canopy, a steep approach angle was necessary in order for the Hawk's Claw to acquire the target. The angle was excessive, and the pilot nearly exceeded the safe flight envelope of the aircraft. He had great difficulty in pulling out of his dive, and the missile overshot the target.

Phase III - The Battle for Kontum City

Map Overlay

On the morning of 14 May, the Battle of Kontum city began. (See Map E.) The enemy fired numerous 122mm rockets and artillery rounds into the city. At approximately 0530 hours, five tanks and an estimated two battalions of infantry attacked from the northwest. One of the tanks broke through the perimeter and attempted to crush a bunker. This tank was put out of action by an ARVN soldier using an M-72 LAW. Hawk's Claw had been launched from Camp Holloway and was on station over the battle area by 0650. The sky was overcast which prevented TACAIR from providing close air support. At the time the Hawk's Claw aircraft arrived on station two tanks were observed withdrawing to the northwest. One of them had just entered a ford across a small stream, and the other one was immediately behind it. Hawk's Claw first engaged the tank in the stream. This tank was hit by the first missile, and the second tank was hit moments later by the second missile. Both tanks burst into flames and exploded. The entire engagement took about five minutes. A VNAF FAC directed accurate artillery fire on the attacking enemy troops, and they started to withdraw under this intense fire. The attack was over by 0900 hours. The burning tank hulks were a welcome sight for both the U.S. advisors and the ARVN troops.

The enemy continued his rocket artillery attack on Kontum city and the airfield throughout the day. One of the POL blivots containing JP-4 fuel at the airfield was set ablaze; however, it was extinguished before it completely destroyed the POL facility. The ground attack resumed at 1700 when friendly elements were reported in heavy contact on the northern perimeter. This attack was beaten off before nightfall. Thus ended the first day of attacks on the city itself. The defenses held and the outstanding performance of the Hawk's Claw had a very positive effect on everyone. Mr. Vann was over the battle area most of the day in his OH-58 helicopter directing the defensive effort. Due to the intensity and accuracy of enemy fire directed at the airfield, the decision was made to have the helicopter stand by at Camp Holloway instead of Kontum.

On the 15th there were numerous reports of contacts with enemy forces of unknown size north of the city, but no major attack developed. Kontum continued to receive enemy rocket and artillery fire. The shelling was a daily occurrence and the people of Kontum learned to adjust to it.

Hawk's Claw was laagered at the Kontum airfield again on the 15th. They launched several times in response to reports from the air cavalry. One of the scouts reported sighting a tank; however, when the TOW aircraft got in the area, the only thing observed was a vehicle variously reported as an APC, half-track and 2 1/2 ton truck. At any rate, a missile was fired at it and scored a direct hit, totally destroying the vehicle.

At about 2000 hours six tanks were reported 2 km north of Kontum city. Hawk's Claw, which had returned to Holloway for the night, was scrambled to Kontum. The enemy tanks moved into firing positions just beyond the perimeter and began firing directly into friendly positions. An armed Air Force C-130 was on station and engaged the tanks with 40mm cannon fire without success. Flares were dropped to provide illumination for Hawk's Claw. Unfortunately, the gunner had difficulty acquiring any of the tanks in his sighting system. One missile was fired at a suspected tank location; however, there was no indication that the tank had been hit. After unsuccessfully attempting to acquire a target, the Hawk's Claw returned to Holloway. The Air Force gunship remained on station providing illumination and fire support for most of the night. Although the enemy tanks were firing on friendly positions, they never advanced any closer; and, after several hours, they pulled back out of the area.

The Hawk's Claw destroyed numerous targets northwest of Kontum city on the 16th. Most of them were abandoned ARVN trucks and APC's. All of the items of equipment were considered usable. The targets were out of the range of friendly artillery and not considered suitable for TACAIR.

Kontum airfield received sporadic rocket and artillery fire on l7 May. One of the rockets impacted in close proximity to two Cobra gunships wounding one crew member and damaging both aircraft. Later in the day, an exploding rocket set off a stack of ammunition just as an Air Force C-130 was unloading another ammunition pallet nearby. The pilot of the C-130 immediately applied full power in an attempt to make a take-off. Unfortunately, the ramp was still down on the aircraft and when the pilot tried to rotate for take-off the ramp would drag on the runway, slowing down the aircraft. As the aircraft ran off the end of the runway, the right wing struck a brick building sheering the wing and rupturing the fuel tank. The fuel immediately ignited engulfing the aircraft in flames as it cartwheeled for several hundred yards. Only two survivors were pulled from the wreckage.

The ammunition continued to explode on the airfield for the rest of the day hurling 105 mm artillery rounds all over the area. Eventually the entire ammunition dump was destroyed. One of the shells landed near a POL blivet and set the JP-4 ablaze. The exploding ammunition dump eventually cost the allies over 3,000 105 mm artillery rounds, 25,000 gallons of POL, one C-l30, and seven Air Force personnel who were the crew for the C-130.

For the next several days defensive preparations continued as the enemy continued firing artillery and rockets into the city. There were numerous reports of enemy contacts along the perimeter. At night the flashes from enemy machine guns and recoilless rifles could be observed in close proximity to the friendly positions. These enemy targets were engaged by TACAIR and gunships.

Efforts were made on the night of the 17th and early morning of the 18th to clean up the airfield. By 1030 hours the airfield was open to rotary wing aircraft but not ready for fixed wing traffic.

Hawk's Claw successfully engaged and destroyed a tank and 23 mm antiaircraft weapon northwest of the city on the afternoon of the 18th.

During the early morning of the 19th, the 44th Regiment came under ground attack along the northern perimeter. The attack, which was supported by 105/155 mm artillery fire lasted until about 0330 hours, when the enemy withdrew. Gunships from Camp Holloway and Air Force gunships provided fire support for the 23rd Division. Some of the enemy troops managed to infiltrate behind elements of the 44th Regiment, however, these pockets were eliminated by 0730 hours.

The 23rd Division launched a reconnaissance in force to the north of Kontum city on the morning of the 19th. At 1100 hours the 23rd Recon Company air-assaulted, using VNAF helicopters into a landing zone (LZ) 8 km north of the city in the vicinity of a suspected artillery position. The assault went well and elements of 1/45th moved into blocking positions south of the LZ. The plan was to have the recon company move south from the LZ and catch any enemy troops between themselves and 1/45th. Enemy forces caught between the 23rd Recon Company and 1/45th, chose to attack 1/45th in their blocking position. The position held; however, reaction forces refused to conduct counter attacks.

There was a cautious note of optimism beginning to appear as it became evident that ARVN forces would stand and fight under sustained enemy pressure.

During the night of 19 May, enemy forces apparently tunneled up to the perimeter of the 53rd Regiment area on the northeast side of the city. The enemy drove elements of the 53rd out of their positions and occupied some of the friendly bunkers. The 53rd conducted counterattacks supported by TACAIR, gunships, artillery, and 9 ARVN M-41 tanks. A problem arose when the tank commanders refused to advance. General Toan and Colonel Ba rushed to the scene and, through various means, managed to convince the tank commanders that it would be best for them if they advanced. By later afternoon the positions were recaptured.

Kontum city and the airfield received the usual ABF's throughout the day. A VNAF C-123 was hit by an enemy rocket while it was parked on the ramp. The fuel cell was ignited, and the aircraft burned to the ground. The crew were able to get out of the aircraft without injury.

Reports from the air cavalry troop indicated the enemy was reinforcing his units by infiltrating troops into the area. The buildup was concentrated north and northeast of the city. B-52 ARC light strikes were scheduled into these areas on a daily basis. Bomb damage assessments (BDAs) conducted by air cavalry units indicated that the enemy bunkers and fighting positions were being destroyed. Although there were no clear indications that large numbers of enemy troops were being killed, it was believed the ARC light strikes were hurting the enemy. Later events proved this belief to be correct.

On 21 May the enemy launched a major attack against the northern perimeter. The friendly units were deployed generally in an arc to the north of the city running from west to east; they were: 3/44, 4/44, 4/45, and 2/53rd. The forward edge of the battle area (FEBA) generally followed the arc; however, along QL 14, the FEBA extended up the highway to the northwest to form a finger. At 0500 hours friendly units received a heavy ABF of mixed caliber rounds, followed by a two-pronged ground attack. The enemy was initially Successful in cutting QL 14 at the base of the finger and in driving a wedge between 4/45th and 2/53rd. Friendly elements conducted counterattacks throughout the day supported by artillery, TAC air, and tanks. 3/44th was successful in driving the enemy out and restoring the FEBA trace at the base of the finger. Two battalions attacked up QL 14 to the north, one on either side of the road, in order to reduce the penetration which had occurred between 4/45th and 2/53rd. The counterattack was supported by eight tanks. One tank was hit and sustained moderate damage. The counterattack was successful in ejecting the enemy and restoring the FEBA. During the action Mr. Vann was overhead monitoring the situation. He appeared to be pleased with the outcome and stated that Colonel Ba's presence in the battle area had a very positive effect on the troops and was responsible for the successful outcome. It is believed that the enemy attacked with a regimental size force. The 406th sapper battalion was identified as the unit that cut QL 14.

There was evidence that the enemy was continuing his build up northwest of the city. It was the cavalry troop commander's evaluation that the main enemy attack would come from that area in the next few days. This proved to be a very accurate prediction.

Due to the heavy ABFs on Kontum airfield during the day, Air Force C-130s were operating at night only. Early in the morning of 22 May the airfield received approximately five 122 mm rockets. A C-13O blew a tire while landing at about 0115 hours. This closed the field due to the fact that the Air Force would not allow more than one aircraft on the field at a time. Throughout the early morning the airfield continued to take enemy rocket and artillery fire. The C-130 that had the blown tire was hit by a piece of shrapnel causing a fuel leak. The spilled fuel was ignited by another round. The fire burned for some time in close proximity to the aircraft; however, there were no attempts to put out the fire. After awhile, the flames spread under the wing and set it on fire. At about 1030 hours Colonel John A. Todd landed near the burning aircraft and he and his crew put the fire out with buckets of sand. Then the Air Force crew was extracted by Colonel Todd.

Map Overlay

There were indications that the Arc light strikes had a significant impact on the combat effectiveness of the 320th NVA Division. The 4/53rd Infantry found 70 bodies just 2 km northwest of Kontum city. In addition, they recovered numerous small arms and crew served-weapons. Later in the morning the 2/53rd found 28 more bodies 1 1/2 km north of the city. Since 1 January, there had been 820 Arc light strikes in Kontum Province alone. In the previous week there had been 84 such strikes. It was becoming obvious that the heavy bombing was taking a toll on the enemy forces. (See Map F which shows the location of these strikes around the city during the period 15-31 May, 1972.)

The 23rd and 24th of May were relatively quiet. It appeared to be the "calm before the storm." There were the usual ABFB against the city and the airfield. Elements of the 53rd Regiment made contact with an enemy force of unknown size, and the killed 25 and captured two mortars. The FOB pad, which was an old Special Forces camp located about 3 km south of the city on QL 14, came under enemy artillery fire. This camp was being utilized as an alternate rearm and refuel point for helicopters operating in Kontum. The 1/44th and 2/44th conducted a combat assault using seven VNAF units and two gunships about four km north of their perimeter. They met light resistance as they moved back towards friendly positions.

On 25 May enemy activity increased significantly in Kontum. Enemy ABFs on the city continued throughout the day. The caliber of weapons varied from 60 mm mortars to 155 mm artillery. There were reports that two NVA Sapper Battalions had infiltrated the southeastern part of the city wearing ARVN uniforms. RF units were in heavy contact within the southeast quadrant of the city. The 4/44th killed 16 enemy and captured one. The POW stated his battalion (6th Bn, lst Regiment, 2nd NVA division) was in Kontum city. The 23rd Division artillery was neutralized by the intense enemy artillery and rocket fire. Most of the artillery pieces were operational, but the crews refused to leave the safety of their bunkers in order to fire the weapons. Mr. Vann closed the airfield and directed that all of the air controllers be evacuated; this was done by 1730 hours.

The air cavalry conducted extensive reconnaissance northwest of Kontum city. Numerous small arms and supply caches were found in the vicinity of Rocket Ridge and the adjacent valley. It appeared that the area north of Polei Kleng was being used as a storage and staging area. There were numerous sightings of small groups of people throughout the area. The road that had stopped west of the ridge now extended over it to the east. There were indications of heavy usage by wheeled and tracked vehicles.

The long awaited main attack hit the northeast quadrant of the city early in the morning of 26 May. The enemy conducted an intense artillery preparation beginning at about 0230 hours and lasting until about 0430 hours. The preparation was followed by a massive combined arms attack spearheaded by 10-12 tanks. The enemy penetrated the perimeter and got in behind the 1/53rd and 3/53rd Infantry Battalions. The 44th Regiment was also heavily engaged. Enemy tanks and infantry penetrated to within several hundred meters of the runway at the airfield. In addition, enemy units that had occupied positions in the southeast part of the city had been reinforced during the night. Efforts to conduct a counterattack to eject the NVA were unsuccessful.

In response to the enemy attack, Hawk's Claw was launched from Camp Holloway at about 0615. The "turkey shoot" began at 0645 when the first tank of the day was destroyed by a TOW missile. This was the optimum situation for the airborne TOW. The weather was fairly good and the tanks were exposed in the attack during daylight hours. Before the morning was over, the Hawk's Claw aircraft had destroyed: nine tanks, two machine guns, one truck, and one bunker. This effectively stopped the momentum of the attack. During the remainder of the day the battle raged on with opposing forces locked in close combat within the city. By the end of the day the enemy controlled the eastern part of the city. TACAIR, artillery, and gunships supported the ARVN effort to stop the enemy.

The 27th was the second day of major enemy attacks on Kontum city. The enemy continued his attacks by fire and reinforced his forces within the city. Pressure was applied by enemy units to the northern portion of the perimeter. Enemy artillery fire was impacting with great accuracy in the vicinity of the 44th Regiment Command Post. Early in the morning of the 27th, the enemy made another major infantry attack from the northeast.

Once again, Hawk's Claw was scrambled from Camp Holloway to meet the threat. Two T-54 tanks were destroyed as soon as the Claw arrived in the area. However, dense smoke and dust clouds obscured the battle area, which prevented Hawk's Claw from acquiring any more targets. [17] The Senior Advisor for the 44th Regiment confirmed that two tanks were killed by the TOW missiles plus two T-54's were knocked out by M-72 LAW's 400 meters north of his command post. [18] The helicopter resupply effort continued throughout the battle. The main logistical burden during this period was carried by CH-47s belonging to the 180th Assault Support Helicopter Company (ASHC). Even though there were enemy snipers in close proximity to the Landing Zone and enemy artillery rounds impacting nearby, the Chinooks continued their essential work of hauling ammunition and food to Kontum. The only area that was secure enough to use was the soccer field located in the southwest part of the city. A serious problem that plagued the logistical effort throughout the battle was the lack of control of refugees in the LZ. The CH-47s were taking as many civilians out of the city as possible; however, often in their panic to escape, the refugees would mob the aircraft. On several occasions controllers were threatened by unruly mobs. This problem continued off and on throughout the period of intense enemy action but subsided as the situation stabilized.

Late in the afternoon of the 27th a VNAF A1-E was shot down 2 km southwest of the city. The pilot parachuted safely and was picked up by a helicopter operating in the area. (Note: In late April the "Air Boss" concept was put into effect by BGEN Hill. The purpose of the "Air Boss" was to serve as an airborne C&C to control all aviation assets within the battle area. It was necessary to have this aircraft airborne most of the time, and it proved to be an effective technique for controlling the large number of aircraft operating in the area.)

During this intense period of combat there was considerable concern that ARVN units were not successfully launching counterattacks. The biggest fear was that the longer the enemy stayed in the city, the more difficult it would be to dig them out.

An interesting event took place in the Kontum Pass where ARVN forces had been trying, without success, to open QL I4 between Kontum and Pleiku. Friendly units were bogged down by strong enemy forces occupying well-constructed bunkers and fighting positions. Colonel Tuong, II Corps Deputy for Operations, offered one third of his month's pay (he said about 10,000 piasters) to anyone in the unit he was with who would knock out a 51 cal. AA weapon that had been firing at aircraft that came into the area. His offer was accepted by one soldier who got into position, covered by his comrades, and threw a grenade into the cave from which the gun was firing. The soldier observed a 57mm recoilless rifle nearby and knocked this out with a grenade also. Both weapons were brought back to Colonel Tuong, but the gunner of the 51 cal. MG had to be cut loose from the weapon since he was chained to it. The enemy soldier was identified as being from the 40th Artillery Regiment, normally part of the 304th Division, but now apparently supporting the 95th B Regiment.

The operation to open QL 14 through the Kontum Pass dragged on for weeks. The enemy offered stiff resistance, and the ARVN forces were unable to dislodge them until the first week of July.

On the 28th of May the enemy continued the early morning attacks; however, they were not so strong as the previous ones and were easily beaten off. Enemy ABFs continued throughout the day with the majority of the rounds landing in the vicinity of the 44th Regiment. The attacks were lighter than they had been for the previous three days. Although scattered contacts continued throughout the day, a major enemy assault never materialized. Hawk's Claw was launched at 0935 to engage an enemy 51 ca. machine gun position mounted on top of a water tower in the north central part of town. The position was attacked at 1010 hours. Five missiles were fired in an attempt to knock out the gun and destroy the water tower. The gun was destroyed, and the water tower was damaged to the point where it was leaning badly to one side. Another 51 cal. machine gun position located at the base of the tower was knocked out by 105 mm artillery fire.

The situation within Kontum city remained critical. The enemy still occupied the eastern half of the city plus some small penetrations in the northwest. During the night of 28 May friendly forces were pulled back closer to the center of the city so that ARC light strikes could be brought in closer.

The situation in Kontum remained about the same on 29 May. Enemy attacks by fire tapered off during the day. Although the ARVN were still not able to launch an effective counterg attack, there were indications that the enemy was no longer able to reinforce his elements. VNAF airstrikes in the southeast quadrant of the city appeared to have a good effect. The enemy had dug in and constructed fighting positions and bunkers throughout the area which made movement and aircraft operations extremely hazardous. Two slicks received intensive small arms fire while attempting to land at the 23rd Division Cp. During the afternoon reinforcements were sent to Kontum by CH-47. These troops, about 400 of them, were from the 47th Regiment.

Mr. Vann and General Toan were becoming more optimistic at this point. There were indications that the enemy had been badly hurt. POW's stated that enemy commanders at all levels had been directed to personally lead attacks to insure their success. Mr. Vann and General Toan directed that an all-out effort be made by psyops personnel to try to get enemy troops to surrender. These efforts, for the most part, were unsuccessful. [19]

The logistical problem was relieved somewhat as Air Force C-130's using radar vectors started dropping bundles of supplies by parachute. This proved very effective and continued throughout the remainder of the battle.

Early in the morning of 30 May the 44th Regiment CP and 23rd Division CP received an intense ABF; however, it was of short duration. Enemy elements within the city attacked units of the 44th Regiment. The enemy, however, was not able to make any significant gains. At about 0700 hours a large ammo dump located north of the airfield was set on fire and exploded. Two wounded NVA troops were captured early in the morning near the 44th Regiment Cp. There was an attempt to exploit these POW's for psyops purposes; however, the operation was not successful. Late in the day elements of the 44th Regiment made some progress in clearing the northeast section of the city.

The weather turned poor and started to adversely affect air operations. However, there was a note of optimism, and the entire picture was looking a little brighter.

In the afternoon at about 1330 hours, President Thieu visited the 23rd Division Cp. He promoted Colonel Ba to the rank of BGEN. [20]

Some progress was made on the 31st of May when elements of the 44th Regiment and RF/PF units continued attacks against enemy-held positions within the city. The fighting in the northeast was difficult, and friendly forces suffered many casualties. The enemy, although not considered strong in numbers, occupied well-constructed bunkers. The difficult business of rooting them out fell on the ARVN infantry troops. The task was very costly, and it must be mentioned that the ARVN soldiers demonstrated a great deal of courage and persistence in this hazardous work.

The situation in Kontum continued to improve on 1 June. The enemy penetration in the southeast quadrant had virtually been eliminated, and there were indications that the enemy was withdrawing to the northeast. The 23rd Division reported that they had seized control of the airfield.

For the next several days the friendly forces conducted clearing operations within the city. The southeast quadrant was cleared first; and, then, all forces were directed to sweep the northeast quadrant. Hard, bitter fighting ensued with heavy losses resulting for both sides. ARVN M-41 tanks often fired pointblank into buildings occupied by the enemy. Throughout the period the enemy conducted sporadic ABF's. Several minor attacks on the northern perimeter were easily repulsed. It was believed that these attacks were to support enemy units attempting to withdraw from the city.

On one occasion as the enemy was withdrawing from the city, he ran into one of his own units. A fire fight ensued and ARVN artillery supported both sides.

As ARVN units continued clearing operations, large numbers of enemy weapons were captured. Stiff resistance was encountered in the northeast quadrant, but it eventually was cleared out.

The business of cleaning up the battlefield was made more difficult by the fact that the enemy had booby trapped many of the dead ARVN soldiers. As time progressed this problem became more serious as the bodies rapidly decomposed in the hot sun.

By the 7th of June it began to appear that another enemy attack on the city was unlikely, and optimism was felt by everyone. On the 8th of June, Air Force C-130s began landing again at the airfield during the night.

The 9th of June was a most significant day. On that day the 23rd Division Commander declared the city secured. Another event took place on the 9th of June that was felt by everyone. That was the death of the II Corps Senior Advisor, Mr. John Paul Vann. After a farewell party held in honor of BGEN Hill, who was departing the next day, Mr. Vann got into his OH-58 helicopter along with his pilot, Lieutenant Doughtie, and a passenger, Captain Robertson. They took off from II Corps Headquarters at about 2100 hours. Mr. Vann had insisted on going to Kontum, because he wanted to spend the night with the 23rd Division. For the previous 30 days he had been up to Kontum at least once a day, and he didn't want to break his record. He took some fresh fruit and other treats that were left over from the farewell party. He had intended these for the men in Kontum so that they could share in the festivities that had taken place earlier.

Apparently Mr. Vann elected to low-level up QL 14 because the weather was poor. There were thunderstorms in the area and low scuddy clouds laying in and around the Kontum Pass. Mr. Vann called the 23rd Division CP shortly after take-off estimating 15 minutes from Kontum. That was the last anyone heard from him. An ARVN unit located in the Kontum Pass reported observing a helicopter crash. A search effort was launched as aircraft from 17th CAG scrambled from Camp Holloway and an ARVN unit was dispatched to the suspected crash site. Within an hour the wreckage was located in some trees several hundred meters east of QL 14. The three bodies were found by ARVN soldiers, and Mr. Vann's body was carried on LTC Jack Anderson's helicopter. The other bodies were recovered later.

For the purposes of this paper that concludes my discussion of the Battle of Kontum as an historical event. As stated earlier, it is my intention to use this battle to illustrate some of the concepts of combat power presented in the previous chapter. with that in mind I will briefly outline some of the key points.

B-52 strikes
TAC air
PGMs - airborne TOW Missiles, smart bombs
Small arms
PGMs - Sagger Missiles
Small arms
(As defined by opponent)
ARVN soldiers and equipment
U.S. soldiers and equipment
Vietnamese civilians
NVA soldiers and equipment
Trucks and tanks
Trucks and tanks
2 Divisions plus2 Divisions plus
Infantry soldiers in maneuver battalionsInfantry soldiersin maneuver battalions
StaticMomentum of the attack

The point of contact was limited primarily to Kontum Province and was bounded in time between 31 March, 1972, and about the 9th of June, 1972. It is apparent from this brief discussion of the battle that the fire used against the NVA was not only immense in volume, but it was also very effective. Herein, in my opinion, is the key to the allies' success. During the many years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, huge quantities of fire had been applied against an illusive and, oftentimes, well-protected enemy mass. In order for fire to be effective in its manifest form, it must be applied against a concentrated, vulnerable mass. To find and fix an opponent mass is not a guarantee that the mass will be vulnerable to fire. In fact, American "search and destroy" operations often located and fixed an enemy mass. However, the mass was usually well-protected by prepared positions dug deep into the ground. During the Battle of Kontum, the enemy mass was exposed and vulnerable once it moved from the cover of its staging areas. The targeting of this mass depended a great deal on the information provided by the air cavalry. This fact should not be forgotten. [21] Large areas could be observed in a short space of time using the helicopter. As a result, targeting information was usually current enough to insure that the fire applied would indeed be effective fire. Another key point that must be made is the important role the ARVN mass played in fixing the NVA mass. If the ARVN positions had not held, then the NVA would not have been concentrated long enough for the fire to be effective. In this regard, it is crucial that we fully understand the vital role played by the small U.S. mass in the form of advisors and the total dependence of the ARVN mass on the actualization of effective fire. The U.S. advisors not only provided technical assistance, such as directing air strikes, but also provided the strong moral support of the U.S. commitment by their physical presence. The importance of the presence of even a small part of the U.S. mass should not be overlooked.

The introduction of PGMs to the battle greatly increased the effectiveness of fire for both the allies and the NVA. The NVA were able to effectively destroy point targets at Tan Canh using the Soviet wire guided Sagger missiles. Furthermore, the airborne TOW missile system demonstrated the vulnerability of an armor mass to PGMs.

The use of armor as part of both the NVA and ARVN masses bears special consideration in light of the dominant role it plays in the mass of modern mechanized armies. As stated earlier, the tank is the base element of most modern armies and certainly of the NATO and Warsaw Pact forces in Europe. In Vietnam, however, although it initially threw the ARVN off balance, it was quickly relegated to a minor role. Heavy tank losses suffered by the NVA did not stop their infantry from continuing the attacks. Though tanks were used in rather large numbers by the NVA (and at great expense), their sense of balance, physical and psychological, was not grounded in them. when the ARVN infantry gained confidence in their ability to destroy the tanks, they ceased being a major threat.

The mobility provided through the use of the helicopter cannot be overemphasized. The surface isolation imposed by the NVA on the fire bases and the city of Kontum failed to have the desired effect, primarily because the air lines of communication remained open. Even though, by concentrating large numbers of antiaircraft weapons around the various bases, air traffic was interdicted for periods of time, the interdiction was usually temporary. The very fact of concentrating these weapons as part of their mass made them vulnerable to heavy fire in the form of B-52 strikes.

One may argue that the part played by tanks in this battle was relatively minor when compared to that of helicopters. Though this is admittedly a unique situation and is not necessarily transferable to other areas of conflict, the impact the helicopter has had on the relative mobility of mass is worth further examination and is the subject of the next chapter.

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1. "Battles Seen as Big Test," Pacific Stars and Stripes, 3 April, 1972, p. 1:1. [ Return ]

2. "30,000 'Invaders' Hurl Back S. Viets," Pacific Stars and Stripes, 3 April, l972, p. 1:4. [ Return ]

3. For an excellent overview of the Easter Offensive, see A.p. Serong, "The 1972 Easter Offensive," Southeast Asia Perspectives, Vol. 10, Summer 1974. See also Kinnard, The War Managers. [ Return ]

4. Most of the data used in this account of the battle were acquired by the author while serving as an army aviator stationed at Camp Holloway, Pleiku, South Vietnam. As a participant observer many insights were gained which, admittedly, have colored my perceptions of the events. Though much of the detail has been eliminated, I believe this account of the Battle of Kontum will serve as a useful illustration of combat power as actualized force. In addition to my own notes of the period, numerous articles published in the Pacific Stars and Stripes newspaper have been cited. These articles provide background information and may prove useful to an interested reader. [ Return ]

5. "ARVN Kills 87 After Red Attack," Pacific Stars and Stripes, 3 April, 1972, p. 6:3. [ Return ]

6. See Matt Franjola, "Reds Paid High Price for Bases, Advisor Says," Pacific Stars and Stripes, 17 April, 1972, p. 7:3. Also "North Viets Overrun Base, Cut Highways in Highlands," Pacific Stars and Stripes, 24 April, 1972, p. 1:1. [ Return ]

7. For a newspaper account of this period see Peter Arnett, "Highlands Staggering Under NVA Assault," Pacific Stars and Stripes, 26 April, 1972, p. 6:1. Also "More Bases Fall - Viets Pull Back Under Red Push," Pacific Stars and Stripes, 26 April, 1972, p. 1:4. [ Return ]

8. "A likable, intelligent officer, Colonel Dat nonetheless had the fatal, once common conviction, already so sharply disproved by the fighting elsewhere, that North Vietnamese would always beat South Vietnamese." Joseph Alsop, "Dangerous Defeat in Central Highlands, " Pacific Stars and Stripes, 6 May, 1972, p. 10:1. [ Return ]

9. For a vivid account of this rescue see "Helo's Angels Save 9 Advisors," Pacific Stars and Stripes, 26 April, 1972, p. 1:1. [ Return ]

10. Some of the advisors were picked up later by a UH-1 from the 57th AHC. This aircraft was shot down and it was believed all aboard were killed. See "Shot Down in Highlands - 10 Yanks Reported Killed in Helo," Pacific Stars and Stripes, 27 April, 1972, p. 6:1. In fact, most survived the crash and were rescued some 13 days later. The advisors included: Major Julius Warmoth, Captain Kellar, 1st Lieutenant Jones, Sergeant Ward, and Spec. Zollen-Kopher. [ Return ]

11. Some have asserted that only two divisions were involved in the attack. See Serong, "The 1972 Easter Offensive," p. 31. [ Return ]

12. See S.L. Christine, "1st Combat Aerial TOW Team: Helicopter vs. Armor," United States Army Aviation Digest, Vol. 20, No. 2, February 1974, p. 2-4. [ Return ]

13. Some of the U.S. advisors did not want to leave their units. These men played a vital role by calling in airstrikes and demonstrating American resolve by their presence. See "Advisors Protest Orders to Quiet Menaced Bases," Pacific Stars and Stripes, 28 April, l972, p. 6:1. [ Return ]

14. Some of these troops were put to work by the NVA. For example see Jacques Leslie, "Viet Sgt. Escapes from Red After Two Weeks of Driving Bus," Pacific Stars and Stripes, 27 May, l972, p. 7:1. [ Return ]

15. See "Another Top General Fired by Thieu," Pacific Stars and Stripes, 12 May, 1972, p. 1:1. [ Return ]

16. "President Nguyen Van Thieu, in a memorable address, named certain towns - Quang Tri and An Loc - to be held at all costs. Later phases of the operation, called that order into question, in that it restricted the flexibility of the field commanders. But it now appears that Thieu knew his commanders better than did the critics, and that he was prepared to accept limitations on flexibility for the sake of an absolute statement of aims that permitted no temporizing." (Emphasis added.) Serong, "The 1972 Easter Offensive," p. 28. [ Return ]

17. It is important to mention that all of the TOW missile attacks were made from a relatively high altitude. The average altitude for the aircraft was about 2200 feet above ground level. Even with this excellent position for observing ground targets, smoke and dust from artillery fire tended to obscure the targets making it difficult to engage them. [ Return ]

18. A crucial point to be aware of is the confidence gained by the ARVN infantry in their antitank role. For example see "Stopping 'em in their Tracks - S. Viets Learn to Kill Tanks," Pacific Stars and Stripes, 1 June, 1972, p. 7:3. Ken Schultz, With Electronic Missile - Teacher Shows How - Blasts Red Tank," Pacific Stars and Stripes, June, 1972, p. 6:2. [ Return ]

19. For example see "100 Reds Offer to Surrender," Pacific Stars and Stripes, 2 June, 1972, p. 6:4. [ Return ]

20. For a brief account of this event see "Thieu Looks on as Viet Tanks Tackle Reds Inside Kontum," Pacific Stars and Stripes, 1 June, 1972, p. 1:2. [ Return ]

21. For a discussion of cavalry operations during the battle see John MGEN G. Hill, Jr., "Colonel Patterson's Letter," United States Army Aviation Digest, Vol. 22, No. 3, March 1976, p. 3. [ Return ]