IN  1971

Colonel Hoang Tich Thong

I. Background landscape

In1968, The National Front For the Liberation of the South (NFL), and the NorthVietnamese Army (NVA), launched several attacks on various South Vietnamesecities, including Hue and the national capital Saigon. At the beginning of theTet Offensive, they managed to infiltrate and occupy a few regions. The ARVN hadunderestimated the strength of the enemy, its drawback being an inefficientintelligence agency, and a naive expectation that the Communists would honor the36 hour cease-fire scheduled at midnight on New Year’s Eve (Tet).

Ittook the ARVN several days to successfully push the VC and the NVA back. Inregaining ground, ARVN inflicted heavy casualties to the invaders.

Thevictory sent the Communists staggering, and the situation in South Vietnambecame calmer from the 17th Parallel downwards. From the highlands to Ca Mau,there was remarkably little fighting.

Ourmilitary operations in all four Corps gradually pushed the enemy’s main forceincluding the NVA out of South Vietnam, forcing them to withdraw across theborders to Cambodia and Laos into hiding. Vietcong regional units and guerillaslosing support from the Main Force became inefficient over time.

Meanwhilethe pro-communist Cambodian government of Prince Sihanouk was overthrown byGeneral Lon Nol. The III and II Corps of the ARVN, already gaining victory inall battlefields, had permission of the new and friendly Cambodian Government tocross the border to destroy enemy hideouts and supply bases. These operationscaused heavy casualties and logistic losses to the enemy. They had to retreatNorthwards close to the Laotian-Cambodian border. As a result, the security ofSouth Vietnam was consolidated. The morale of the ARVN troops soared, and allmen in arms firmly believed in their invincibility.

Afterthe “Vietnamization” of the war, the ARVN was well-equipped withsophisticated weapons from the US. North Vietnam on the other hand was fullysupplied by the USSR and Red China.

TheARVN continued to thrust into Laotian territories supposedly occupied by PathetLao, but in reality was where the NVA had their strongholds and logisticalbases. It was via this region that their troops and supplies were sent to SouthVietnam. If the ARVN could attack and occupy these targets the strategic Ho ChiMinh Trail would be disrupted, effectively cutting off regional VC forces southof Parallel 17 from supports and supplies.

II.The area in which operation of Lamson 719 was carried out

Thearea of operation extended from Khe Sanh, (the Coroc highlands) situated eightmiles east of the Laotian border, to the city of Tchepone, 42 km inside Laos.The axial centre of the operation was Route 9, starting from Dong Ha north ofQuang Tri province to Tchepone. Parallel to Route 9 was a small river. Thickjungles of thorny giant bamboos, flanked both sides of the Route which was150-500m above sea level. Mt Coroc blocked longitudinally from the North to theSouth, leaving only a pass for Route 9 to pierce – the site of the borderguard-posts.

Movementsof troops were very difficult and limited in such topography. Everythingdepended on Route 9. The high mountains on each side were ideal places in whichto launch ambushes. Troops had to move over undulating terrain, covered withthick bamboo forests that greatly blocked observation and hindered maneuvers. Itwas very difficult for the offensive force to assault in such terrain even if itwere fully supported by armor, air force and artillery. Another disadvantage wasthat the NVA knew the area like the back of their hands, whereas the ARVN wasunfamiliar with the region. It was a psychological disadvantage for ARVN troopsto have to fight outside their country in completely unknown jungle and mountainterrain.

OperationLam Son 719 started in March 1971, when the weather was excellent in both Laosand Vietnam. Our advancement was made easier by the fact that the freezingunremitting drizzle that usually plaques the Lunar New Year had come to an end.There was no mud or slippery surfaces that might have made transportationdifficult. Air support and supplies were not hampered in the least by theweather.

Thelocal population of mountain aborigines (the Thuong people) was small. As soonas the Operation started, they moved further inland, to avoid the dangers. Thusfire, artillery and air support did not face limitations. In the area ofoperation, there were only two forces and odds, and they were the ARVN and theNVA.

III.Thecondition of the enemy in the area of operation

BeforeOperation Lamson 719, intelligence sources had reported the permanent presenceof NVA logistical units, teaming with activity along Ho Chi Minh Trail,especially around the Ban Dong district. This area was situated in the vicinityof Route 9. Apart from these, a division of regular NVA patrolled the area.Another division was camped north of it, nearer to the North Vietnam border. Itwas always on standby ready for deployment. In the area of Tchepone, no evidenceof enemy deployment or defensive preparation had been detected. The city ofTchepone had been severely destroyed during the war between The National Laosand Pathet Laos, and was further reduced to rumbles by American bombardmentsaimed at reducing enemy activities on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Their tactics wereflexible, changing as necessary to suit the environment, rather than conform toset positions. However, the information gathered was still very indefinite.

IV.Conditions in the first tactical zone and I Corps

Inthe month preceding Operation Lam Son 719, the situation in the First TacticalZone and all over South Vietnam was relatively calm. ARVN units had been eitherin rest or retraining.

Itwas decided by President Nguyen Van Thieu and the Joint General Staff toallocate the Operation in Laos to I Corps, which was in range of the chosentargets. Apart from I Corps units, National General Reserve Forces were sent bythe Joint General Staff to the First Tactical Zone.

ICorps was a big Army unit composed of 1st and 2nd Divisions which wereexperienced in warfare and were well supported by the Rangers, Cavalry,Artillery, Air force and Signalmen. It was re-known for defeating the enemy inthe past. The 1st Infantry Division Headquarters located at Mang Ca (inside theImperial Citadel) was charged with all military activities south of the 17thparallel to north of the Hai Van Pass. From its headquarters located in Chu Lai(Quang Tín Province) the 2nd ARVN Infantry Division looked after the securityfrom south of the Hai Van Pass to Binh De Pass, in the district of Duc Pho (QuangNgai Province).

TheOperation had been prepared one to two months, before the Lunar New Year. Theplan of preparation was divided into two phases.

V. Preparation 1st Phase

TheOperation’s Command (I Corps) was to move from Da Nang to Dong Ha base, whereAmerican units with their supporting groups had previously occupied. It’s jobwas to build up logistics to receive reinforcement units coming from Saigon.Also, it was to fool Ha Noi with false operations…and finally it had to set upI Corps Headquarters in Khe Sanh.

AfterLunar New Year in February of 1971, the 147th Marine Brigade commanded byColonel Hoang Tich Thong was sent from Saigon to reinforce I Corps. It wascomposed of the 2nd, 4th, and 5th Marine Battalion, the reconnaissance Company Aand an 105mm Artillery battalion. The 2nd Battalion was commanded by Major Phuc,the 4th by Major Kinh, the 5th by Lieutenant Colonel Nha, the ArtilleryBattalion by Major Dat, and the Reconnaissance Company A by Captain Hien.

TheBrigade was airlifted by C-130 Hercules aircrafts from Tan Son Nhut airport toDong Ha airfield in two consecutive days. On arrival, the Brigade temporarilycamped to the southeast of the Dong Ha base to await orders for the attack. Atthat time, the weather was still cold and drizzling. The sky was heavilyovercast – limiting activities.

Theatmosphere of preparing for war was an animated one. Busy traffic dominated thescene day and night. Aircrafts landed and took off continuously. It was probablythe busiest preparation period ever since the war in the South broke out. Todeceive the NVA intelligence agents, the 147th Marine Brigade was ordered toexercise amphibious maneuvers across Dong Ha river with M2 landing Boats. Lateron, one marine Battalion moved to Cua Viet as if they were going to board shipsand sail northwards pass the 17th Parallel to assault North Vietnam. The nextfew days we would see whether the NVA had fallen for the ruse or not. Shortlyafter the offensive began, they confronted us violently, as if they weren’t inthe least surprise.

2ndPhase

A fewdays before the Operation began, the 147th Marine Brigade and other ARVN unitswere transported by military trucks to Khe Sanh after having stayed overnight atBa Long Valley. The climate and weather in Khe Sanh and around the Laotianborder was relatively good. The scene of amassing troops was very vibrant. Thesituation in the environs was quiet. There were no enemy reactions – not asingle shell fell on our positions. the site had been a battleground between theNVA and a US Marine Regiment aided by an ARVN Ranger Battalion. Ha Noi hadboasted that it was a second Dien Bien Phu, but they were finally routed thanksto the high morale and strong firepower of the American troops.

A daybefore the fixed date, a meeting presided by Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lamand his american advisor was organized at Ham Nghi base, where I CorpsHeadquarters was situated. Commanders present included:

1.Brigadier General Pham Van Phu, commander of the 1st ARVN Infantry Division withhis regiments’ commanding officers.

2.Lieutenant General Du Quoc Dong, commander of the ARVN Airborne Division withthe commanders of his three brigades: Colonel Le Quang Luong of the 1st AirborneBrigade, Colonel Nguyen Quoc Lich of the 2nd Airborne Brigade, and ColonelNguyen Van Tho, of the 3rd Airborne Brigade.

3.Colonel Hiep commander of the 1st Ranger Group

4.Colonel Nguyen Trong Luat commander of the 1st ARVN Armor Brigade.

TheAmerican advisers were also present, as was an officer representing the AmericanAir Force. The Operation was allowed to gave US air support e.g. in firepowerand for transportation. Soon after “Vietnamization” came into effect in1970, the Americans started to withdraw out of South Vietnam, and no longer tookpart in direct warfare. They only contributed Airpower to strike importanttargets such as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or to support the ARVN. Because of thatreason, US ground combat troops were barred from entering Cambodia and Laosduring the South Vietnamese incursions. Only air support persisted. Americanadvisers to the campaign units were ordered not to accompany them into battle.

Duringthis meeting, and as in other pre-operation conferences, the MilitaryIntelligence of I Corps gave the final briefing. It was highly suspicious thataerial photographs and other intelligence sources had not yielded evidence ofany enemy activities. It was as if the enemy were playing possum. No one wasunderestimating the enemy at all, as the media of the day had suggested.Everybody recognized the importance of the operation – its success was vital inparalyzing all enemy activities in the South. Thus it was unlikely that theenemy would take this lying down. They would resist for sure. However, theoutcome of the battle really depended on the quality of their defensive line andmilitary capacity. The positive point was that the ARVN units had all been wellprepared for the battle spiritually and physically. Yet no other operation hadcaused so much mulling and anxiety. It was very different from the incursionsinto Cambodia, during which everybody – from the highest officers to the commonsoldier was fired up and un-anxious. The troops in that campaign had advancedlike a flood.

VI. Progress of the operation

Accordingto plan President Thieu went on radio on the 8th of February, 1971 to broadcastthe goals of the operation. As Commander in Chief, he gave the order to attack.The Operation was named Lam Son 719 because in took place in the year ’71,around the region of Route 9, which connected Khe Sanh (VN) to Tchepone City(South Laos).

1. The I Corps task were…

a) Toinvade and occupy the part of the Laotian land around Route 9, stretching fromthe Laotian border to Tchepone.

b) Toannihilate enemy forces stationed in the area.
c) To destroy all fuel and logistical dumps
d) To control all infiltration along the Ho Chi Minh Trail from the North to theSouth.

2.The concept of operation…

ICorps was to deploy its own units, reinforcement units, and logistical unitsinto the area, either by foot or airlifts. The plan was composed of two phases.

Phase1

Troopswere to be  lifted by helicopters to higher terrains along Route 9:

a) upto Ban Dong,
b) midway between the Laotian border,
c) at Tchepone.

Atthese sites, they were to:

a)establish fire support bases (FSB)
b) Seek and destroy the enemy.
c) Station Armor, Logistical units, Combat Engineers, and the 1st AirborneBrigade.
d) Fully use airpower, firepower, including B52’s to bombard suspected targets.

Phase2

Airliftedtroops and ground troops were to take over Tchepone…

a) Toestablish fire support bases
b) to seek and destroy the enemy
c) to provide tight security to Route 9, the main supply arterial for allparticipating units.

Timingwas dependant on the situation.

3.The plan of execution

Phase1

1.The 1st ARVN Infantry Division was to send a regiment by helicopter to vantagepoint No. 150, 5km south of Route 9. Here they were to:

a)establish fire support bases
b) Extend activities westwards providing mutual support for the column on Route9.
c) airlift another regiment to other vantage points south east of Vantage Point150, to establish FSB and block enemy advances from the South.

2.The Airborne Division’s Headquarters was to be west of Ham Nghi Base, on Route9, 5km from the Laotian border. Their task was:

a) Tosend an Armor brigade to occupy the T junction at Ban Dong on Route 9, and thenestablish FSB.
b) To search the area and assist other ARVN units.
c) To be prepared for orders to advance.

Oneairborne battalion and the Brigade Headquarters was to be airlifted to a highspot 10 km north of Ban Dong. Another airborne battalion was to operate from aFSB in the southeast area to protect the north flank of the 1st Airborne Brigadeand 1st Armor Brigade along Route 9.

Thesetwo units constituted the main task force of the assaulting axis.

3.The 3rd Airborne Brigade and the 1st Ranger Group was to operate in the North.

The1st Ranger Group was to move to high spots situated along the Laotian border (PhuLoc), north of Route 9. They were to:

a)airlift two Ranger battalions to two high spots north east of the 3rd AirborneBrigade
b) search the occupied area
c) move when ordered.

4.The 1st Armor Brigade was to cross the Laotian Border (which was the line ofdeparture) with the 1st Airborne Brigade to occupy Ban Dong. The two brigadeswere to co-operate in defending FSB A Luoi. Besides operating in theirdesignated area, they were to assist the units in the North, and be ready tomove if necessary.

5.Artillery Staff Officers of I Corps were to:

a)Co-ordinate and direct artillery units to establish a net of supportingartillery power to cover the operation area.
b) Re-supply artillery ammunitions efficiently.

6. ICorps Reserves:

The147th Marine Brigade, the 2nd Airborne Division and the 2nd Regiment/1stInfantry Division were to await orders to deploy. The 147th Brigade also had thetask of patrolling I Corps headquarters.

Phase2

Aftererecting FSB’s and achieving total control of the operation area, the 2nd phaseinvolved seizing control of Tchepone. A tactical plan was to remain unchanged:

The1st Airborne Brigade and 1st Armor brigade were to continue down Route 9, whilsttwo Airborne battalions were to protect the north flank of the main prong.

The2nd Airborne Brigade was to move by helicopter to assault Tchepone (A Shau).

The1st Regiment/1st Infantry Division was to move in a southwesterly direction fromRoute 9.

The1st Ranger Group was to continue operating in the area to protect the northflank, and the area northeast to Route 9.

TheReserves consisting of the 147th Marine Battalion, the 2nd Regiment/ 1stInfantry Division were to still remain on standby.

SupportingFire was to come from:

a)the US Air Force, including B52’s based in Northern Thailand
b) the VNAF
c) I Corps’ own Artillery
d) the Divisions’ owns Artillery
e) the Brigade’s own Artillery.

Aspreviously planned, at 8.00 am Feb 8 1971, the President gave the order toattack on TV and via Saigon radio. The 1st Airborne Brigade and the 1st ArmorBrigade invaded Ban Dong (target A Luoi of Phase 1) close to Route 9. The 3rdAirborne Brigade was rapidly moved to Base 30 and 31 by helicopter.

The1st Regiment/1st Infantry Division were airlifted to vantage points south ofRoute 9.

The3rd Regiment/1st Infantry Division was airlifted to vantages points to the northof Route 9.

Alltroop movements were accomplished without meeting any resistance. The unitspromptly established fire bases with the help of Combat Engineers. Aerialreconnaissance and intelligence activities noticed enemy movements north of theoperation area. Aircraft sorties started bombarding suspected targets. Some dayslater, the two Ranger positions received continuous shelling from long range130mm artillery shelling. The vanguard units of the NVA had approached thedefense lines of the 39th Rangers Battalion and skirmishes broke out. The RangerArtillery stationed at the Laotian border (Phu Loc) provided supporting fire dayand night. Days later, under enemy artillery barrage. the NVA regulars assaultedthe 39th Ranger Battalion. The 21st Ranger Battalion positioned in the south wasalso harassed, making it impossible to receive reinforcements.

TheNVA’s thrust was assisted by tanks. The fighting became fiercer and fiercer, andboth side suffered heavy casualties. The 39th Ranger Battalion bravely battledon, despite being low on ammunition. They resisted for one day and one night,before the position was lost. The unit had to retreat toward the 21st RangerBattalion’s position in the south. Having successfully occupied the hill, theNVA moved west and south-west to threaten the 21st Ranger Battalion and the 3rdAirborne Brigade. The 3rd Airborne Brigade was well-supported by Airpower(including B52’s). Despite heavy losses, the NVA continued to storm FBS 31 inthe face of long and short range heavy artillery. Although forewarned of enemyintentions, the 3rd Airborne Division failed to establish an effective defense,and shared the same fate of the 39th Ranger Battalion. It had fought withcourage and bravado, but succumbed to the massive suicidal onslaught of the NVA.The Brigade Staff, including Colonel Tho was captured. Some evaded and ransouthwards toward FSB 30, which was occupied by the 2nd Airborne Battalion. Evenas they assaulted the 3rd Airborne Brigade Headquarters, the NVA pounded away atFSB 30 and A Luoi Base where the 1st Airborne Brigade and the 1st Armor Brigadewere positioned. These two units were unable to give assistance to the 3rdAirborne Brigade at FSB 31, although help was sought of them.

Theterrain also made it extremely difficult for track vehicles to be sent to help.Whilst the NVA utilized heavy T54 tanks, the 1st Armor Brigade only had asquadron of M41 tanks, the other vehicles being APC (Armored PersonnelCarriers). Compounding the problem was the fact that the ARVN did not know theterrain well, and had misjudged the tactics of the enemy tanks. After thisfiasco, I Corps hurriedly sent another tank squadron to reinforce the areaaround Route 9.

Theenemy anti-aircraft activities were very intense, making life very difficult toprovide air supplies, air support and medevac. Wounded soldiers were stranded atthe base for days. Helicopters could not land, so ammunitions had to be droppedby parachutes. As a result the morale of the ARVN plummeted. While supportingground troops, an American aircraft was gunned down. All air supportsimmediately ceased in order to rescue the landed aircraft. The NVA benefitedfrom this, and their attacks met with more success.

AfterFSB 31 fell to the enemy, they drove on towards FSB 30. This position was quitehigh and the terrain was very different to that at FSB 31. Only the northeastside was suitable for an assault. The other three sides had near vertical drops.Thanks to the formidable topography, and to good defenses, the 2nd AirborneBattalion was able to repulse the enemy. Faced with such resistance and highmorale., the NVA abandoned the kamikaze-like tactics, and chose instead to poundthe position with mortar rounds, whilst they awaited for an opportunity. Towardsthe end of the week, supplies were running low, bunkers were nearly allflattened, and practically all artillery guns were destroyed. The 2nd AirborneBattalion had to abandon the base in the dead of night to retreat to the 1stAirborne Brigade’s area of responsibility at FSB A Luoi.

Themain arterial route from Ban Dong (A Luoi) to the Laotian Border (Lao Bao), onceso busy, was approached by the enemy, who erected posts to block supplies andevacuation of the wounded.

Afterhaving invaded two important northern bases on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the enemytemporarily stooped to regroup. Though they had the upper hand, they had alsosuffered a huge number of casualties. They only delivered shelling and sentforth small units to limit the ARVN from expanding into the surroundings. Theyalso concentrated on the shelling in the attempt to destroy the ARVN’s Armorunit before resuming their assault.

Meanwhile,pressured by the Ranger and Airborne units in the north, the NVA decided toharass the 3rd Infantry Regiment at FSB Delta (Vantage Point 150) in thesoutheast. Although assisted by US Air-support and friendly artillery, the 3rdInfantry Regiment struggled, and was forced to retreat to a safer place, fromwhich they were eventually airlifted back to Khe Sanh. Casualties and loss ofweapons were as heavy as the numbers suffered by units in the northern front.

Ofcourse with their tactics of using human waves, regardless of the toll on theirnumbers, the enemy also suffered terribly. Many were lost during the assaults,and many more were killed by ARVN guns, and air-support.

Underthe fierce fighting conditions, our embattled units were unable to provideassistance to each other, though the Airborne Division did send a battalion toreinforce FSB 31. The helicopters carrying paratroopers met with intensiveanti-aircraft fires and could not land. Several were shot down, causing the tollto rise even higher. I Corps’ reaction was limited to increasing tactical AirSorties. A few US aircrafts were hit during their round-the-clock bombardingmissions.

Thenumber of participating NVA units was far from low, as was first presumed. Farfrom the expected two, there were at least 4 to 5 Divisions, with Armor units,and two crack divisions – the 304 and 320 which had campaigned in Dien Bien Phuin 1954. During the rather quiet period, the I Corps headquarters summoned alllarge unit commanders to a meeting in Dong Ha to revise the operation plan.Brigadier General Bui The Lan, the Assistant Commandant and Chief of Staff ofthe VNMC, had received orders from the the Joint General Staff to move theentire Marine Division to reinforce I Corps. Lieutenant General Le Nguyen Khang,the Commandant of the VNMC did not attend the meeting. This hitch in themilitary hierarchy was potentially disruptive to the co-ordination of troops.The problem was that Lieutenant General Le Nguyen Khang actually outrankedCommander Hoang Xuan Lam, who was in charge of I Corps and the entire operation.The presence of the former, would have confused the troops, who would have beenunsure as to whom to take orders from.

Theforeign media’s field reporters were particularly biased against the SouthVietnamese, and were always ready to play up ARVN failures, and spread badpublicity. The media actually dwelt a detrimental role to the Operation ofLamson. The BBC Radio ruined the ARVN’s element of surprise by braodcasting thatTchepone had been invaded, when in reality, the ARVN had only achieved Phase 1i.e only half of the objective. Thus the NVA were forewarned of the possibilityof our invading Tchepone. this forced the ARVN to hastily carry through with theobjectives in an attempt to save face.

Atthe meeting, Colonel Tho, the Chief of Room 3 of the Joint General Staff wasalso present. Much debating took place, causing headaches for General Lam.

ICorps Headquarters proposed a plan to airlift the Marine Division to Tchepone.Airborne units, the 1st Infantry Regiment and the 1st Armor Brigade were tocontribute to the rear contingent. My unit, the 147th Marine Brigade, which hadbeen a reserve for I Corps, now became the spearhead of the offensive. The 258thMarine Brigade commanded by Colonel Nguyen Thanh Tri would also be airlifted tothe target. The 369th Marine Brigade commanded by Colonel Pham Van Chung were toserve as a reserve for the Division, located north of Ham Nghi Base (Khe Sanh).I had a strange feeling that the operation was to share the same fate as theAssassination attempt on Emperor Qin Shi Huang by the hero Kinh Kha. (In ancientChina, Kinh Kha, a courageous swordsman, had embarked on his assassinationattempt, knowing full well that the odds were against him. He narrowly missedthe Emperor, but despite being chopped to bits by the Emperor’s men, hecontinued in his endeavor, finally dying in the attempt). The analogy was apt,as a few days before, the North Vietnamese radio had boasted that Tchepone wasto be the second Dien Bien Phu. They were fully prepared for us. According to ICorps Intelligence sources, the enemy had already organized an Artillerynetwork, sowed several minefields, and a dense antiaircraft system. Assignedsuch a big task, and being responsible for thousands of Marines, I was seriouslydisconcerted by the fact that our target was so well known to the enemy. But atthe same time, I was proud of being assigned such and a difficult task.

Atthe time, the 147th Marine Brigade was formed by 3 Battalions commanded byofficers experienced in warfare, known for their courage. Though demoralizingnews came from the frontlines, they knew the honor of the Marines was at stake,and so were willing to fight to the end to live up to the expectation. Everyonereadied themselves to be airlifted to the battle ground. However, the plans werechanged at the last moment. The 1st Infantry Division became the spearheadinstead of the 147th Marine Brigade. The reason for the change was probablybecause the ARVN only had two national reserves; the Airborne and the Marines.The Airborne Division had recently suffered severely, so the Joint General Staffwas unwilling to place the only remaining reserve, i.e. the Marines in asituation that from the start seemed unfavorable.

Fromanother view point, the change of plan was reasonable because the 1st InfantryDivision was one of I Corps own units. Consistent with the new plan, the 1stInfantry Division would use one reinforced Infantry Regiment and airlift it tothe target. To the north of Route 9, a special task force made of Armor unitsand the 1st Airborne Brigade were to move as a rear column for the unit inTchepone.

TheHeadquarters of the 1st Infantry Regiment and another infantry battalion was tomove from Vantage Point 150 (FSB Delta) northwards to another FSB in order tomonitor its subordinate units moving south of Route 9, and to be ready toreinforce the units at Tchepone. The 147th Marine Brigade were to replace themat this position. It was to deploy its units east and west of the base toeradicate the enemy and to destroy the supply dumps hidden in the area ofresponsibility.

TheMarine Division, being composed of three Brigades, stationed its headquarterseast of Ham Nghi base.

The258th Marine Brigade was to be airlifted to Mt Coroc, situated at the Laotianborder south of Lao Bao.

MarineBattalions performing their military activities north of Mt Coroc were toprovide the 147th Brigade with support if necessary.

The369th Marine Brigade, stationed north of Ham Nghi base (Khe Sanh) was to be theDivision reserve.

Somedays later, two marine brigades were moved by helicopter to the planned areas.The 2nd Marine Battalion and the 4th Marine Battalion of the 147th MarineBrigade landed north, and north- east of Base Delta. The Brigade Headquartersand the 5th Marine Brigade and a mixed Artillery company with its two 155mm andfour 105mm Howitzers were stationed at FSB Delta. Only six Howitzer werepositioned there because the base had limited area. Moreover, the supply ofammunition was extremely difficult to receive, especially by the end of theoperation, when the NVA anti-aircraft activities was very intense. The landingof troops were achieved without much difficulty.

Meanwhilethe 2nd Infantry Regiment, the unit assigned to invade Tchepone was preparing tobe airlifted. At that stage, the invasion of Tchepone was no longer an optionfor the ARVN. After the world media had prematurely broadcasted the news that ICorps had invaded Tchepone, it became a matter of honor to achieve just that.Phase 2 had to be carried out, taking into account the change in circumstance.The Headquarters of the 1st Infantry Division ordered the 2nd Regiment to sendthe most able of its battalions by helicopter to Tchepone. The idea was to carryout activities in Tchepone for a short while, enough to prove that the ARVN hadindeed invaded the City as reported, and then retreat immediately by airlifts,as the enemy presence was too strong.

Theplan was executed. Artillery barrages and continuous aircraft bombardmentsensured a safe arrival for the 2nd Infantry Regiment at Tchepone. The enemy didnot react. Their silence was predictable – they were not so stupid as to placetheir units right at the site of the target. They had instead stationed welloutside the target to avoid the bombings prior to the ARVN’s landing, and onlyafter the ARVN arrived did they move in for the attack.

Theairlift had finished at daytime. But nothing happened until late in the eveningwhen the enemy artillery started concentrating their artillery on the positionsof the 2nd Infantry Regiment.

Butthe unit had withdrawn to a pick-up zone to be airlifted back to their bases inthe morning. When the NVA knew of this, they rushed their troops to the pick upzone, causing a lot of difficulty to the infantry men at the rear of theretreat. A number had to flee in the direction of the Airborne units. While theenemy was continuing to pressure the 2nd Infantry Regiment, their other unitsapplied the infantry and the artillery to attack the 1st Infantry Regiment, theAirborne and the Armor units south of Route 9.

Furthersouth, to the west and south west of Delta Base, the Marines were engaged infighting that had lasted for some days. The battle was savage. The shelling wasnon-stop. All our units from the north to the south of Route 9 were targeted bytheir intimidating artillery. There were huge losses. It was impossible toreceive supplies and medevac because of the intense anti-aircraft fire.Eventually, the Special Task Force (the Airborne and Armor) was ordered toretreat to Khe Sanh. This withdrawal was extremely difficult since the enemy hadclearly expected our intentions. They intensified their attack. Under suchpressure, the fighting spirit of the troops fell drastically, and the commandershad difficulty getting their orders fulfilled. Helicopters however, had greattrouble landing. Some panic  stricken soldiers struggled with theirbrothers in arms to gain a spot on the helicopters which managed to land. Againthis fact was grossly exaggerated by the foreign media, which never failed toharp on it whenever they had the chance.

Thenorthern column’s withdrawal by foot along the route from Ban dong to Lao Bao(on the Laos-Viet Border) could not avoid heavy casualties either. The twocolumns consisting of the Airborne/Armor and the 1st Infantry regiment didsucceed in retreating with minimal losses. That the 1st Infantry Regiment,however, lose one of its best officers – Lieutenant Colonel Le Huan, a battalioncommander. Once these two columns had left the battleground, the enemyconcentrated their forces to assault the 147th Marine Brigade around Delta base.The 2nd and the 4th battalion which had previously deployed further west of thebase, was forced slowly back towards its perimeter. The Brigade was wellsupported from Mt Coroc by the artillery of the 258th Marine Brigade, and alsoby air support. The B52’s were particularly effective and accurate in the closerange support.

Butthe enemy stubbornly stayed in their hideouts and bunkers, and so resisted ourattacks. The fighting was protracted, and was unfavorable to the Marines in thatsupplies and medevac was unattainable. The enemy artillery, including recoilless75mm guns were positioned in vantage points opposite to Delta Base, so they wereable to fire directly at the TOC bunker of the Brigade Headquarters. Theantennae was shot down, neighboring bunkers were destroyed, and our Howitzerswere damaged. In response, the Brigade gave the order to retreat south to blockthe apical line along which the enemy could approach us. The 4th MarineBattalion was to move north-east to protect the retreating route of the Brigadethat led eastwards towards the direction of the 258th Marine Brigade. TheBrigade Headquarters then requested I Corps permission to pull out from the baseto continue fighting in the surrounding areas, rather remain at base, only to beon the receiving end of the enemy artillery. However, the proposition was notapplicable, as the order to retreat was issued in the afternoon, and that verymorning, an unforeseen event occurred. A platoon of enemy sapper hadsuccessfully infiltrated through the defense line of the 5th Marine Battalion,and had managed to occupy one bunker located at the south entrance of the base.But they were stopped there and the 5th Battalion sent a company to dislodgethem. Many of the Reds were killed or wounded, and the rest surrendered. Oninterrogation, they revealed they belonged to Division 324 B, and that theirduty was to assault the 147th Marine Brigade. Body searches revealed a piece ofpaper reading: “We dedicate our lives to the annihilation of the CrazyBuffaloes”.

Theenemy artillery located west and southwest of the base continued to pound usdaily. The 2nd Marine Battalion was also targeted. In the north, the 4thBattalion received remarkably light shelling. In preparation for the retreat,the Brigade Headquarters sent Reconnaissance Company A, commanded by CaptainHien, to collect information about enemy positions so that a route could bechosen for that evening. Unfortunately, the company was overwhelmed by theenemy, and the Commander and many Marines were taken. With no reconnaissancereports, the brigade was forced to decide on the route that would lead them inthe direction of the 4th Marine Battalion, from which they could cross themountains to the east. The plan of retreat was as follows:

– The4th Marine Battalion was to open the route and lead the retreat.
– The 5th Marine Battalion was to follow with the Brigade in tow.
– The 2nd Marine Battalion was to make up the rear.

Allartillery pieces were to be left in an unusable condition: most were destroyed,the important parts of others were disarticulated and thrown away.

Deeplydistressing and regrettable was the fact that our dead could not be sent backhome, as the helicopters were unable to land. The wounded, however, were allcarried along by medics and friends. To make the retreat relatively safe, theBrigade requested B 52 intervention. According to the agreed plan, once the B52were to stop bombing, the Brigade would start pulling out of the base. Justbefore the scheduled time, the 2nd Marine Battalion reported having seenindistinct lights presumably from track vehicles to the south. At the fixedtime, twelve B52’s bombarded 1-2km south of the base, and east of the 4th MarineBattalion’s position. As soon as the bombardment stopped, the Brigadeimmediately abandoned the base. Barely 1 km away, the 4th Marine Battalion metan enemy mortar unit. Only one volley of fire was enough to repel them. Theretreat was exceedingly arduous … we had to cross hills and mountains coveredwith thick thorny bamboos in total darkness.

Meanwhilethe artillery of the 258th Marine Brigade located on Mt Coroc was persistentlyshelling at Base Delta and behind the 147th Marine Brigade to thwart the NVApursuit. They also included flares to illuminate the retreat path and to provideguidance in the darkness. The 258th Marine Brigade was sent forth to welcome the147th Brigade. The entire night was spent marching. Luckily, there were noengagements with enemy – the path being so rough, probably hindered theirpursuit. It was fortunate that after we left the base, the enemy was unsure ofour exact evolution. At noon the following day, the Brigade met the 3rd MarineBattalion. Immediately we requested the Marine Division Headquarters to medevacthe wounded to safe bases, then we all moved in the direction of the 258thBrigade. We had covered considerable distance when the enemy began the shelling.Fortunately, the aiming was poor. By dusk, we reached the gathering place closeto Mt Coroc, where we were to be airlifted to Khe Sanh in the morning. So the147th Brigade managed to reach safety after a fortnight in Laos.

Insummary, our casualties (including MIA) was less than 10%. Weapons wereretained, except for the six artillery pieces left behind. Two were 155mm andfour were 105mmm Howitzers. By all accounts, enemy losses were extremely highdue to the ferocious fighting, continuous shelling and B52 strikes. However, theexact count remains a mystery as we did not master the battlefield.

Whenthe Brigade started its withdrawal, a few Marines wanted to kill the POWs.However, I disagreed – so we left them unharmed in the bunkers. Whether or notthey managed to escape our artillery and bombings of the base afterwards isunknown.

Atthe Marine Division Headquarters, I was told that the 147th Marine Brigade wasthe last unit to leave Laos. The Ranger Group Headquarters stationed at Phu Loc(on the Laotian Border) north of Route 9, had retreated a short time before wedid. In the following days, the enemy occasionally fired artillery rounds overthe border from Laos, but there was no significant damage sustained at Ham NghiBase. Eventually, the Brigade was moved by military trucks to the district ofDong Ha. Thus, the operation of Lamson 719 ended.

VII.Assessment and comments

For aperiod of one month, the 147th Marine Battalion had participated in OperationLamson 719, which started at the beginning of February 1971. It has served as areserve for I Corps in Phase 1, then a direct fighting force in Phase 2. As theBrigade commander, I have the following comments to make:

1. Onthe topography

Theterrain was extremely different from that in Vietnam. Only some parts of Pleiku,Kontum in the Central Highlands vaguely resembled it.

Therewas only one route – the 9th, passing through the area of operation. Borderingon both sides were continuous mountain ranges. Such terrain was difficult forheavy armored vehicles which easily became targets for ambushes. Thick forestson the mountains and hills impeded troop movements, especially in the southwhich was covered with huge bamboos. It was in the south that the 1st InfantryRegiment and the Marine Brigade deployed. It was a disadvantage for theoffensive force, which could not evolve far and wide. Instead, movement waslimited to narrow trails. Observation was poor, and losing directions was a realhazard. Often, brothers in arms would mistake each other for the enemy at adistance, and would inadvertently shoot each other. Bombings and air power foundit difficult to avoid hitting friendly troops. Furthermore, the terrain hampereddelivery of supplies and evacuation of the wounded. Helicopters needed tofacilitate these two crucial things could only land with relative ease nearRoute 9. The strength of the troops was greatly taxed as they had to carry anadditional load of food and ammunition to make up for the lack of supplies. Allthese factors had a significant negative effect on the morale of the troops. Onthe other hand, the terrain was very familiar to the enemy, as they actuallylived and carried out military activities there. Their personal gear was light,contrasting greatly with our bulky loads. In summary, in planning an operation,it is crucial to take the terrain into account.

InCambodia, the terrain was much flatter and vision was rarely impeded. Thus theoperations across the Cambodia in 1970 were very successful – All units foughtefficiently and effectively, and many victories were came by. The weather wasalso favorable to both ground forces and aircrafts.

2. OnIntelligence Information

Beforeany operation, it is crucial to gather intelligence. G3 would outline theoperation plan, which would then be discussed by staff members. ultimately thedecision would be made by the commander. Accurate information, timing, andlocation are all important factors to consider, in order to keep the number oflosses low. In the past, there was a tendency to abuse the services of thenational reserves i.e. the Marines and the Airborne Division. They were oftenover-used … called upon for the most trivial of skirmishes to the mostferocious of battles. As a result, the divisions rarely had time to recoverbefore they were shunted to another operation. The strength and manpower of ofthe reserves were needlessly taxed. Often, these soldiers, who were crack combattroops fell victim to booby traps and mines during inappropriate assignments.

Istill recall the time the Marines were called upon to re-enforce the 21stInfantry Division, IV Corps, in Chuong Thien Province. For a couple of months,we did not meet a single V.C. but still required many medevacs because men wereblown up by the mines scattered over the area of operation. I sarcasticallyasked the commander of the 21st Infantry Division whether he thought the Marineswere good mine detectors. In fact, that was exactly what he wanted us to be.

Ingeneral, intelligence information was inaccurate or came too late, and manyoperations were doomed from the beginning. Sometimes, if the informationgathered was correct, the planning was poor.

Priorto Operation Lamson, G2 I Corps really did not have a really clear idea of whatwas going on. During briefings, information provided was vague, and orders givento the Divisions, Brigades, and Regiments lacked co-ordination and accuracy.Thus the units had to find out for themselves the true nature of things.

Beforethe Operation started, intelligence sources had estimated that there were onlyone or two active NVA divisions in the area. They failed to note that potentialreinforcements could have poured in from the Laotian-North Vietnamese border.

Whenthe battle broke out, there were at least 4-5 enemy divisions in addition totanks and a very strong display of anti-aircraft weapons. Information about themain target, Tchepone was poorly gathered. The planning of the attack was basedon what had been broadcasted by Hanoi Radio. The result was that our forces werecontinuously overwhelmed, surrounded, counter-attacked, by the enemy through outthe entire retreat from Tchepone to the Laotian border.

3. Onplanning

Lackof knowledge regarding enemy activities and unfamiliarity with the terrain ledto bad planning, that arrived at unsuitable requirements to in order to capturethe target. Even if there were only one or two enemy divisions present in thearea, the fighting force of I Corps was still too small – for an attacking forceto succeed, their numbers ought to be triple the size of the enemies. I Corpsforce was no where near achieving this advantageous ratio.

Accordingto the planning, our attacking force in Phase 1 was composed of :

a. Acolumn north of Route 9: – Two Airborne Brigades – One Armor Brigade with 2A.P.C. Battalions and 1 tank battalion. – Two Rangers Battalions

b. Acolumn south of Route 9: – 1st Infantry Regiment – 3rd Infantry Regiment

Inpractice there were only 4,5 battalions which deployed widely. The remainder hadto establish fire support bases to protect them and to patrol the surroundingareas. The establishment of FSB’s inadvertantly transformed their activepotential to a passive position. FSB’s became targets which were threatened andoverran by the enemy.

Thefire support bases were necessary to provide positions for the artillery.However, they were not effective because supply of ammunitions during theoperation was hampered. The terrain did not allow trucks to move. Air shipmentswere insufficient and costly, not to mention foiled by the anti-aircraftactivities. Supplies were very scarce.

Anotherset back was that the FSB’s were built on vantage spots, which did not havesufficient space to position the necessary amount of batteries needed to protectthe fighting units. A Marine or Airborne Brigade only received support from oneArtillery battalion only.

InOperation Lamson 719, the 147th Marine Brigade was actually assisted by four105mm and two 155mm Howitzers, but the artillery men had to ration ammunitions,even during fighting. So, it was clear that the Artillery could not carry outsupport during combat, nor could they carry out Harassment and Interdiction asscheduled. Because of this, fighting units had to rely upon air fire powerwhich, unlike artillery H & I, was dependent on the weather. Furthermore, itlacked the accuracy and continuity of the artillery shelling.

Anotherpoint worth mentioning, is that Americans support of our operations exposedVietnamese officers and soldiers to a new kind of fighting – which involvedplying maximal firepower prior to assaults. This rich man’s way of fightingrather spoilt them, so that when fire-support was lacking, they were reluctantto thrust forward. Thus, the fire support bases could not perform their assignedduties because of the above mentioned reasons.

Beingso reliant on FSB’s headquarters were unable to direct their units freely tokeep the enemy guessing. The only attacking force with any mobility and strongfirepower was the Armor Brigade. But it did not fare any better. Again, theterrain was against them, making it very difficult for tanks to help advancingcolumns. They too ended up like the infantry – caught up in protecting FSB’s,and eventually became targets of the enemy artillery.

Inphase 1, while the enemy was relentlessly driving towards FSB 31 where the 3rdAirborne Brigade was, I Corps’ reaction was very clumsy. They left the situationto develop on its own – to end in favor of the NVA. In short, the I Corps Staffhad relied too much on the air support to change the situation.

Inphase 2, the preparation time was so prolonged that the enemy had plenty of timeto regroup and move other units in to the battlefield.

Inthe preparatory briefing for phase 2, there were various opinions, not tomention lack of unanimity. The change of plans revealed the tactical andstrategically short-comings of Operation Lamson 719.

TheJoint General Staff and the I Corps did not attain their goal and in the processallowed the elite troops of the ARVN to suffer such remarkable losses that therepercussions of this was felt during the Easter Offensive 1972 and in the year1975.

Inphase 2, I Corps and the 1st Infantry Division were forced to send the 2ndInfantry Regiment to invade Tchepone because the media had broadcasted that theARVN was already there. Though the 2nd Infantry Regiment was secretly ordered towithdraw shortly after the invasion, everything did not go as smoothly asexpected. The retreat aiming at ending the operation was disorderly – poorlyco-ordinate. It was a case of every unit for themselves. There was oneexception, and that was at Base Delta, where the 147th Marine Brigade retreatedin a relatively well-organized and timely manner. Fire supports for the 147thBrigade was efficacious and continuous. One more day, and the brigade would havesuffered at the hands of the NVA.

OperationLam Son 719 was clumsily executed, consequently, the aim, namely to stop enemyactivities along the Ho Chi Minh Trail was not achieved. This failure led to theEaster Offensive in 1972 and the full scale invasion in 1975.

4.Keeping Secrets

Secrecyis a necessity for any operation. There were innumerable operations carried outunder the 1st and 2nd Republics, but their results were not particularlynotable, though sometimes facts were ameliorated for propaganda purposes, or toboost morale.

Meanwhile,the Communists grew larger and stronger. Remote country areas gradually fellinto their hands, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was extended to allow troops andsupplies to be transported to the South. These factors were the reasons why ourSearch and Destroy Tactic failed in the long term, though it had been soeffective. The Communists merely hid across the border or in far-reachingprovinces.

TheARVN was notoriously inept at keeping secrets. Often, Operations would belaunched only to find that the enemy had deserted the targets a few daysbeforehand. Assaulting deserted targets was a waste of time and lives, as mostwere rigged with booby traps and land mines. In addition such fruitlessoperation exhausted logistical supplies, leaving us susceptible to enemy attack.The enemy, by avoiding a head to head confrontation had the advantage ofsurprise, and good preparation time.

Secretswere usually revealed by individuals present at briefings – either by theirtalkative nature or greed for the tempting rewards offered by communist spies.Learning form harsh experiences, it was decided much later in the war, that onlycommanders of participating fighting units were to be present at briefings,which usually took place a short time before the operation was scheduled.Unfortunately, even if secrets were well-kept, operations still could fall apartif preparations were incomplete or if aspects of the plan were misunderstood.

RegardingLam Son 719, the organization took two or three months, during which every facetwas taken into account. These included plans to move I Corps Forward Staff fromDa Nang to Dong Ha, building supply warehouses in Dong Ha and Khe Sanh, buildingcommand bases for I Corps Staff, sending for reinforcements from Saigon. Withsuch activity, even civilians could tell something was up. Needless to say, theNVA, with its sophisticated spy system, easily guessed the purpose of theoperation. In an attempt to fool the enemy, I Corps came up with a rather banaland naive decoy. The 147th Marine Brigade had to perform some amphibiousmaneuvers as if they were planning to make a foray into North Vietnam.Naturally, the NVA did not bat an eye lid, and calmly watched developments atthe real target. They had plenty of time to move in more reinforcements from theNorth and survey the battle ground.

Itwould have been impossible to hide such a large operation when organizationinvolved so many people at so many levels. Furthermore, the protractedpreparation and the busy movement of troops in the area quickly revealed theintensions of the ARVN. In such a situation it should have boiled down tofinding a way to disorientate the enemy, and confuse their reaction somewhat.Instead briefing that took place days prior to the operation were unrestricted,and information more or less flowed straight into enemy ears.

Theplanned attacks to be backed by the fire support bases, was an index of theopeartion, enabling the NVA to analyze the situation and react accordingly.

Tocounter the effects of leaked information, I Corps should haved used a mobileadvancing column to move along Route 9, or should have airlifted troops tovantage points from where they could have storm targets, The drive should havebeen continuous, until the ARVN was master of Route 9, from Mt Coroc toTchepone. Only then should consolidation have taken place by means of “searchand destroy.”

Route9 ought to have been used as the main supply artery, FSB’s for artillery shouldonly have been established along Route 9. and fighting units should havedeployed within range of the supporting artillery. Tactical airpower should havebeen used to assist at close range as well as far away. Had the operation beencarried out in this way, mutual help could have been maintained throughout.

Furthermore, our numbers should have at least equalled the number of NVA regulars. Twocomplete Airborne and Infantry Divisions, an Armour Brigrade, and the RangerGroup 1 should have been accompanied by strong artillery support. A reserveshould have been ready to move in to reinforce as the situation required.

Thatway, movement, whether forwards or backwards, would have been easier, and theenemy would not have had the chance to cut the units into two.

5.Supplies and Medevacs

Suppliesand Medevac are the mainstays of any Operation. The larger the operation, thegreater the demand.

InOperation Lam Son 719, preparations were relatively adequate, but did not meetthe battlefield needs. In the planning, I Corps had absolutely relied upon theair force, namely helicopters from the Americans for support, supplies, medevac.Route 9 was used initially to accomplish these goals for the Special Task Force(The 1st Airborne Brigade and the 1st Armor Brigade). For such a large-scaleoperation, it was impossible for supplies and medevac to be accomplished byhelicopters alone, especially in the presence of enemy anti-aircraft firepower.The crude facts of the Operation demonstrated this.

Oncesupplies were hampered, the fighting spirit of soldiers was naturallyinfluenced. Lack of ammunition and guns caused the firepower to decrease.Shortage of food and water weakened the troops. The wounded died waiting formedevac.

Thusthe organization of logistics should be of primary concern.

6.Commanding and Staff Matters

Thekey to commanding effectively is to have a unified system of command and controlbetween commanders. This is much more effective than executing tasks separately.In Operation Lam Son 719, there was discordance at the top levels. LieutenantGeneral Hang Xuan Lam the overall commander was outranked by the MarineCommandant, Lieutenant General Le Nguyen Khang, who was his senior. LieutenantGeneral Khang instead of flying to Khe Sanh to help and advise the former,stayed in Saigon, and sent his Assistant Commandant, Colonel Bui The Lan to ICorps to command the Marine Division.

ThroughoutPhase 2, the Marine Division Staff and I Corps Staff had several disagreementsbetween them. And I Corps itself was not in perfect accord with the 1st InfantryDivision, and Airborne Division.

OperationLam Son 719 was the largest operation into Cambodia till then, though there hadbeen previous incursions organized by III Corps and IV Corps.

Thisoperation, which was reported around the world, required an experienced andtalented commander at higher levels to deal with the confrontation. It needs atruly experienced military man, not someone who made his way by supporting theright political factions. Lieutenant General Lam had never had experienced incommanding big battles and naturally encountered big problems when he was incharge of I Corps. He surrounded himself with cronies of the same background.During the operation, while with the 147th Brigade, I was frequently present atI Corps Staff meetings. I noted that the Staff were extremely indecisive inhandling the situation, and did not seem to grasp the details of the battlewell. I noticed that Colonel Nguyen Dinh Vinh aide to Lieutenant General Lam. Hehad been dismissed from his job as Secretary General of the Defense Ministry forpolitical reasons when Lieutenant General Nguyen Huu Co was Minister. Looking atthe Staff, we knew what would ensue. Rumor had it that Lieutenant General Lamhad returned to Dong Ha, as he was absent from the tactical operations center(TOC) for days. It was noteworthy that I Corps had no Executive Commander forOperations.

Insummary, with such a Corps Commander and Staff, the Operation was doomed fromthe start. The operation ended hastily after more than a month of fighting,leaving on the battlefields heavy human and material losses on both sides. Thesituation in Laos remained unchanged.

I’ve often wondered whether Operation Lam Son,conceived by the Americans, was a political move. Did the foreign powers want todraw the ants of two nests out with a sugar cube to weaken the forces of both?Was that a means to render both parties more malleable for peace talks ? It isinteresting to note that the fiasco occurred around the period ofVietnamization, when South Vietnam was prodded into negotiations.

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