K REL="fontdef" SRC="VI_Arial.pfr"> LAM SON 719 (V)

Indochina Monographs


by Maj. Gen. Nguyen Duy Hinh

Published by U.S. Army Center Of Military History



by Maj. Gen. Nguyen Duy Hinh


The Offensive Phase

Preparing to Cross the Border

To assist I Corps forces in making preparations for their cross- border offensive, XXIV Corps implemented Phase I of LAM SON 719 exactly as scheduled, at 0000 hours on 30 January 1971. Codenamed DEWEY CANYON II, this operation consisted of securing staging and assembly areas for I Corps units in the northwestern corner of Quang Tri Province adjacent to the Laotian border, including Khe Sanh Base and Route N÷ 9. As part of a deception plan, the U.S. 101st Airborne Division (Air mobile) launched heavy attacks by fire and reconnaissance patrols into the A Shau valley farther to the south. This move was to divert the enemy's attention from the area where the main action was about to unfold.

The Attack Toward Khe Sanh
Map15: The Attack Toward Khe Sanh
Almost simultaneously the 1st Brigade, U.S. 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized) advanced west from Fire Support Base Vandegrift in two elements. The main effort, Team A, 3/5 Cavalry reinforced by engineer troops, advanced along Axis. Gold, following Route N÷ 9 toward Khe Sanh. The secondary effort, a task force of the 3/5 Cavalry (-), proceeded southwesterly along Axis Brown from the Rockpile area to north of Khe Sanh(Map 15) . Thanks to the element of surprise, the lead element managed to progress six kilometers before daylight along the highway without enemy contact.

The U.S. 14th Combat Engineer Battalion immediately followed the attacking cavalry forces, restoring nine of the eighteen required bridges and nine of the 20 required culverts along the road. At Khe Sanh, U.S Army engineers were to survey a site planned for an assault airstrip which was to run parallel to the old, unserviceable PSP airstrip. This assault airstrip, scheduled to be completed on 3 February, was to be

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used during the initial phase pending repairs on the main airstrip. Concurrently, a company of the U.5. 7th Combat Engineer Battalion, with three D7 bulldozers, immediately started building a road leading from the Rockpile directly to Khe Sanh.

Initial artillery support was provided by the 1/82 (-) and 2/94 Artillery Battalions at Vandegrift along with the 8/4 Artillery Battalion at Camp Carroll. The 5/4 Artillery Battalion was expected to displace forward to provide support at Khe Sanh.

Beginning at 0830 hours, three infantry battalions (3/187 Infantry, 1/11 Infantry and 4/3 Infantry) of the U.S. 1st Brigade 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized) were heliborne into three landing zones in the Khe Sanh areÕ The operation proceeded smoothly and was completed at 1530, each battalion moving into its assigned area of operation without significant contact with the enemÜ While the 1/11 Infantry Task Force secured Khe Sanh, the 1/77 Arrored Task Force remained in the Vandegrift area and provided security along Route N÷ 9 from the Rockpile to the south of Vandegrift. The 1/1 Cavalry Task Force meanwhile conducted a reconnaissance in force along from Khe Sanh toward the Laotian border.

After U.S. armored and infantry forces had consolidated their positions in the objective area on 1 February, heavy artillery elements long with the 8/4 Artillery Battalion began to move into Khe Sanh. On that day, U.S. engineer units also completed temporary repairs on the road from Vandegrift to Khe Sanh and it was now able to accommodate tracked vehicles as far west as Lang Ve¸ The 27th Engineer Battalion meanwhile began to remove damaged PSP from the main airstrip at Khe Sanh.

Two efforts were conducted in the next morning; the 1/1 Cavalry Task Force advanced to approximately four kilometers west of Lang Vei where it established screen near the border. Mean while, the 2/17 Cavalry Squadron conducted a raid in an area where enemy presence was suspected, approximately 18 kilometers south of Khe Sanh. No enemy contact was made but they did find a hospital located in a large tunnel complex. Evidently the enemy had moved out 12 to 24 hours earlier.

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While U.S. units continued to expand their control in the north- western corner of Quang Tri, ARVN units began to move into the staging areÕ The Airborne Division Headquarters and the 3d Airborne Brigade, along with support units were successively airlifted from Saigon to northern Quang Tri, beginning on 1 February. By 4 February the entire 3d Airborne Brigade with supporting artillery had closed into its assembly area south of Khe Sanh. The Forward Command Post of I Corps had opened at the Dong Ha airfield on 30 January. The tactical command post of the 1st ARVN Infantry Division was also established and initiated operations in its vicinity.

On 2 February, the first combined operational meeting was held at the headquarters of I Corps Forward, attended by all RVNAF and U.S. commanders and detailed operational orders were issued. Immediately after this meeting, ARVN units feverishly completed their preparations for the big operation that promised numerous challenges.

The next day, the 1st Ranger Group (21st, 37th and 39th Ranger Battalions) was helilifted into the Phu Loc area northwest of Khe Sanh to defend a fire support base to be established ther©

Consolidation of the Assembly Area
Map16: Consolidation of the Assembly Area
The Khe Sanh assault airstrip was completed on 4 February but test landings by C-130 aircraft revealed that additional compacting would be required. On 5 February, the 111 Cavalry Task Force reached the border on Route N÷ 9. This unit immediately deployed along the border and assisted ARVN units entering the assembly areÕ All U.S. units were assigned specific areas of responsibility to secure the assembly area and support ARVN forces. (Map 16)

The 2d ARVN Airborne Brigade arrived at the Dong Ha airfield on 6 February while other ARVN units - the 1st Armor Brigade, 1st Airborne Brigade and 3/1 Infantry Regiment - moved overland to the Ham Nghi (Khe Sanh) areÕ Upon arrival, the 1st Armor Brigade and the 1st Airborne Brigade, which were both scheduled to move out by way of Route N÷ 9 on DDDay Phase II, immediately entered the assembly area adjacent to the border. That evening, a regrettable incident occurred. A United States Navy aircraft mistakenly attacked the ARVN forward elements destroying one M-113 armored personnel carrier; additionally, six ARVN

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personnel were killed and 51 armor and airborne personnel wounded. These were the first ARVN casualties of Operation LAM SON 719.

On the logistic side, immediately following in the steps of the U.S. engineers who were repairing and opening roads, U.S. logistic units were displacing forward to establish support facilities and Forward Support Area (FSA) 26-1 at Ca Lu south of Vandegrift was opened on 30 January. Advance elements of Forward Support Area 26- 2 arrived at Khe Sanh on 3 February and this facility was operational two days later. Ground transportation soon became difficult because the road section between Vandegrift and Khe Sanh was only trafficable one waÜ Despite this, U.S. and ARVN convoys, combat and logistic alike, moved day and night.

During the first days, and as originally planned, ARVN units were supported by U.S. logistic facilities. As soon as ARVN units reached the assembly area, they were issued supplies in preparation for action. This activity proceeded smoothly except for some difficulties in the issue of combat rations. Vietnamese combat rations were not similar to American C-rations. Instead of a self- contained package of individual meals, each Vietnamese ration consisted of three separate items: instant rice, canned meat or fish, and condiments. These were packaged individually but issued collectively by the carton. American logistics personnel were unfamiliar with these rations and with ARVN issue and accounting procedures so to solve the problem some Vietnamese specialists were detached to FSA 26-2. During this same period, ARVN logistic units dispatched advance teams to Khe Sanh to establish their own support facilities including ammunition and fuel supply points, which were scheduled to initiate operations on D- Day + 17 (16 February).

Probably taken by surprise, enemy troops in Quang Tri reacted very slowly and weakly during the first days. Although some mine explosions occurred along the routes of advance, floating mines appeared on the Cau Viet River, and a few rockets were fired into rear support bases, other activities of Communist units in northern Quang Tri Province showed no significant changes. The northwestern corner of Quang Tri, in particular, remained very quiet.

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The weather was favorable during the first few days of the operation and our air support was effective. On 4 and 5 February, however, the weather turned unfavorable; low clouds, interspersed with rain, delayed some troop landing plans and interfered with the activities of engineer units, particularly road repairs and rehabilitation work being conducted at the Khe Sanh airstrip. Although the weather during 6 and 7 February was better than the preceding two days, it was not adequate for effective preemptive airstrikes by the United States Air Forc© Lieutenant General James W. Sutherland, Commander of XXIV Corps, communicated this information to Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam, Commander of I Corps who decided that the cross-border operation should go ahead as planned despite the lack of adequate preemptive air-strikes (1). Apparently General Lam would not modify his orders without consulting President Thieu who had approved the original plan. To compensate for this, General Lam requested that U.S. air cavalry fly ahead of the ARVN thrust. But because the air cavalry could not cross the border ahead of ARVN units, the RVAAF and U.S. corps commanders agreed that, at precisely 0700 hours on Ddday Phase II (8 February) the Airborne Division would send a combat team across the border to be immediately followed by air cavalry(2) . This compromise seemed. to satisfy both U.S. political restrictions and the I Corps desire for additional support.

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Securing Ban Dong

The Advance to Ban Dong
Map17: The Advance to Ban Dong
In the early hours of 8 February, 11 Arc Light sorties were flown against targets in lower Laos as well as to support troop landing zones. The Airborne Division had positioned artillery batteries at Lao Bao in the immediate vicinity of the border to support the main thrust along Route N÷ 9. Everything seemed to be ready and at 0700 the first air-borne-armored team crossed the border. A moment later, it was followed by a flight of U.S. air cavalry helicopters which eventually took the lead to cover the main ARVN task forc© The ARVN soldiers, after so many days of waiting, were now cheerfully waving from their armored vehicles at foreign and local press reporters. The press embargo, which had been imposed during the initial stage for security reasons, had been lifted a few days earlier and a number of reporters were already at the border. This first task force consisted of the 1st Armor Brigade (11th and 17Th Armor Squadrons) reinforced by the 1st and 8th Airborne Battalions, the l0lst Combat Engineer Battalion and a platoon of bulldozers. The road on the Laotian side of the border had been cratered and cut by ditches at many places, and the armored elements provided support for the engineer repair crews. Many parts of the roads were destroyed beyond quick repair and the engineers had to build detours. Sporadic enemy fire was received but it was insignificant in the face of our mighty armored force and the brave airborne troops and they advanced rapidly. Ahead of the column and on the mountain slopes north and south of the axis of advance, air cavalry gun-ships struck at enemy air defense positions. (Map 17)

All supporting firepower provided by U.S. forces was coordinated by the U.S. 108th Artillery Group. The 155-mm and 8-inch howitzers and long-range guns hit against deep targets in lower Laos beginning at 0800 hours. The 108th Group expertly and effectively performed its support mission.

Meanwhile, U.S. air cavalry teams expanded their range in search of the enemÜ Toward the north, not far from the border, by a stream

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nearly two kilometers south of Ban Na, U.S. gun-ships attacked four enemy tracked vehicles at 0820 hours. One vehicle was towing a 37-mm anti-aircraft gun; the gun was immediately destroyed. At 1100 hours, air cavalry reconnaissance spotted enemy armored vehicles northwest of Landing Zone 31, about eight kilometers north of Ban Dong. Results of the gun-ship attack on these vehicles could not be verified immediately but this was the first evidence of enemy armored units in the area of operations.

While armored and infantry forces were progressing into Laos along the road, the northern and southern flank security elements were heliborne. The 4/3 Infantry Battalion was transported to Landing Zone Hotel in the Co Roc area by helicopters at 1100 hours without enemy contact. The 2d Airborne Battalion reached Landing Zone 30 ten kilometers north of Route N÷ 9 unhampered. At 1300 hours, however, near Landing Zone Ranger South, five kilometers northwest of LZ 30, the 21st Ranger Battalion's insertion was met with fire from 12.7-mm antiaircraft machine-guns; 11 rangers wounded and the troop insertion continued while U.S. air cavalry attacked the gun positions. This U.S. gun-ship activity resulted in a number of enemy troops killed and several trucks destroyed, but more significantly, these attacks caused numerous secondary explosions from a network of fortifications which lasted over a period of an hour.

At 1620 hours, the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 3d Infantry Regiment were helilifted into two areas in the vicinity of Landing Zone Blue, four kilometers southwest of LZ Motel. Immediately thereafter, the 2/3 Battalion was engaged by the enemÜ Friendly forces sustained five wounded while the enemy lost nine killed and one 12.7-mm machinegun, one AK-47 assault rifle and one Chicom radio captured.

At 1655 hours, U.S. air cavalry gun-ships attacked a suspected target two kilometers east of Landing Zone 31 causing numerous secondary explosions with flames reaching 1,500 feet in the air. Reconnaissance aircraft reported the fire lasted until just before daylight the following morning. After the attack on this target, the 3d Airborne Brigade Headquarters and 3d Airborne Battalion occupied Landing Zone 31 unopposed.

Toward nightfall, near Fire Support Base Phu Loc at the border, the command post of the 1st Ranger Group and the 37th Ranger Battalion were

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subjected to an enemy attack by fire consisting of 50 rounds of 82-mm mortar and 105-mm howitzer; three soldiers were killed and 15 wounded.

By nightfall of the first day, the ARVN armored column had moved nine kilometers into Laos. Though enemy resistance was weak, the column could not move more rapidly because of the bad road conditions and the dense jungle on both sides of the road.

During the day, on the Vietnamese side of the border, U.S. units continued to expand their operations to consolidate security for ARVN rear bases. The pioneer road from the Rockpile to Khe Sanh was opened to track vehicles by 1635 hours providing another vehicular access to Khe Sanh.

In support of the first day of the cross-border operation, U.S. forces had flown 11 B-52 sorties expending 719 tons of bombs which caused 40 secondary explosions, and performed 468 helicopter gun- ship and 52 tactical air missions, destroying 11 gun emplacements and 40 trucks, damaging 18 trucks and causing 13 secondary explosions and 23 fires. Four huge "commando vault" bombs had been used to clear landing zones. During the night, C-130 gun-ships had also destroyed additional enemy trucks moving near Ban Dong, the next objective.

On 9 February, the weather suddenly became very poor. Heavy rain made the road a quagmire, preventing the engineers from working. Heliborne troop insertions were delayed and logistical buildup efforts were halted. Those units already in Laos endeavored to consolidate their positions or increase the range of their patrols. Throughout the day, there were only two minor contacts made by the 21st Ranger Battalion near the Ranger South area and by the 8th Airborne Battalion north of Landing Zone Alpha approximately 10 kilometers west of the border with insignificant results reported by each unit.

The next day, 10 February, the weather improved but did not permit heliborne operations until late in the afternoon when the 4th Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, completed an assault into Landing Zone Delta, 10 kilometers due west of LZ Hotel at 1630 hours. The armored thrust meanwhile resumed at a stronger pace after a day of marking tim© At 1700 hours the 9th Airborne Battalion was inserted into Landing Zone A

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Luoi (Ban Dong), approximately 20 kilometers from the border. Enemy antiaircraft fire was heavy, but thanks to the dedicated support of air cavalry teams, the landing was completed at 1720 hours. Two hours later, advance elements of the armored column linked up with the 9th Airborne Battalion at A Luo¸ This was the greatest success of the daÜ

The same day was marked by several other events. Troops of the 3d Airborne Battalion, operating approximately one kilometer east of Fire Support Base 31, were engaged by the enemy at 1230 hours. They suffered light casualties but captured six Molotova trucks loaded with ammunition. Extending their search north, this team found a cache of fourteen 82-mm mortars, four 122-mm rocket launchers and nine AK-47 assault rifles.

Meanwhile, near the area of operations of the 21st Ranger Battalion, a flight of four VNAF helicopters bound for Landing Zone Ranger South was hit by enemy 37-mm antiaircraft artillery fire at 1300 hours. Two helicopters were downed and all passengers were presumed killed. The first helicopter carried two ARVN colonels, the G3 and G4 of I Corps. The second helicopter reportedly carried a number of foreign correspondents. It was suspected that the I Corps G3 had carried with him an operational map of LAM SON 719 along with signal operating instructions and codes. The loss of these documents to the enemy would be extremely significant. A thorough search of the area for the downed helicopters produced no results.

The linkup on Route N÷ 9 between the armored and airborne troops at Landing Zone A Luoi (Ban Dong) nearly 20 kilometers deep into enemy territory was an encouraging achievement. I Corps Headquarters therefore decided to push the operation further westward. Reinforcements were to be sent on 11 February to increase security on the northern and southern flanks before further advance was mad© At 1430 hours, the 311 Infantry Battalion was heliborne to be inserted into Landing Zone Yellow but because of last minute intelligence reports of important enemy concentration nearby, the battalion was diverted to Landing Zone Don, four kilometers southwest of LZ DeltÕ During the same period, toward the north, the 39th Ranger Battalion was deployed in the area of Landing

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Zone Ranger North, two kilometers west of Ban Na in coordination with the 21st Rangers which had been manning Ranger South since 8 February.

In order to obtain additional fire support for the planned movement all major fire support bases were consolidated and reinforced. At Fire Support Base 30, one 105-mm battery and one 105-mm battery were deployed. Fire Support Base 31, the command post of the 3d Airborne Brigade, had a six-piece 105-mm battery. Light bulldozers were helilifted into these fire support bases to help fortify the defenses. Fire Support Base A Luoi (Ban Dong), Fire Support Base Hotel of the 3d Infantry Regiment, and Fire Support Base Delta of the 1st Infantry Regiment (1st Infantry Division) also received an adequate number of artillery pieces.

From 11 to 16 February, while I Corps staff in the rear was planning the next moves, ARVN units in the forward area in lower Laos expanded their operations and continued the search for the enemy, increasing the number of contacts and caches uncovered. In the ranger's area, on the northern flank, the 37th Ranger Battalion operating near Fire Support Base Phu Loc and protecting the northwestern approaches to Khe Sanh was continuously subjected to enemy attacks by fire and probes. At 1100 hours on 12 February, the battalion, supported by U.S. gun-ships, engaged an enemy force three kilometers north-northwest of the bas© The results were as follows: on the friendly side, four rangers killed, six wounded, and one UH-1G helicopter shot down by 12.7-mm fire; enemy troops suffered 13 killed, one captured and ten AK-47 assault rifles seized.

The 39th and 21st Ranger Battalions, which operated around Landing Zones Ranger North and Ranger South respectively, were probably the units most frequently in contact with the enemÜ At 1825 hours on 11 February, the 21st Ranger Battalion engaged the enemy four kilometers northeast of its base killing 11 Communist troops, but later, at 2200 hours suffered six wounded from an enemy attack by fire consisting of forty 82-mm mortar rounds. During the afternoon of 13 February, the 39th Battalion engaged a large enemy force at three kilometers west-southwest of Landing Zone Ranger North, killing 43 enemy personnel and seizing two 37-mm antiaircraft artillery guns, two 12.7-mm machineguns, a substantial amount of ammunition and assorted types of equipment.

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The 39th Battalion had only one killed and 10 wounded. Meanwhile, the 21st Ranger Battalion made sporadic contacts with the enemy throughout the day without significant results. Light contacts continued during the following days.

In the area of operations of the Airborne Division, no additional major units were inserted after the initial deployment but the ones already in place were expanding their search activities. The 1st Armored Brigade launched two reconnaissance missions of combined armored/airborne forces north and south of Fire Support Base A Luoi (Ban Dong). In the afternoon of 11 February, the northern element engaged an unknown size force Friendly losses were two M-113 armored personnel carriers destroyed) one killed and one wounded. At approximately the same time) another M-113 detonated a mine, causing nine wounded. In the afternoon of 15 February, an element of the 17th Armored Squadron came upon two Russian trucks three kilometers north of Ban Dong and destroyed an estimated six tons of ric©

Around Fire Support Bases 30 and 31, the 2d and 3d Airborne Battalions pushed further out. Their companies made sporadic contacts and proved superior to enemy forces in the areÕ In the morning of 12 February in particular, an element of the 2d Airborne Battalion engaged the enemy five kilometers southeast of Fire Support Base 30, killing 32 enemy troops, seizing 20 individual weapons and destroying three crew-served weapons. Friendly forces had only three killed. Other sporadic contacts were all in favor of friendly forces. At 1430 hours on 14 February, Fire Support Base 31 received an attack by fire which resulted in six airborne troops killed, three wounded and one bulldozer damaged. The following day, toward noon, Fire Support Base 31 received 122-mm rockets which killed two and wounded four.

In the meantime, south of Route N÷ 9, the 1st Infantry Division introduced more troops into action. The 3/1 Battalion had been transported to Landing Zone Don in the afternoon of 11 February, and the 2/1 Battalion was helilifted to Landing Zone Delta 1, six kilometers southeast of Ban Dong, in the afternoon of the following day to push further west. On 16 February, the 2/3 Infantry Battalion was inserted

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at Landing Zone Grass, 12 kilometers northeast of Muong Nong, to push further south toward the enemy's Base Area 611. LZ Grass was the southernmost position held by friendly forces in the area of operation.

Throughout this period, various units of the division searched for the enemy and made many contacts which produced substantial results to include several enemy caches. At 1615 hours on 11 February, the 311 Battalion observed a target one kilometer southeast of Landing Zone Don which had been hit by air-strikes. The battalion discovered 23 enemy bodies and seized two 12.7-mm machineguns, four AK-47 assault rifles and one chicom radi÷ In the afternoon of 12 February, this battalion found a cache three kilometers south- southwest of Landing Zone Don which contained 600 individual weapons, 400 82-mm mortar rounds, numerous rounds of assorted ammunition and the bodies of 50 enemy troops killed by air-strikes. Late in the afternoon, at three kilometers south of Landing Zone Don, the 1/1 Battalion discovered an enemy camp containing substantial amounts of food along with military clothing, equipment and ammunition, particularly 12.7-mm rounds. On 13 February, the 3/1 Battalion found another cache with thirty 75-mm recoilless rifles, fifty 55 gallon drums of gasoline and substantial quantities of other types of equipment. At the same time, six kilometers north- northeast of Landing Zone Grass, the 2/3 Battalion seized three new Russian trucks.

As of 13 February, contacts being made by elements of the 1st Division forces were increasing. During the afternoon of that day, the 1/1 Battalion engaged an enemy element three kilometers south- southwest of LZ Don, killing 28 enemy troops and seizing a storage area which contained an East German machinegun, seven RPDs, one B40, one B41, two SKS, gasoline, generators and huge quantities of food along with kitchen utensils. On 14 February, the 2/3 and 1/3 Battalions each received an attack by fire of an estimated one hundred 82-mm mortar rounds. The 1st Battalion had one killed and seven wounded and the 2d Battalion had 16 wounded. Even though enemy attacks by fire and actual contacts increased during the next few days, all the units of the 1st ARVN Division continued to seize substantial amounts of enemy supplies and materiel.

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Meanwhile, in northwest Quang Tri province, U.S. units continued their security operations. Their efforts were mainly directed northward toward the DMZ, particularly north of the Rockpile. In the evening of 11 February, Forward Support Area 26-1 at Vandegrift received six 122-mm rockets which resulted in four U.S. troops killed and two wounded. On 14 February at 0215 hours, Dong Ha City and its airfield, where the forward CP of I Corps was located, received 25 rounds of 122-mm rockets which killed one civilian and wounded 14 others but the airfield suffered only light damag©

In addition to the big guns of the 108th Artillery Group, U.S. air support was an important factor during the first week of the incursion. Each day, from 500 to 800 sorties of air cavalry gun- ships were flown in addition to approximately 100 sorties of tactical bombers and, depending upon available targets, a number of missions by B-52 strategic bombers. Losses inflicted on the enemy by these air-strikes were very significant(3). But despite the devastating U.S. air and artillery support, enemy anti-aircraft gunners took a heavy toll of helicopters; and the U.S. air cavalry, as well as the RVNAF, had to increase their efforts to silence the Communist guns.

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By the end of the first week of the invasion of Laos, the I Corps armored-airborne advance along Route N÷ 9 had become much slower and more cautious. Securing and repairing this road had become vital to guarantee a logistical lifeline for ARVN forces in the event inclement weather precluded the use of helicopters. A network of fire support bases had been established along the road to ensure artillery support and while the task force proceeded westward, its flanks were effectively protected. An airborne brigade and a ranger group secured the northern flank while two regiments of the 1st Infantry Division were deployed along the southern flank.

According to the operational plan, the Airborne Division and the 1st Infantry Division were expected to advance westward, each step forward to be solidly anchored on a fire support bas© The planners of LAM SON 719 apparently believed that this tactic, coordinated with the massive support by the USAF and U.S. Army air cavalry, would help accomplish the mission with minimum losses. But because of this procedure, the operation progressed slowly and did not exactly meet the expectations of U.S. counterparts. In Saigon, General Abrams, COMUSMACV, in a discussion with General Cao Van Vien, Chairman of the JGS/RVNAF, expressed his wish to see the operational units reach Tchepone as quickly as possible(4). Then, in the afternoon of 16 February, in the forward command post of I Corps at Dong Ha airfield, Generals Vien and Abrams met with Generals Lam and Sutherland for two-and-a-half hours. After a review of the general situation, a decision was made to step up the operation by having the 1st Infantry Division quickly occupy the higher mountain tops south of the Xepon River and establish fire support bases there to support the Airborne Division1s push toward Tchepone. They estimated that this would take three to five days. But, as later events were to prove, battlefield developments seldom occur exactly as planned. Enemy reactions were becoming stronger with each day and the test of strength more arduous.

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The Enemy Counteracted

Nearly a week had passed since Ban Dong was occupied. Except for a few clearing activities conducted by units of the 1st Infantry Division, the forward movement of ARVN forces seemed to have stalled. The heliborne insertion of troops through the fierce enemy air defense screen in the afternoon of 10 February had enabled friendly forces to quickly occupy this objective. The linkup with armored forces had also been made immediately thereafter. Fire Support Base Ban Dong was now well entrenched with six 105-mm and six 155-mm howitzers and adequate ammunition and supplies. However, as of 16 February, six days after the capture of Ban Dong, there had been no further progress by ARVN troops toward the objective Tchepone. In the meantime, the enemy had increased his air defense capabilities along the mountain slopes to the south. Enemy attacks by fire, which were initially conducted with assorted mortars and 122-mm rockets, were now occasionally augmented by long-range artillery. ARVN armored units had tried to advance but could not make much progress. The dense forests bordering the road required careful, time consuming reconnaissance to avoid ambush and this made the armored column's movement extremely slow.

On 17 February, it rained hard and the helicopters rested idly on the airfields. However, since early morning, an armored infantry task force consisting of the 17th Armored Squadron and the 8th Airborne Battalion operating north of Ban Dong had been engaging the enemÜ The results were four friendly troops killed while the enemy suffered 36 killed. Sixteen AK-47 assault rifles and a quantity of military clothing and equipment were seized. Toward noon, this task force made another contact four kilometers north of Ban Dong and captured one PT-76 amphibious tank, two Russian trucks, one 12.7-mm machine gun and two 7.62-mm machineguns. The PT-76 tank was only slightly damaged and was towed back to A Luo¸ To the south, the 1st Infantry Division continued to make contacts and receive attacks by fir©

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In the early morning of 18 February, the 1st Airborne Battalion, while conducting an Arc Light bomb damage assessment two kilometers north of LZ Bravo, made light contact with the enemy and found a command post. Captured documents indicated that this was the command post of the 308th NVA Division and traces found in the area were rather recent. Toward noon, U.S. air cavalry spotted and attacked an enemy truck convoy nine kilometers west-northwest of Ban Dong destroying one truck, and damaging another and a tracked vehicle. Nearby, at two places two-and-a-half kilometers to the east, the 2d Troop, 17th Armored Squadron found and cut three pipeline sections four inches in diameter. Two sections were destroyed while the third one was made unusable. During the day, other airborne units and elements of the 1st Infantry Division were subjected to sporadic attacks by fire and ground contacts and a few helicopters were shot down.

All these activities were quickly eclipsed by reports of heavy enemy troop concentrations around the 39th and 21st Ranger Battalions. Both battalions were being subjected to attacks by fire and ground attacks and the fighting lasted all night while friendly artillery, tactical air and flareships responded quickly in support of the embattled rangers.

The next morning, enemy pressure on the 21st Ranger Battalion gradually diminished but heavy pressure persisted on the 39th Battalion in the Ranger North areÕ The battle continued over 19 February. Enemy troops here were confirmed to be elements of the 102d Regiment of the 308th Division, all with new weapons and clothing. Before launching an assault, the rangers reported, the enemy made extensive use of recoilless rifles and mortars; his fire was very accurate. The strongest enemy attacks were directed at the eastern flank of the rangers which was their weakest spot. However, the 39th Battalion continued to hold its positions with support from U.S. artillery and tactical air.

Meanwhile, information concerning the enemy's growing capabilities became clearer with each daÜ His air defense network was becoming dense and heavy artillery was committed. ARVN artillery-men confirmed that, in addition to the various types of mortars and rockets commonly

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used in South Vietnam, the enemy had also fired quite a few rounds of 122- and 105-mm field guns and howitzers and possibly 85- and 130-mm field guns as well. In addition to three pipeline sections found and destroyed, captured documents also suggested the existence of pipeline throughout Base Areas 604 and 611. And the presence of enemy armor became increasingly apparent.

Enemy main force units in the area of operation were confirmed during the fir8t days to be the 1st Regiment of the 2d (Yellow Star) Division, 24B Regiment of the 304th Division and elements of the 675th Artillery Regiment. A prisoner from the 14th Air Defense Battalion of the 2d Division disclosed that the subordinate units of this division (1st, 3d and 141st regiments) had been moving east from the Tchepone area since early February to block the ARVN advance.

Enemy opposition grew stronger with each day around Ban Dong and the area of Route 1032B for which the rangers were responsible. On 10 February, the 21st Ranger Battalion engaged an element of the enemy's 88th Regiment. The next day, the 37th Ranger Battalion engaged a battalion size unit near FSB Phu Loc. The discovery of the command post of the 308th Division on 18 February further confirmed reports that this division had joined in the fighting (the 308th Division had three regiments: 36th, 88th and 102d).

Enemy Situation, Last Week of February, 1971
Map18: Enemy Situation, Last Week of February, 1971
On 11 February, two prisoners disclosed that the 64th Regiment/320th Division had arrived in lower Laos on 4 February and was operating in the Ban Dong areÕ On 14 February another prisoner of the 64th Regiment gave the location of each battalion of this regiment. He also reported an NVA armored unit with an estimated fifteen PT-76s in the same area southeast of Fire Support Base 31 where signs of enemy tracked vehicles had been detected. The vehicles were subsequently attacked. Toward the south, in the area of operations of the 1st Infantry Division, captured documents confirmed the location of Binh Tram 41 two kilometers south of Landing Zone Blue with the 4th Air Defense Battalion, the 75th Engineer Battalion, and an unidentified infantry regiment providing additional security. This infantry regiment might have been the 141st Regiment of the 2d Division. (Map 18)

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While firefights were raging in the Ranger North area, on 19 February President Thieu visited I Corps Forward CP at Dong HÕ General Lam reported the critical situation faced by the 39th Rangers and the increasingly forceful enemy reactions which were making the planned push toward Tchepone by the Airborne Division highly questionable. In the presence of ARVN division commanders, President Thieu told him to take his time and, under the present circumstances, perhaps it would be better to expand search activities toward the southwest to cut off Route 914 which led into Base Area 611.

During the night of 19 February, the enemy continued to attack the 39th Battalion while launching uninterrupted attacks by fire to hold the 21st Battalion in check. Seven fixed wing gun-ships and six flare-ships were used in support of the 39th Battalion and, from 0730 to 1430 hours on 20 February, 32 tactical air sorties were flown in support of the rangers. Efforts to resupply and evacuate their casualties were made with strong support from tactical air, gun-ships and artillery. Some helicopters managed to land in the area, ammunition was delivered and some wounded evacuated. But upon takeoff, two helicopters were damaged by enemy fir© One had to land in the positions of the 21st Ranger Battalion (Ranger South) and the other managed to land at Fire Support Base 30.

In the afternoon, reconnaissance aircraft reported sighting an estimated 400 to 500 enemy troops encircling the 39th Battalion. At 1710 hours on 20 February, radio contact with the 39th Ranger Battalion was lost. At 1856 hours, I Corps CP received information that the able bodied personnel of the battalion had fought their way out and reached the 21st Ranger Battalion positions with most of the wounded and all of their weapons but with very little ammunition left. Those who reached the 21st Ranger Battalion numbered nearly 200; 107 were still able to fight but 92 were wounded. Total losses were 178 dead and missing and 148 wounded. Intelligence reports indicated enemy casualties to be 639 killed with a corresponding number of weapons destroyed (423 AK-47s, 15 B40/B4ls and numerous automatic weapons).

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With most of the wounded of the 39th Ranger Battalion still stranded in the 21st Rangers' positions, this unit received intense attacks by fire, including 130-mm artillery, on the night of 21 February. Plans were made to evacuate the wounded rangers the following daÜ Toward noon on 22 February, the area around the battalion position was subjected to a heavy barrage of fire involving tactical air, air cavalry, aerial artillery and ground artillery for nearly an hour while 13 medical evacuation helicopters were airborne, ready to go in. All of them landed and successfully picked up122 wounded as well as one U.S. pilot who had been stranded there 8ince his aircraft was shot down. The ranger force remaining in combat position at Ranger South numbered approximately 400 men including 100 from the 39th Battalion but two days later, on 24 February, the battalion was ordered by the I Corps commander to withdraw to FSB 30. From there they were helilifted to FSB Phu Loc.

While the 39th Ranger Battalion was holding out, numerous activities took place in other areas. U.S. air cavalry continued to search for and destroy pipelines. Units of the 1st Infantry Division moved further south, striking along Route 92 and finding a number of enemy installations, but also making numerous contacts and receiving attacks by fir© The 8th Airborne Battalion and armored elements engaged the enemy two kilometers north of Ban Dong, destroying one T-34 tank and a 23-mm gun position. This was another strong indication of enemy armor involvement. On the friendly side, a number of U.S. helicopters were shot down while on supply, medical evacuation or support missions.

The corps commander had concluded that the position held by the 21st Rangers and the survivors of the 39th was untenable. A maximum effort in air and artillery support was required for each re-supply and evacuation mission and he had other pressing demands for this support. The position was not an objective in itself and there was no military advantage in sacrificing a ranger battalion in a doomed attempt to hold it. The corps commander was looking toward his objectives in the west and he wished to conserve as much of his combat power as possible for the main mission.

In the southern sector of the 1st Division, within objective area A-Ro, the 2/3 Battalion came into heavy contact with the enemy on 23 February. The 3/3 Battalion was brought in to reinforce but the enemy would

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not disengage. On 24 February, the commander of the 1st Infantry Division requested a B-52 mission and the two battalions pulled back an hour prior to the air-strike; they counterattacked immediately thereafter. Results were verified to be 159 enemy bodies left in place along with numerous weapons. Still, the enemy remained deployed around Fire Support Base Hotel 2, causing a delay in the plans to move the 105-mm artillery battery out and close the base in order to send the 3d Infantry Regiment westward with the mission of cutting off Route 914 as directed by President Thieu during his 19 February visit.

The loss of Fire Support Base 31

The withdrawal of the 21st Ranger Battalion left the northern flank of the Airborne Division exposed and Fire Support Bases 31 and 30 now bore the brunt of enemy attacks. They had been under pressure since the 2d and 3d Battalions of the 3d Airborne Brigade were inserted. Established in the immediate vicinity of the Communist north-south supply line, both bases were able to monitor closely enemy troop movements as well as signs of enemy armored activities. Each battalion left but a small force to defend the bases while a larger force fanned out in security and search activities, but this mobile force was not sufficient to prevent the enemy from moving close to the bases and setting up mortars and antiaircraft guns to interdict supply and medical evacuation attempts(5). Each helicopter landing or departing usually resulted in heavy attacks by fir©

Attack of FSB 31
Map19: Attack of FSB 31
To strengthen the security of Fire Support Base 31, which was a more important position and seemed to be more heavily threatened because it housed the 3d Airborne Brigade headquarters, plans were made to helilift the 6th Airborne Battalion to a mountain range northwest of the base on 13 February. This mountain range controlled a valley running a south-easterly course to Fire Support Base 31 and the valley was the source for attacks by fire against friendly positions. Although B-52

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bombs had cleared the landing zone and its approaches, the fleet of helicopters bringing in the first elements of the 6th Airborne Battalion was subjected to heavy attacks by fire immediately upon landing. The remaining elements of the 6th Battalion were diverted to alternate landing zones nearbÜ Upon touching the ground, the battalion spread out its troops over nearly a kilometer but continued to receive enemy artillery fir© The battalion then broke up and withdrew south, to near Fire Support Base 31. It had lost 28 KIA, 50 WIA and 23 MIA during this short venture. Between that time and its eventual evacuation on 19 February, the 6th Battalion was unable to carry out any significant mission. The northwest mountain range remained under enemy control and FSB 31 continued to hold under heavy enemy pressure. (Map 19)

A company of the 3d Airborne Battalion operating southwest of FSB 31 received a rallier who was a sergeant, platoon leader in the 24B Regiment of the 304th Division. He reported that the Communists had been preparing to counter the RVNAF-US operation since October 1970. Rear service units of Group 559 had in fact received orders to prepare for combat and an army corps size headquarters called the 70th Front was designated in October 1970, to command the 304th, 308th and 320th divisions, a number of artillery regiments, an armored regiment, a number of air defense regiments and other support units. To counter Operation LAM SON 719, the 70th Front Headquarters was sent to lower Laos along with NVA combat units. The 24B Regiment along with advance elements of the 9th and 66th Regiments had infiltrated the border area west of Quang Tri since 9 February. From all these new revelations it appeared that the enemy would make a determined effort to defend his base areas.

The situation heated up following the evacuation of ranger positions in the north and as a result of heavy enemy attacks. The 31st and 32d Companies, 3d ABN Battalion operating in the mountain ranges northeast of Fire Support Base 31 received orders from the division to move south and meet an armored task force composed of the 17th Armored Squadron and two companies of the 8th Airborne Battalion coming

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as reinforcement. Remaining at the base were a 105-mm artillery battery, the command section of the 3d Airborne Artillery Battalion and the 33d and 34th Rifle Companies. The 34th Company had suffered heavy combat casualties and was left with only 60 men. Outside the base there was only the 3d Reconnaissance Company deployed on a mountain to the west. On the night of 23 February, a team of Communist sappers was spotted as it attempted to infiltrate the base from the west. Fifteen Communist troops were killed on the spot. The enemy continued to launch attacks by fire and kept our helicopters from providing support. Many of our dead and wounded were left on the base for three or four days as evacuation was not possible.

At 1100 hours on 25 February, Fire support Base 31 received massive attacks by fire, including fire from 130-mm field guns. At 1300 hours, the 31st Company to the south reported enemy armored movements. The base responded with artillery fire and called for artillery support from Fire Support Bases 30 and A Luo¸ The forward air controller's aircraft (FAC 229) was not in the air because of a confusion in grid coordinates and did not arrive until 1400 hours. By that time, fire from small weapons was being received from all directions and enemy tanks had reached the southern perimeter of the bas© The first flight of fixed wing tactical aircraft to reach the base destroyed a number of enemy tanks on the spot and held back the armored thrust against the southern perimeter. At 1520 hours, an estimated 20 tanks supported by enemy infantry troops moved in from the northwest and the east. At precisely the same time, an F-4 aircraft was hit and erupted in flames but the pilot ejected. The Hammer FAC aircraft left its position to direct effort to rescue the U.S. pilot, interrupting air support for Fire Support Base 31. After a fierce artillery barrage, the enemy assaulted. At that time, a helicopter of the advisory team for the Airborne Division was the only aircraft flying overhead. It turned its M-60 machinegun fire on the enemy but it was in vain! Artillery from A Luoi and Fire Support Base 30 continued to fire in support but could not stop the enemy tanks attacking on the hill slopes. Forty minutes later, the base was overrun. It is possible that had the FAC remained

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on station above the battle that U.S. airpower could have been employed to hold the firebase. A number of airborne troops managed to break out but the commanders of the 3d Airborne Brigade and 3d Artillery Battalion were captured by the enemy(6). The weather thereafter worsened and aircraft could not provide support. ARVN losses at Fire Support Base 31 were 155 killed and missing with a corresponding number of individual weapons and six 105-mm howitzers The enemy lost an estimated 250 killed and eleven PT-76 and T-54 tanks.

Between 25 February and 1 March, on its way to relieve Fire Support Base 31, the armored-infantry task force composed of the 17th Armored Squadron, the 8th Airborne Battalion and remaining elements of the 3d Airborne Battalion fought three major battles on 25 February, 27 February and on the night of 1 March 1971. They lost 27 KIA, 186 WIA, one MIA, three M-41 tanks and 25 armored vehicles destroyed. The enemy sustained 1,130 killed, two captured, over 300 assorted weapons seized, 17 PT-76 and six T-54 tanks and two Molotova trucks destroyed. The prisoners disclosed that the 24B Regiment and the 36th Regiment of the 308th Division, reinforced by the 202d Tank Regiment, had taken part in recent battles. The 24B Regiment was the unit which attacked Fire Support Base 31 while the 36th Regiment was operating to the south. Cumulative enemy losses during these battles equaled one half of the strength he initially committed.

Even before the attack on Fire Support Base 31, Fire Support Base 30 of the 2d Airborne Battalion had been the target of repeated enemy attacks by fire involving all sizes of ammunition in the Communist inventory. Because of the accurate enemy anti-aircraft fire, helicopter takeoffs and landings were very riskÜ Each resupply mission was

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planned and prepared as if it had been a landing of combat troops. On 27 February, re-supply efforts were made; smoke cover, artillery, gun-ships and tactical air were used but the enemy still shot down an aircraft which interrupted the supply attempts. Supplies were running low while th© number of dead and wounded increased but could not be evacuated. The base fought desperately to defend itself.

Up to this point, the direction taken by enemy reactions seemed rather clear. The main forces committed consisted of the 304th, 308th and 2d (Yellow Star) Divisions along with elements of the 320th and 324B Divisions and armored and artillery units. The NVA strategy appeared to concentrate on massing the infantry, armor and artillery force necessary to isolate and overwhelm - one by one - the RVNAF fire bases. The enemy took advantage of the rugged terrain to disperse his logistic, engineer and air defense units into small elements which were well entrenched in fortified positions established throughout the area and ARVN forces made contact wherever they moved; only by summoning concentrated firepower were they able to overpower the enemÜ

The enemy appeared to have coped effectively with friendly mobile forces, heliborne insertions of troops and artillery positions. His mortar fire, which was sustained by adequate reserves of ammunition, was now supplemented by long-range artillery. This came as a new experience for ARVN forces who were not fully prepared to cope with massive and sustained attacks by fire and the conventional armor supported infantry attack that overran FSB 31 was probably the first Communist large scale combined arms attack in the Indochina theater.

The difficulties that Fire Support Base 31 had experienced and Fire Support Base 30 was now experiencing showed that enemy reactions largely consisted of attacks by fire and air defense. Attacks by fire were designed to create tension and cause attrition. Anti-aircraft fire was aimed at disrupting communications, supply and medical evacuation by helicopters, and isolating the bases.

On the friendly side, several shortcomings were evident from the very beginning of the operation. First, high level headquarters were located too far from the combat zone and from each other. As a result,

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they had difficulties coordinating with each other. The U.S. XXIV Corps Forward, for example, was located in Quang Tri while I Corps Forward was in Dong HÕ Coordination was thus difficult and often slow. Second, the tactical command post of I Corps at Ham Nghi Base was apparently weak. Officers on duty there were all in the junior grades; key staff officers meanwhile remained at Dong HÕ Though the I Corps commander was frequently at Ham Nghi during the day, staff operations were still hampered by the absence of senior staff personnel with enough authority and competence to provide immediate solutions to battlefield emergencies as they aros© This was a noteworthy shortcoming and it contributed to the loss of Fire Base 31 and the inadequate coordination between RVNAF commands in the withdrawal.

Third, the U.S. XXIV Corps had no representative in the forward area with authority to coordinate the activities of those units supporting the RVNAF forces such as the 101st Aviation Group, the 1/5 Mechanized Brigade, and the 108th Artillery Group. All these units communicated directly with the ARVN divisions they supported. As a result, coordinating the allocation of support assets among the ARVN divisions became extremely difficult. The divisional advisory staffs meanwhile had no authority to handle the coordination of support and had to refer every action to Quang Tr¸ Solutions, therefore, were worked out on the basis of expediency, requirements and good will.

In addition, the Airborne Division complained that there was only one forward air controller aircraft for the entire area covered by the division. Since the airborne division was involved in several operations simultaneously conducted in different directions this represented a major handicap. This problem was quite evident during the battle at Fire Support Base 31.

Counterattacks by the enemy revealed the weakness of ARVN anti- tank weaponry. The Airborne Division reported that the M-72 light anti-tank weapon was ineffective against armored vehicles which continued to move after being hit. Lieutenant General Lam immediately notified the Central Logistical Command. As a result over 300 3.5" rocket launchers with ammunition, all previously considered obsolescent and placed in storage

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pending return to the United States, were hastily transported to the front for distribution to combat units. XXIV Corps also gathered a number of 90-mm recoilless rifles to help the ARVN airborne forces. However, the M-72 light anti-tank weapon was later re-tested at the Quang Trung Training Center and proved to be effective. As regards ARVN armor units, this was their first significant confrontation with enemy tanks. ARVN gunners proved to be confused and hasty, firing from too far away and often too soon, thereby frequently causing deflections. Enemy tanks, moreover, seldom moved in the open but mostly lay in ambush, well concealed in the jungl©

A number of units also failed to carry adequate clothing when this was a period of lingering cold in the mountains and forests of the Truong Son Rang© The Central Logistic Command was required to have field jackets and blankets air delivered to units during combat.

Tchepone Was the Objective

After capturing and destroying Fire Support Base 31, Communist forces continued to encircle and harass ARVN fire bases. North of Route N÷ 9, Fire Support Base 30 continued to bear the pressure of heavy artillery attacks each day and was cut off from the rear by an almost impenetrable air defense net. The ARVN armored task force which tried to pick up the survivors of the 3d Airborne Battalion from Fire Support Base 31 was repeatedly engaged by NVA armor-supported infantry.

South of the road, the targets of enemy encirclement were Fire Support Base Hotel 2, seven kilometers southwest of Landing Zone Don, and the 2/3 and 3/3 Battalions of the 1st Infantry Division on mobile operations along Route 92 nearbÜ On 27 February, despite heavy air strikes which attempted to silence enemy air defense guns, a big H-53 helicopter was hit and exploded in the air while trying to sling-carry a 105-mm howitzer. It was then decided to close Fire Support Base Hotel 2 and send the 3d Regiment northwestward on a mission to interdict and disrupt Route 914. This plan could not be carried out immediately because there still remained a battery of 105-mm howitzers whose

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extrication proved difficult. During the night, I Corps Headquarters ordered the destruction of the artillery pieces in the base; the defending unit was then to proceed on foot to join the 3d Regiment. The 2d and 3d Battalions of the regiment were also ordered to move their wounded north to find a suitable pickup point for medical evacuation helicopters. In the morning of 28 February while on their way, these units came upon a target hit by B-52s and found the bodies of 157 enemy troops along with numerous weapons destroyed. During that day, medical evacuation efforts were not successful because of intense enemy fire from 82-mm mortars and small arms directed at the pickup zone and one UH-lH was hit by enemy anti-aircraft fire and burst into flames.

The situation by this time was becoming increasingly tense throughout the area of operations Truck convoys were frequently attacked on Route N÷ 9 in Laos and on the RVN territory, the enemy increased efforts to ambush convoys and attack rear bases The ARVN westward drive was stalled. In the midst of this situation, I Corps Headquarters received a directive from President Nguyen Van Thieu to have the Marine Division relieve the Airborne Division. He must have realized that such a relief under the combat conditions on that battlefield would be very hazardous. Besides, the Airborne Division was still a strong unit; it had suffered some losses but these losses were not yet too serious. What then caused him to order its replacement? The most probable answer could be that he was really worried over the additional losses that the Airborne Division would sustain in protracted combat. He certainly would like to keep this elite unit intact at all costs. In any event, the Marine Division was a poor choice for the relief. Despite the combat worthiness of its individual brigades, it had never fought as a division.

It was probably with this bothering thought that in the afternoon of 28 February, Lieutenant General Lam flew to Saigon with an alternative to present to the President. During his meeting with President Thieu, Lam's plan was adopted. Instead of the Marine Division, the 1st Infantry Division with three regiments under its command was selected to proceed northwest from its present positions to occupy

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Tchepone. The Airborne Division would provide protection for the northern flank and secure Route N÷ 9. The Marine Division was to deploy two brigades behind the 1st Division; its remaining brigade would serve as the corps' reserve.

Tchepone, a tiny town whose civilian population had fled long ago, now had only scars and ruins left. By this time, it had become more of a political and psychological symbol than an objective of practical military valu© There was nothing of military importance in the ruined town; enemy supplies and war materiel were all stored in caches in the forests and mountains. Lines of communication were located east and west of Tchepone, not in the town proper. Despite all this the Tchepone road junction was near the center of NVA logistics activity in the Laos panhandle and it was understandable that it became a symbol of great importance. The RVN information agencies, the press (both foreign and domestic) all contributed their share in making Tchepone the place to reach at all costs so the ARVN effort now seemed to be more directed at setting foot in Tchepone than trying to destroy the NVA logistical system which was the real objective of the offensive.

Meeting with Ambassador Bunker and General Abrams in the afternoon of 1 March, President Thieu made known his plan to relieve the Airborne Division and expressed his desire to helilift two infantry regiments into the areas surrounding Tchepone. He also disclosed that the JGS/ RVNAF had been ordered to reinforce I Corps with a number of tanks and that the Marine Division had been sent to the northern front. General Abrams took this opportunity to defend the U.S. position in the face of Senator Tran Van Huong's complaints that the U.S. was not providing adequate support to RVAAF forces operating in lower Laos. These complaints had given rise to all sorts of rumors speculating on the difficulties ARVN forces encountered in lower Laos. President Thieu stated that the change of plan did not result from losses sustained by the Airborne Division but came about because the 1st Infantry Division was more familiar with the lower Laos terrain and, being an organic unit of I Corps, was more accustomed to working with the corps and would respond better to the I Corps commander during this difficult operation.

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While high level officials were reviewing the plans to arrive at appropriate decisions, at the subordinate levels preparations and assignments were already underway. The I Corps commander needed reinforcements in lower Laos and in the northern area of MR 1 so on 25 February, the U.S. XXIV Corps ordered the U.S. 101st Airborne Division to be prepared to send its 3d Airborne Brigade to the Demilitarized Zone to replace the ARVN 2d Infantry Regiment. This regiment had five battalions; one remained in place while the other four were reddeployed on 28 February. On 29 February, the 11th Brigade/U.S. 23d Infantry Division was pulled out of the area south of Hai Van Pass (southern MR 1) and also sent to reinforce the northern sector and all U.S. forces in northern Quang Tri or operating in support of ARVN forces were placed under operational control of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division. The forward command post of this division relocated in Quang Tri from its former position further south. In order to coordinate operational support, a joint coordinating group was set up and placed under the Commander of the 108th Artillery Group. This group operated from the tactical CP of I Corps at Fire Support Base Ham Nghi (Khe Sanh) as of 1 March. Coordination and control of U.S. support was thus made possible in the forward combat area instead of being referred to Quang Tri as in the past.

More RVNAF forces were also committed to the new effort. The command section of the 369th Marine Brigade and support elements were airlifted directly to Khe Sanh beginning on 1 March and this movement was completed two days later. The 2d Infantry Regiment was readÜ The 4th and 7th Armored Squadron of the 1st and 2d Infantry Divisions were brought in to reinforce armored elements in lower Laos. I Corps Headquarters also relocated the 77th Border Ranger Battalion (+) from Quang Tin and reassigned it to provide security for Fire Support Base Ham Nghi, freeing other forces for combat and the corps' tactical control CP there was strengthened.

While these preparations were made for the push into Tchepone there were increasing reports of enemy armor presence throughout the area of operation. In the early morning of 1 March, C-130 gun- ships

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reported sighting an estimated 8 enemy tanks moving near Route N÷ 9, approximately eight kilometers west of A Luo¸ The gun-ships attacked and destroyed some of the tanks. Toward noon, tactical air sighted two T-54 tanks south of the road between A Luoi and the border, attacked and destroyed on©

Meanwhile, in the north, the 17th Armored Squadron was heavily engaged and Fire Support Base 30 of the 2d Airborne Battalion remained under sieg© At Fire Support Base 30, fierce fighting took place on 3 March from 0100 to 0900 hours. After heavy attacks by fire, enemy infantry, supported by armor, approached friendly positions. The base was located on a high mountain with steep slopes and enemy tanks were used only to provide direct fire support. C-130 gunships and two Arc Light strikes diverted at the last minute helped the 2d Airborne Battalion hold its ground. When the gunfire ended, a search around the base produced 98 enemy bodies, 26 AK-47s, eight B-40s and two machine-guns right on the perimeter of defense. Friendly casualties were one killed and four wounded. However, as a result of repeated enemy attacks by fire during the preceding days, all 12 artillery pieces (six 105-mm and six 155-mm) had been damaged. In the afternoon of 3 March, the 2d Airborne Battalion was ordered to abandon its positions and move out to evacuate its wounded and conduct mobile operations. The damaged artillery pieces at the base were destroyed before the battalion left.

During the night of 3 March, the 17th Armored Squadron, reinforced by the 8th Airborne Battalion, engaged a battalion size enemy force five kilometers north of Ban Dong. Results of the battle were 383 enemy killed two detained, 71 individual and 28 crew-served weapons seized. Friendly forces suffered over 100 killed and wounded and 10 armored vehicles damaged. In the early morning of 4 March, after two re-supply and medical evacuation attempts had proved unsuccessful because of heavy enemy fire, an Arc Light strike was made and, following it, a third attempt succeeded in evacuating 77 airborne wounded. Only one UH-lH helicopter was shot down and an airborne company was brought in as reinforcement. The next day, a column of armor-supported airborne troops linked up with the 17th Armored Squadron to re-supply it and evacuate

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the remaining 43 armored wounded. Cumulative enemy losses for the period from 25 February to 3 March throughout the lower Laos area of operation were 1,536 killed. These losses amounted to about one regiment per week.

The Attack Toward Tchepone
Map20: The Attack Toward Tchepone
While the enemy endeavored to annihilate Fire Support Base 30 and the 17th Armored Task Force, the relief plan was being carried out, marking the beginning of a new offensive phase (Map 20). Between Fire Support Base A Luoi (Ban Dong) and the border, the Airborne Division set up two fire support bases, Alpha and Bravo, to consolidate the security of Route N÷ 9. The 1st Ranger Group with its remaining two battalions (21st and 37th) was deployed northwest of Khe Sanh and provided security for Fire Support Base Phu Loc. The 369th Brigade, kept in reserve by the corps, conducted security operations south of Khe Sanh.

On 2 March, the 7th Marine Battalion, 147th Brigade, began landing troops in Fire Support Base DeltÕ The 2d Battalion of the 3d Regiment, which had suffered from combat attrition at Hotel 2, was sent to the rear to reorganize while other elements of the regiment moved out to operate in the areas of Delta 1 and Brown. For three consecutive days, the 147th Brigade Headquarters and the remaining 2d and 4th Battalions were inserted into DeltÕ Immediately thereafter, the 2d and 4th Marine Battalions moved out to operate in the area of objective AlphÕ The entire 258th Brigade, meanwhile, was inserted at FSB Hotel. The 8th Battalion assumed security of the base and operated in the Co Roc area while the 1st and 3d Battalions searched for the enemy in the area of objective Brav÷ Marine activities during this time resulted in 361 enemy killed and 51 weapons seized. Also, 153 enemy personnel killed by air-strikes were found by marine troops.

On 3 March, in execution of the plan to enter Tchepone, the 1st Battalion of the 1st Infantry Regiment was inserted at Landing Zone Lolo 13 kilometers southeast of Tchepone. The landing had met with strong enemy opposition and had been postponed twice because of additional preparations required for the landing zon© The 1/1 Battalion finally touched ground at the price of 11 helicopters shot down, 44

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others hit by gunfire and two D4 bulldozers destroyed after being dropped from the air. The following day, the 1st Regiment Headquarters, the 2/1 Battalion and a battery of 105-mm howitzers were brought into Landing Zone Lol÷ Fire Support Base Lolo was thus established. The 4/1 Battalion meanwhile landed at Landing Zone Liz, six kilometers west-northwest of Lolo(7). The various units then moved out to search the area but only a few light contacts were made with minor results.

In the morning of 5 March, in order to continue its westward push, the 2d Infantry Regiment of the 1st Division was scheduled to occupy Landing Zone Sophia, four-and-a-half kilometers southwest of Tchepone at 1100 hours but unexpected bad weather delayed the operation. After preemptive air-strikes, at exactly 1320 hours five UH-lHs landed safelÜ Sporadic gunfire was received but posed no major threat. By nightfall, Landing Zone Sophia had eight 105- mm howitzers in position with adequate ammunition. Searching further out the 4th and 5th Battalions found the bodies of 124 enemy troops and seized 43 AK-47s, nine 12.7-mm machineguns, four RPD automatic rifles, nine B-40 rocket launchers, three radios, military clothing, equipment and food supplies. After securing Fire Support Base Sophia, the 2d Regiment was now in a position to control Tchepone from its mountain base and keep the areas surrounding the town within range of its artillery.

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For the next two days, throughout the areas of operation of the 1st Infantry and the Marine Divisions, friendly units caught the spirit of the new offensive. They fought aggressively, repeatedly engaged the enemy, and defeated him everywhere. In the morning of 5 March, in the area of Objective Alpha, the 4th Marine Battalion killed 130 enemy troops and seized 25 assorted weapons including two 82-mm mortars. Friendly forces sustained six killed and 42 wounded. The 4/1 Battalion made contact near Landing Zone Liz, killing 41 Communist troops and seizing 15 weapons along with two mortars. By 6 March, engagements were increasing and occurring everywhere, but friendly forces suffered only light casualties while inflicting heavy losses on the enemÜ More importantly, they were now within easy reach of Tchepone, the final objective that President Thieu had ordered them to take just three days earlier.

In the afternoon of 6 March, Khe Sanh received an attack by fire of an estimated 22 rounds of 122-mm rockets and two U.S. troops were killed and 10 wounded. Elsewhere, the enemy appeared to take no significant initiative but he was increasing his use of surface- to-air missiles in lower Laos. Earlier, on 2 February, a Mohawk aircraft flying west of the demilitarized zone reported an unidentified missile fired from the ground which exploded approximately 100 meters away, causing no damage to the aircraft. Subsequently, 14 instances of surface-to-air missile firing were photographed or reported by forward air controllers, army pilots, tactical air and reconnaissance aircraft. Missile transportation equipment and antenna vans along with other equipment related to surface-to-air missile systems were also sighted in the tri-border areÕ

The day selected to enter the ultimate objective, Tchepone, was 6 March. A total of 120 U.S. helicopters were assembled to carry out the assault. In addition to B-52, U.S. tactical air strikes or air cover sorties were scheduled every 10 minutes. Elements of the 2/17 U.S. Air Cavalry reconnoitered targets, prepared landing zones and covered the assault. An enemy attack by fire on Khe Sanh Base forced the huge assemblage of U.S. helicopters to depart 90 minutes earlier

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than planned, but preparations for this operation had been so carefully executed that when the first helicopters carrying the 2/2 Battalion landed at Landing Zone Hope four kilometers northeast of Tchepone, only sporadic gunfire was received. By 1343 hours both the 2d and 3d Battalions along with an element of the 2d Reconnaissance Company and the tactical command post of the 2d Infantry Regiment had landed safely at Hop© Searching the adjoining areas and occupying key positions, the 2d Regiment only made light contacts but found the bodies of 102 enemy troops killed by B-52s and seized five 12.7-mm machineguns and one anti-aircraft artillery gun. Extending its search further south toward Tchepone, the 3/2 Battalion found a cache of an estimated 1,000 tons of rice and 2,000 gas masks along with 31 enemy bodies and numerous weapons destroyed by B-52s. nearby, the 2/2 Battalion found an area devastated by B-52s with nearly 100 enemy bodies and assorted weapons shattered to pieces. After the two reinforced ARVN battalions had made assault landing near the objective and rapidly exploited their success, the district town of Tchepone was practically under ARVN control, dominated as it was by the array of artillery pieces to the south. The most remote terrain objective of LAM SON 719 was attained.

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(1) After-Action Report on LAM SON 719 dated 1 April 1971 by Colonel Arthur W. Pence, pp. 7, 8.

(2) Specific instructions from COMUSMACV prohibited any U.S. Army elements from entering Laos in advance of the RVNAF border crossing.

(3) Bomb damage assessments were extremely difficult and hazardous to conduct in this dense, heavily defended areÕ As a consequence, only 10% of the B-52 targets struck during LAM SON 719 were reconnoitered later on the ground and even those that were entered by ground troops were so torn up by craters and splintered trees that accurate assessments were impossible. Nevertheless, by putting together all sources of information - prisoner and rallier interrogations, aerial - observation and photography, ground reconnaissance, document exploitation, agent reports and communications intelligence analysts concluded that enemy losses to U.S. air attacks were substantial.

(4) Message 00843, 141435Z Feb 71, COMUSMACV to CJCS.

(5) Colonel Nguyen Van Tho, commander of the 3d Airborne units routinely secured their fire support bases in this manner. Other ARVN units also employed this technique when the terrain and enemy situation made it appropriate.

(6) Colonel Nguyen Van Tho, commander of the 3d Airborne Brigade, was forced by the Communists to make a radio statement denouncing LAM SON 719 shortly after his capture.

(7) English names were chosen for objectives, fire-bases and the like primarily to facilitate communications with U.S. support units. During the First Indochina War. The French had followed a parallel practice (at Dien Bien Phu, for example). Perhaps feminine names were selected to bring some softness into the virile world of combatants at war. "Lolo", "Liz", and "Sophia" were chosen by Colonel Vu Van Giai, the very effective deputy commander of the 1st Division who assisted in maneuvering the division during this period. He had served for several years in the DMZ area, in coordination with U.S. combat units, and he naturally followed their practice in naming fire-bases. The small return that the NVA might have enjoyed by exploiting these names for propaganda value - as proof that the Americans were still in charge despite Vietnamization - was certainly overridden by the practicality of having words the Americans could understand and pronounce.

===> Part 1: Preface & Table Of Content Content - Part 2: Introduction - Part 3: The Operational Environment - Part 4: The Planning Phase - Part 5: The Offensive Phase - Part 6: The Withdrawal Phase - Part 7: A Critical Analysis - Part 8: Observations And Conclusions - Part 9: Appendix & Glossary -
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