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

Indochina Monographs


by Maj. Gen. Nguyen Duy Hinh

Published by U.S. Army Center Of Military History



by Maj. Gen. Nguyen Duy Hinh


The Withdrawal Phase

The Disengagement

In the early morning of 7 March, the first enemy reactions to the 1st Division's presence at Tchepone occurred in the form of artillery and mortar fire against Fire Support Base Lol÷ The first attack, which was brief and light, caused only five casualties, but the second attack was heavier as indirect fire poured in from all calibers of guns from 82-mm mortars to 152-mm artillery. More than 20 soldiers were hit - three were killed - and all of the bulldozers used in the construction of fortifications were damaged. While the troops on Lolo were digging in under this heavy bombardment, Fire Support Base A Luoi was also subjected to a heavy attack by fir© NVA artillery fell on the positions intermittently throughout the day, disrupting the scheduled heliborne supply and evacuation runs.

On the same day, the Black Panther (Reconnaissance) Company of the 1st Infantry Division, which had been attached to the US 101st Airborne Division from the beginning of the campaign, landed troops about five kilometers west-southwest of Ban Dong to rescue the crew of a U.S. aircraft which had gone down two days befor© The Black Panthers scored a major combat exploit by rescuing all the Americans and subsequently made contact with the enemy, sustaining light casualties but killing more than 60 Communist troops. During this violent action, they also seized 30 NVA automatic rifles, destroyed an anti-aircraft gun position, and found another 40 NVA soldiers killed by air-strikes.

The 2d Battalion, 2d Infantry, on a mission to assess B-52 bomb damage in an area east of Tchepone, found a smashed weapons supply

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point that contained 150 rocket launchers (122-mm), 43 grenade launchers, 17 heavy machineguns, eight 82-mm mortars and 57 AK-47 rifles, all damaged beyond us© Nearby, the battalion found two Communist tanks destroyed by air-strikes and an ammunition storage area which it marked for future disposal (B-52 strikes conducted later on this target resulted in approximately 2,000 secondary explosions). While the 2d Battalion, 2d Infantry reconnoitered east of Tchepone, the 4th Battalion, 1st Infantry conducted a similar mission in the heights southeast of Tchepone and found the bodies of 112 enemy troops and seized 32 medium mortars, five 12.7- mm machine guns, six grenade launchers and 18 AK-47 rifles.

Meanwhile the 2d Regiment launched the first foray into Tchepone, to find only a shambles of the former district seat, and no human beings in sight. On their way out, the reconnaissance troops killed a squad of NVA soldiers and found a cache containing eight 82-mm mortars, two tons of rice and other military equipment.

During the morning of 8 March, while marine and airborne units made sporadic contacts with the enemy in all other areas with varying degrees of success, Fire Support Base Lob continued to receive attacks by fire which caused all planned re-supply and evacuation flights into the base to be cancelled.

The 2d Battalion, 2d Infantry continued to search the areas around Tchepone and found 52 dead enemy soldiers along with three heavy machine-guns, 44 rifles and about 50 heavy artillery rounds destroyed by air-strikes.

Late afternoon found the units of the 2d Regiment assembled near the banks of the Tchepone River. That night, two battalions of the 2d Regiment moved past Tchepone on the east and crossed the river to the southern sid© On 9 March at 0900 hours, the regiment began to climb the ridge to FSB SophiÕ The invasion of Tchepone had been completed.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Lam, Commander of I Corps, arrived at the Presidential Palace in Saigon to report to President Thieu on the situation. General Vien, Chairman of the Joint General Staff, was present at that meeting and heard General Lam present the rationale for

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the withdrawal and the outline of how it would be executed. Why did General Lam and General Vien recommend to President Thieu that the apparently successful operation into Laos be terminated so far ahead of schedule? The 2d Infantry had not nearly completed its mission in the hills east of Tchepone where great quantities of NVA military supplies were stored, and only a brief reconnaissance had been conducted into the town itself. No ARVN reconnaissance in force had reached the Xe Bang Hiang River, the principal waterway that flows from north to south west of the town, although the ARVN commander in this zone had requested that CBU-42 (timeddelay bomblets) be sewn on the west bank to make it difficult for the NVA to concentrate ther© Coincidentally, of course, this barrier also inhibited any ARVN crossing of the river in this area, although it was the western side of the Tchepone complex that was suspected of containing numerous supply depots and huge quantities of war materiel. The river would have to be crossed to complete the task.

Why was the river not crossed? The answer is that a careful military estimate was made, based upon all the pertinent information available at the time, and the conclusion was inescapable: it was time to get out. First was the problem of terrain. In a tactical sense, ARVN forces were facing an uphill task, progressing as they did from the lowlands, with which they were familiar, to the highlands where the well entrenched enemy enjoyed the advantage. The only road available for troop and supply movements ran through steep mountains and dense forests. The enemy had operated in this region for many years, was familiar with it and knew all the trails. He could cut the road or lay ambushes almost anywhere. To the west past Ban Dong, this road ran through a range of high mountains. All along the slopes the NVA had positioned a dense array of antiaircraft guns, big and small. These guns not only fired at aircraft but also at ARVN troop columns and truck convoys moving to and from Tchepone.

The forests of the Truong Son Range are especially formidable obstacles to cross country movement. The bases of the tall trees are girded by bamboo thickets, dense and thornÜ These forests do not permit armored operations and thorny bamboo greatly hampers movements

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of infantry soldiers. But enemy troops were familiar with the terrain, had preddug fortifications and knew all the paths and trails. The NVA soldiers enjoyed this important advantage.

The weather was a factor which also worked for the enemy and seldom favored the ARVN side with its numerous helicopters and strong airforce. As presented in the terrain description of Chapter II, lower Laos is usually obscured in fog from dawn until mid morning, sometimes until noon. Aircraft could usually operate after the fog lifted until late afternoon, but only if there was no rain and even if it didn't rain low clouds sometimes prevented the full use of ARVN's air support.

On the other hand, the endless mountains and forests provided good concealment for enemy deployments within the area of operations as well as for the movement of reinforcements from far awaÜ Our failure to detect all of these movements presented ARVN commanders with many unwelcome surprises. Even those enemy units which had not previously operated in the Laos panhandle had the support of veteran units to provide guides, assistance and advic©

In short, the enemy was thoroughly familiar with the terrain in lower Laos and ARVN troops were not. The terrain and weather favored the defenders and handicapped the attackers. The area was especially disadvantageous for our mechanized and armored forces which were restricted to narrow jungle roads on which two vehicles could not pass and on which entire columns could often be jammed or stalled by one disabled vehicle.

The NVA strength and reinforcement capability was the second factor that influenced the decision to initiate the withdrawal. Estimated enemy forces in the immediate area of operation consisted of three infantry regiments, rear service elements capable of local defense, and artillery elements especially notable for their air defense capability. It was estimated that the NVA could reinforce, within two weeks, with up to eight infantry regiments and the equivalent of an artillery regiment.

Heavy artillery and armor also strengthened the enemy's capabilities. First among these was the enemy's dispersed and well concealed 130-mm

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and 152-mm heavy artillery. ARVN's stationary fire support bases on hilltops, therefore, were easy targets for enemy artillery fir© The second factor in the enemy's capability of deep concern to the leadership in Saigon was the enemy armor strength that had become apparent. The planners of LAM SON 719 had failed to give sufficient consideration to the threat of NVA armor, and now this threat had become a reality. Even though enemy armor was under daily attack from the air, Fire Support Base 31 had been lost because of the enemy's effective coordination of armor and infantry forces. In other places the enemy used his tanks as highly mobile field guns moving them individually over trails to ambush ARVN armored vehicles on the roads. The maneuvering of tanks on such a large scale over forest trails known only to the enemy posed a great threat to ARVN armored vehicles which were confined to congested one way roads strewn with disabled vehicles. Moreover, NVA tanks had thicker armor and mounted guns of a larger caliber than the ARVN tanks, 100-mm versus 76-mm and had a significantly greater armor defeating capability.

Thirdly, even after a month of intensive attack the enemy's air defense capabilities showed no signs of being subdued and he had positioned surface-to-air missiles west of the border or at the Ban Raving Pass. These missiles had Route N÷ 9 from Khe Sanh to Ban Dong within effective range, a challenge that the U.S. Air Force had to fac© Around the ARVN's besieged bases, even after waves of air-strikes, enemy anti-aircraft guns would reappear close to their original positions. Also, antiaircraft batteries were deployed along helicopter avenues of approach; those positioned on the mountain slopes between Ban Dong and Tchepone seemed impossible to uproot. This enemy capability practically neutralized the ARVN advantage of helicopter mobility and logistic support.

In contrast to the enemy who had large uncommitted reserves in North Vietnam, our reserves were limited indeed. The Airborne and Marine Divisions constituted the entire general reserves of the RVN and they were already committed. Committing the 1st Infantry Division and the 1st Ranger Group required an extreme effort made possible only

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with the help of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division which replaced these two units in the lowlands of Thua Thien Province. And now, in the light of the enemy's reinforcement and strength on the battlefield, it was becoming apparent that the ARVN force committed to LAM SON 719 was too small for the task. General Abrams recommended that the ARVN 2d Infantry Division be sent in to reinforce, and the division was preparing plans to turn over its area of responsibility in MR 1 to the U.S. 23d Infantry Division(1). Still, in the view of the RVN leadership, one additional division would be insufficient to ensure total victory and would result in a higher casualty figure for our forces in Laos. Also, removing the 2d Division from MR 1 would leave more of the vital lowland areas of MR 1 undefended. The only reasonable course of action was an orderly withdrawal to conserve as much of the committed force as possible. Further reinforcing this conclusion was the fact that the political and psychological objective of the campaign had been achieved; the RVNAF had entered Tchepone. It was apparent that President Thieu had decided, at the outset, that once Tchepone had been entered by RVNAF, the withdrawal should begin without delaÜ

The main features of the withdrawal plan were outlined to President Thieu at the 9 March meeting. The 2d Infantry Regiment would close Fire Support Base Sophia and establish a new fire base (called Brick) near Route 92 about nine kilometers south of Ban Dong. The units of the 2d Regiment would be picked up at various landing zones in the Sophia-Liz area and inserted into landing zones south and west of Fire Support Base Brick. Thereafter, the 2d Regiment would move southwest, searching for and destroying installations of Communist Binh Tram 33 and interdicting

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Route 914. The 1st and 2d Regiments would conduct operations in the area of Route 914 for seven to ten days. The withdrawal would then proceed in the following order: first, the 1st Division, then the Airborne Division; Fire Support Base Lolo would close thereafter to be followed by Fire Support Base Brick; the 3d Infantry Regiment in the area of Brown and Fire Support Base Delta I would pull out after closing FSB A Luo¸ After the withdrawal of the Airborne Division, the 147th and 258th Marine Brigades would move out from the areas of Fire Support Bases Delta and Hotel. The entire withdrawal, according to Lieutenant General Lam's estimate, was scheduled for completion by 31 March. After resting and reorganizing for about two weeks, the 1st Infantry Division, two Marine brigades and one Airborne brigade would conduct operations into the eastern sector of enemy Base Area 611, the A Shau Valley and the Laotian salient. The Khe Sanh Base would probably close on 15 April.

Thee Valiant ARVN 1st infantry Division

Friendly Operations, Early March 1971
Map21: Friendly Operations, Early March 1971
While the withdrawal plan was being explained to the President, the 1st Infantry Regiment began to move toward objective area Ta Luong(Map 21). Advance elements reported sighting enemy tanks near the areÕ Further north, near Route N÷ 9, at 10 kilometers southeast of Tchepone, observation teams of the 1st Regiment also reported sighting a Communist armored group. ARVN artillery opened fire and disabled five enemy tanks. Meanwhile, the Marine sector was very activ© The battalions received heavy attacks by fire, and, searching out 10 km south-southeast from their bases, found a NVA camp that had been bombed by B-52s with 5,000 heavy artillery rockets along with numerous other weapons and substantial volumes of ammunition all destroyed. In the morning of 10 March, the 1st Marine Battalion engaged the enemy twice, the first time in a light encounter and the second time fighting a battalion size unit with the following results: 72 enemy killed and 20 small arms, one recoilless rifle, and four grenade launchers seized. The Marine losses were only six killed and 19 wounded.

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The 1st Infantry Regiment continued to search the areas of Ta Luong and Route 914 and was able to assess the substantial damages inflicted by B-52 bombing runs. In two areas approximately 10 kilometers south and southeast of FSB Sophia, the 4th Battalion found the bodies of 72 Communist troops, 12 Soviet trucks, eight tracked vehicles, three 122-mm towed cannons two 37-mm anti- aircraft artillery guns, four 12.7-mm machineguns, two 122-mm rocket launchers, 400 AK-47 rifles, thirty two 82-mm mortars, 18 B- 40s, 60 Chicom radios and huge quantities of food of all types. Most of these supplies were blown to bits by B-52 bombs. The battalion also captured five prisoners of war.

During the morning of 10 March, the 2d Regiment on Fire Support Base Sophia received a heavy attack by fir© The attack wounded 13 soldiers and damaged six of the eight 105-mm howitzers at the bas© On 11 March, 2d Infantry Regiment elements operating around the fire support base had increasing contacts with the enemÜ At 1100 hours, a reconnaissance element operating approximately one kilometer southeast of the base engaged a Communist patrol killing eight and seizing their weapons. According to plans, the 2d Infantry Regiment was to move this day, on foot to Landing Zone Liz from where it would be helilifted eastward. Between 1400 hours and nightfall, the 2d Battalion was removed from Landing Zone Liz and deposited on Landing Zone Brown. The 5th Battalion landed approximately one kilometer north of Landing Zone Sophia East where the headquarters of the 2d Regiment had already relocated while the 4th Battalion continued to secure Fire Support Base SophiÕ Late that afternoon an element of the battalion engaged the enemy approximately 1,000 meters south of the base but casualties were light on both sides.

During the day, 1st Infantry Regiment forces continued to search the Ta Luong area and found more substantial damage caused by B-52 attacks. On 12 March, the evacuation of the 2d Regiment was completed. The 3d Battalion from Liz landed approximately 1,000 meters south of Sophia East and the 4th Battalion was the last unit to leave SophiÕ In order to facilitate the movement of troops, U.S. tactical air bombed and destroyed the eight 105-mm howitzers left on the base and another 105-mm battery was brought to Sophia East from Khe Sanh. The units of

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the 1st Infantry Regiment, whose headquarters was at Fire Support Base Lolo, were the forces located deepest to the west.

On the fronts manned by the Airborne and Marine Division, engagements and attacks by fire followed an increasing trend. Meanwhile, two M-41 tank troops reassigned by JGS from MR 2, were moving into lower Laos to reinforce the 4th Armored Cavalry Squadron. U.S. air support was becoming more effective since Vietnamese interpreters flying with forward air controllers had become more familiar with the situation. Re-supply operations were conducted throughout the battle area thanks to the daring and the noble spirit of sacrifice of U.S. Army helicopter crews.

Upon the 2d Infantry Regiment's withdrawal from the area west of Lolo, NVA forces, probably elements of the 1st and 31st Regiments of the NT-2 Division, began to encircle units of the 3d Infantry Regiment. Beginning on 13 March, the battalions operating in the Ta Luong area (Objectives Gia Lam and Bach Mai) were gradually forced to withdraw north and Fire Support Base Lolo began to receive uninterrupted attacks by fir© On 14 March, the intensity of these attacks increased. During the day, the base received an estimated two hundred 122-mm rockets and one hundred 152-mm artillery rounds. Thanks to their solid shelters and trenches, the regiment had only three killed and two wounded but one D-4 bulldozer and two 105-mm howitzers were seriously damaged. In the meantime, the enemy had moved up to the base and small arms fire was being directed at supply aircraft, causing medical evacuation and re-supply attempts to be called off. On 15 March, the base could not be re-supplied (nor could Delta or A Luoi, both of which were under attacks by fire). The various units on and around the base were running out of ammunition and the number of wounded in need of evacuation was increasing. A withdrawal plan was hastily prepared. The headquarters of the 1st Regiment and the battalions outside the base would move east. The 4th Battalion would serve as the rear guard protecting the regiment in its effort to break through enemy encirclement. The plan was carried out satisfactorily but the enemy tightened its hold on the 4th Battalion. Finally, this unit fought its way out with the enemy

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in pursuit, all the while rejecting the NVA demands for it to surrender.

On 17 March, close to the banks of the Tchepone River, the battalion was intercepted and the fighting lasted all day, with tactical air and gun-ships providing dedicated support. The battalion commander and his deputy were both killed. Most of the company commanders and officers of the battalion were also killed and the few survivors managed to escape to an area near Route N÷ 9. There, in the late afternoon of 18 March, U.S. helicopters with tactical air support conducted a daring rescu© Three helicopters were hit and one fighter-bomber exploded in the air but the thirty two survivors of the 4th Battalion were rescued and flown to the rear(2). The battalion had accomplished well its rear guard mission and in the process, had sacrificed nearly every man. The fight put up by Fire Support Base Lolo and the units of the 1st Infantry Regiment had resulted in 1,100 enemy killed, causing severe losses to two main force regiments of the Communist NT-2 Division.

"Lock Its Head, Grip Its Tail"

While the 1st Regiment was subjected to heavy attacks which eventually caused it to pull out of the Lolo area, the battalions of the 2d Regiment continued to conduct reconnaissance in force and search the Cua Tung and Cua Viet objective areas along Route 914. In three areas, approximately one and a half, six and seven kilometers southeast of FSB Sophia East, the 2d and 3d Battalions found many logistical installations and camps destroyed along with decomposed bodies of enemy troops. Supported by helicopter gunships, they destroyed five enemy trucks.

In the southeast, activity in the Marine sector began to pick up. The 147th Marine Brigade Headquarters at Fire Support Base Delta received 400 incoming rounds which killed eight marines. The 7th

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Battalion, operating outside the base, received a corresponding number of artillery rounds and had five wounded. Other units of the brigade, the 2d and 4th Battalions, continued to search objective area Alpha, approximately five kilometers south of Fire Support Base DeltÕ

During the afternoon of 16 March the headquarters of the 3d Infantry Regiment (1st Division) and its 4th Battalion were picked up in the Delta 1 area and taken to Ham Nghi Base along with a number of supporting units. The 3d Battalion had been taken out for rest and reorganization two days befor© The 1st Battalion remained to secure the base (Delta 1).

Meanwhile, the enemy was beginning to harass Khe Sanh. For the second day running, this fire support base was hit by mortar fire which wounded four Americans and damaged two helicopters and a number of vehicles.

On 17 March, Communist gunners stepped up their shellings of other targets. In RVN territory, at the border, Fire Support Bases Phu Loc and Lao Bao were attacked by 130-mm artillery but the losses were small.

Fire Support Base A Luoi received attacks by fire practically every day and Fire Support Base Delta and the 7th Marine Battalion were pinned down. In a small engagement, the 7th Battalion killed 16 enemy troops while suffering only five casualties. A NVA recruit just assigned to the 812th Regiment, 524B Division rallied to the Marines and disclosed that the entire 324B Division was in the "Route 9 campaign" with its 29th, 803d and 812th regiments. The 29th Regiment had recently suffered heavy losses and the 812th regiment was engaging the 147th Marine Brigade.

In the meantime, in the area of the 2d Regiment, the 5th Battalion received an intense early morning attack of an estimated 300 rounds of mortar and artillery fir© The battalion continued its search operations and, thanks to intensive air support, scored a major victory in the area near Landing Zone Brown, killing nearly 100 enemy and capturing a large number of weapons and a ton of ammunition. In accordance with the withdrawal plan, the headquarters of the 2d Infantry Regiment was

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evacuated to Delta 1 while its battalion proceeded east on foot.

From 18 March on it seemed that the enemy was well aware of the ARVN withdrawal and there were signs of the enemy concentrating a regimental size unit northwest of Fire Support Base A Luoi while pressure increased around Fire Support Base Delta of the 147th Brigade. The base began to receive fire from l30-mm field guns and NVA infantry had infiltrated close enough to fire at aircraft. There were about 10 anti-aircraft guns positioned on the mountain slopes around the base that could not be silenced. The 2d and 4th Battalions operating to the south were recalled to sweep the area around Delta and to prepare for the withdrawal.

By mid day of 18 March the 1st Infantry Regiment, with its 1st, 2d and 3d battalions, after falling back from the Lolo area, arrived in an area approximately 2,000 meters southwest of Fire Support Base A Luo¸ There they were picked up by helicopters and flown to Khe Sanh. The survivors of the 4th Battalion were also flown back in the late afternoon. Next came the turn of the 5th Battalion, 2d Regiment, which boarded helicopters from an area adjacent to Landing Zone Brown.

Immediately thereafter, from about 1600 hours and continuing through the night of 18 March, the remaining three battalions of the 2d Infantry Regiment, the 2d, 3d and 4th, received heavy attacks west of the Brown areÕ The NVA followed up its artillery with ground assaults. The next morning the 4th Battalion made a preliminary report that it had 33 wounded and five missing. The 2d Battalion had similar casualty figures while enemy losses were unknown.

For four days now, reports flowed into I Corps headquarters of strong attacks that included very heavy bombardments by heavy artillery and tank attacks. Reports of ARVN losses, including the decimation of the 4th Battalion, 1st Infantry, were very disturbing to General Lam, as were the many indications that the enemy was reinforcing and maneuvering to prevent the orderly ARVN withdrawal from Laos. So, on the night of 18 March, General Lam called his division commanders to a conference at Ham Nghi Base (Khe Sanh) to hear their assessments and recommendations. They each recommended that disengagement proceed as quickly

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as possible; General Phu, commanding the 1st Division, displayed anxiety for the first time in the campaign.

When the conference was over, General Lam ordered that the withdrawal proceed at a quicker pace and that preparations begin immediately for the extraction of the 2d Regiment from the Brown area and Fire Base Delta 1 where all its battalions were wider heavy attack and in danger of being cut off and destroyed.

On the morning of 19 March, abandoning Fire Support Base A Luoi (Ban Dong), ARVN armored elements and attached airborne units moved overland to take positions along a line near Fire Support Base AlphÕ The 2d Airborne Battalion operating to the north and having made a contact with the enemy during the day, would be helilifted from a landing zone north of Base AlphÕ After the elements from Ban Dong had arrived at Alpha, the remaining forces of the 1st Infantry Division were also picked up, including the battalions of the 2d Regiment from the Brown area and the 2d Regiment Headquarters along with the 1st Battalion, 3d Regiment from Base Delta 1.

Information received during the night added some clarity to the situation. Almost all the airborne battalions were in contact with the enemÜ The 7th, 8th, 9th and 11th Airborne battalions had relatively light engagements with minimal losses on both sides. The 1st Airborne Battalion, however, had 18 casualties and reported killing 80 enemy troops, capturing five prisoners and seizing five AK-47 rifles. The 2d Airborne Battalion also suffered relatively high losses, with 18 killed and 57 wounded. Enemy losses were unknown. On the Marine side, Base Delta was still experiencing heavy enemy pressure. The 7th Marine Battalion constantly received attacks by fire and ground attacks. The enemy even used a noxious gas but suffered heavy casualties with 42 killed. Marine losses were light.

Enemy Situation, Late March 1971
Map22: Enemy Situation, Late March 1971
The 19th of March was a day of intense activities. All ARVN units in Laos reported enemy contacts. A synthesis of information received from prisoners, ralliers and the combat units gave a rather clear picture of enemy dispositions on the battlefield. The 308th NVA Division with its 36th, 102d and 88th regiments was attacking from the north(Map 22).

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The 64th and 24th Regiments (respectively from the 320th and 304th Division) continued to encircle the Ban Dong area east of Route N÷ 9. The 2d Division was trying to annihilate the remaining forces of the ARVN 1st Infantry Division. The 324th Division deployed its 29th and 803d Regiments to attack the 147th Marine Brigade while its 812th Regiment pinned the 258th Marine Brigade down around Hotel and at Co Roc. The enemy apparently wanted to catch the entire ARVN force in his trap. In the manner of a hunter, he set about to kill his prey by "locking its head and gripping its tail." This was his strategy of annihilation for which he had coined this metaphorical phras©

In the RVN territory, all Communist main and local force units stepped up their operations. Mine attacks and ambushes occurred daily on the LOC, Route N÷ 9. Enemy sappers continually probed logistical installations and the enemy launched a psychological warfare campaign aimed at publicizing the NVA victories along Route N÷ 9.

Beginning in early morning, north of Ban Dong, the 8th and 9th Airborne Battalions, were under attack. The 8th Battalion had 32 casualties while the 9th Battalion immediately to the east inflicted heavy losses on the enemÜ Only light engagements were reported along Route 9 while Ban Dong Base began to be evacuated after most of the artillery pieces had been lifted out by helicopters.

The armored logistic convoy set out, towing damaged vehicles and guns under the protection of airborne units and other armored elements while the enemy continued to exert pressure on the rear of the column. At 0730 hours, approximately two kilometers north of Ban Dong, forward air controller aircraft reported sighting four enemy tanks moving down. Approximately four kilometers east of Ban Dong Base, the logistic convoy was ambushed and all 18 vehicles were immobilized. Some of the lead vehicles were hit by direct fire and destroyed. The road had only one lane; the vehicles behind were stalled in the ambush zon© While the battle was in progress no reports were received from the convoy commander; his superiors were therefore unaware of what was happening to the convoÜ Losses incurred during the ambush were neither reported nor even analyzed afterwards. According to reports from an observation

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plane, four M-41 tanks and three M-113 APCs, each towing a 105-mm howitzer, were apparently damaged among the 18 stranded vehicles. Road security for the movement of this convoy was the responsibility of armor and airborne units but during the attack, the convoy never initiated any request for air support or gun-ships. Apparently the ambush caught the convoy by surprise and it ended as quickly as it began. Later the commander of the 1st Armored Brigade requested tactical air to destroy the ambushed vehicles and his request was immediately granted in order to prevent the enemy from capturing usable equipment.

On the front manned by the Marine Division, the situation was even more serious. The units of the 258th Brigade were increasingly engaged by the enemy and the encirclement of Fire Support Base Delta did not relax in any waÜ Supplies could not be delivered and the 2d and 4th Battalions were intercepted on their way to the relief of the bas© Inside the base, five of the ten 105-mm howitzers were out of action due to enemy fire and the number of marines killed and wounded kept increasing.

In the area of the 1st Division, Fire Support Base Delta 1 was hit by numerous 122-mm rockets and 75-mm recoilless rifle rounds which put four 105-mm howitzers out of action and caused 1,400 rounds of 105-mm ammunition to explode. The 2, 3d and 4th Battalions of the 2d Infantry Regiment west of Sophia East were involved in skirmishes throughout the daÜ

Late afternoon saw the enemy attack more fiercely and tactical air as well as C-130 gun-ships were called in to provide support. By midnight all three battalions reported having consolidated their positions. The 3d Battalion had 47 casualties after killing 87 Communist troops and seizing 49 AK-47s and 17 grenade launchers. Among the enemy bodies were those of two company commanders of the NVA 2d Division. The 2d Battalion had light casualties but reported killing 85 enemy, seizing 47 AK-47s and several other crew- served weapons. The 4th Battalion reported killing 195 enemy troops and seizing 59 AK-47s and numerous other weapons.

During the day, U.S. air support substantially increased, with 686 sorties of helicopter gun-ships, 246 tactical air sorties and 14 B- 52 missions which dropped 1,158 tons of bombs.

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Late in the afternoon of 19 March, Ambassador Bunker and General Abrams were received by President Thieø President Thieu disclosed he had directed a cautious withdrawal which would be completed from 5-8 April. When the withdrawal was complete, he planned to have about three battalions launch a raid against Muong Nong, the center of Communist Base Area 611, and wanted strong U.S. air support for this raid.

On 20 March, the U.S. Air Force and Army helicopters exerted their maximum effort, with 1,388 gun-ships sorties, 27 tactical air strikes and 11 B-52 missions dropping 909 tons of bombs. Around 1300 hours, the 3d Battalion, 2d Regiment was extracted from the area west of Sophia East by U.S. Army helicopters which flew through heavy antiaircraft fire to evacuate it to Ham Nghi Bas© In the process, 28 of the 40 helicopters involved were hit. Plans for the extraction of the 4/2 Battalion were subsequently aborted because the first helicopter attempting to land was hit by fire and exploded in the air. Before nightfall, the artillery pieces at Fire Support Base Alpha along with the 2d and 7th Airborne Battalions were transported back to Vietnam. Plans provided for the 2d and 4th Battalions, 2d Regiment, to be picked up the next day, followed by the regimental headquarters, its artillery, and the 1st Battalion, 3d Infantry from Fire Support Base Delta 1. The two 2d Regiment battalions were ordered to find a more secure pick up zon©

In the meantime, the 1st Armored Brigade, reinforced by the 7th and 8th Airborne Battalions, had arrived at Phase Line Alpha the preceding evening. The armored and airborne elements deployed to provide security for Route N÷ 9 from Alpha to Base Brav÷ At 2100 hours the NVA attacked the 8th Airborne Battalion and 11th Armored Cavalry Squadron south of Alpha but were repulsed with heavy losses.

Around Fire Support Base Delta of the 147th Marine Brigade, on this same day, Communist suicide troops reached the defense perimeter and dug in. Small arms fire from these pockets made helicopter landings and takeoffs even more difficult. Supply deliveries could not be made but the 7th Marine Battalion and the troops of the 147th Brigade held on because they had previously received a ten day reserve of supplies which would permit them to continue fighting.

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On 21 March, at 0300 hours enemy action became intense in the area to the west, where the 2d and 4th Battalions of the 2d Regiment were stranded two kilometers east of Sophia East. The Regiments of the NVA 2d Division were determined to attack and annihilate these two battalions but they were not successful. In the process, the enemy lost 245 killed, 52 B-40s and B-41s, seven machineguns, seven 60-mm mortars, five 82-mm mortars, eight flame throwers, nine 12.7- mm machine-guns and 65 AK-47s. Friendly losses were 37 killed, 58 wounded and 15 missing. This ARVN victory caused enemy pressure to relax and the remaining forces of the 1st Infantry Division were transported by U.S. helicopters to Ham Nghi Base before nightfall. Meanwhile, the headquarters of the 1st Airborne Brigade, the 5th Airborne Battalion and the troops of the artillery unit left at Fire Support Base Alpha were also safely evacuated south. Fire support bases Alpha and Delta 1 were thus closed on that day and ARVN forces pulled back near Fire Support Base Bravo, five kilometers west of the RVN border.

The situation in the areas manned by the 1st Infantry and the Airborne Division had been resolved but, over in the Marines' area, there was an eruption of fir© The 29th and 803d Regiments of the 324B Division were determined to destroy Fire Support Base DeltÕ These two enemy units began attacking fiercely at dawn of 21 March. Mortar and direct artillery fire (the latter believed to come from tank guns) was very accurate. All 175-mm guns from the RVN side of the border were mobilized to provide close fire support to the Marines. In the morning, 13 tactical air sorties provided additional support. A B-52 mission was diverted to the area and crushed an enemy battalion (a PW later reported this battalion had lost 400 men from this B-52 action). The attack was checked and the base held firm. A casualty count showed that the Marines had 85 killed, 238 wounded and 100 weapons damaged while enemy forces suffered 600 killed, five detained and an estimated 200 individual and 60 crew-served weapons seized. After the battle, the 147th Brigade and the 7th Marine Battalion ran short of supplies. Thanks to air support, seven U.S. UH-1H helicopters were able to land, bringing ammunition and evacuating wounded. These helicopters

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were able to return to their base but all bore battle scars. An eighth helicopter was shot down.

During this period the enemy greatly increased his interference and jamming of our radio communications. Several frequencies were so badly jammed that communications became impossible. In many instances, enemy radio operators argued and exchanged insults with ours. These heated verbal exchanges occurred most frequently when the enemy intensified his attacks against the marines. To return the courtesy, our operators also intercepted and jammed enemy radio frequencies. During one of these interceptions, marine operators overheard a female voice giving combat orders. In general, South Vietnamese units did not make enough effort to safeguard radio communications security, often using the most rudimentary of self- devised code systems. This episode of reciprocal interference and jamming was perhaps more damaging to our side than to the enemy who was usually more disciplined. The extent of this damage, if any, could never be ascertained because of the intense fighting.

In the morning of 21 March, Vandegrift logistical base was penetrated by Communist sappers and 10,000 gallons of aviation fuel exploded into flames. Along Route N÷ 9, near Fire Support Base Bravo, the 11th Armored Cavalry Squadron and 8th Airborne Battalion were heavily engaged. There were nearly 100 casualties while four M-41 tanks and 13 armored personnel carriers were damaged. This battleground looked forlorn after the attack, with damaged vehicles abandoned and scattered across the road, making passage extremely difficult.

During the day, U.S. air support remained at a high level to help relieve the enemy pressure and facilitate the withdrawal of ARVN forces. There were 788 helicopter gun-ship sorties, eleven B-52 missions dropping 921 tons of bombs and 157 tactical air sorties which destroyed 37 enemy vehicles and one field gun and damaged 18 other vehicles.

During the night of 21 March, the 1st Armored Brigade and the 1st and 8th Airborne Battalions left their positions along Route N÷ 9 and moved east through the jungle in search of a point to cross the Xepon River. Successful in avoiding enemy contact, the convoy of nearly 100 vehicles meandered through the dense jungle until about noon the next

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day when it came out near the banks of the river, about one kilometer south of Route N÷ 9. The brigade was provided with a helicopter to help it find a crossing point and the commander of the Airborne Division had helicopters prepared to airlift light bulldozers as well as tree cutting equipment to help set up a crossing point for the armored vehicles. During the dry season, the Xepon River is usually shallow but the current is swift and the banks are steep, in many places ten meters straight down. A crossing point for vehicles was therefore not easy to find. Meanwhile, the 9th Airborne Battalion had crossed the river and secured the eastern bank. In late afternoon, two D-2 bulldozers and other pieces of equipment were lifted in by U.S. Army CH-54 helicopters and the river crossing site was prepared.

Meanwhile, forward air controller aircraft sighted an estimated 20 enemy armored vehicles closing in pursuit nine kilometers to the west by way of Route N÷ 9 and called in tactical air. The lead tank was hit and went up in flames. Enemy antiaircraft gunners returned the fire and one F-l00 aircraft was shot down. The pilot was not seen ejecting. Two more flights of aircraft were called in and two more enemy vehicles were destroyed. Artillery support following the air strikes finally caused the enemy armored formation to break up and the vehicles to seek concealment.

Why did the armored convoy leave Route N÷ 9 and make a cut through the jungle to find a way to cross the river when there was only a final stretch of five kilometers left to cover until the Lao- Viet border? The reason was never officially explained but Colonel Nguyen Trong Luat, Commander of the 1st Armor Brigade, later told this writer that had his unit not taken to the jungle to seek a way out, he did not believe a single vehicle could have made it back to Vietnam. Route N÷ 9 was a one way road, not only littered with abandoned vehicles and rigged with mines all along, but every section of it could conceal a Communist ambush sit© It was so treacherous that no one dared venture on it. The withdrawal along Route N÷ 9 surely did not proceed as planned in an orderly and controlled manner.

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Early the next morning, 23 March, while Khe Sanh Base was still finishing off Communist sappers who had infiltrated earlier, the ARVN armored column crossed the Xepon River and the lines of the U.S. 1st Mechanized Infantry Brigade, 5th Division. The convoy returned with 98 vehicles left behind, among them 22 M-41 tanks and 54 armored personnel carriers. Aerial and photo reconnaissance showed that the ARVN units had left 21 tanks, 26 armored personnel carriers, 13 bulldozers, two graders and 51 vehicles at a night bivouac area on Route No.9. U.S. air force helicopter gunships and artillery were used to destroy these vehicles to keep the enemy from using them. Khe Sanh Base, in the meantime had received four attacks by fire during the night, all by 122-mm artillery, but damage was insignificant.

In lower Laos, meanwhile, fighting was still fierce around Fire Support Base DeltÕ The airdropping of supplies on the base was not successful and ammunition stocks had dropped to an alarming level. Enemy troops had penetrated and established a firm foothold inside the Marines' perimeter. Late in the afternoon, the enemy launched a new attack, this time supported by ten flame throwing tanks. The Marines blew up the first two tanks with light antitank weapons. The third tank detonated mines and the fourth was hit by tactical air. But the remaining tanks continued to advance. The headquarters of the 147th Brigade had to move out of its position. The 2d and 4th Battalions supported the 7th Battalion to break the enemy's encirclement and withdraw toward the 258th Brigade (Fire Support Base Hotel). The enemy seemed to have anticipated this move and he intercepted the troops of the 147th Brigade in an ambush. A pitched battle ensued with enemy tanks and infantry. The following morning, 23 March, all battalion commanders of the 147th Brigade, though wounded, managed to maneuver their battalions to link up with the 258th Brigade. Eventually, isolated teams of marines who had been cut off from their units also followed suit. Almost immediately thereafter, 230 wounded were evacuated and, before nightfall, the entire 147th Marine Brigade with its 2d, 4th and 7th Battalions were transported by U.S. Army helicopters to an area near Ham Nghi Bas© There were initially 134 missing reported but they

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gradually came back, leaving the entire brigade with only 37 missing. The battle at FSB Delta had cost the enemy an estimated 2,000 troops, seriously hurting his 29th and 803d Regiments. Around noon of 23 March the last vehicles of the armored convoy crossed the border and the remaining airborne elements successively reached the forward positions of the U.S. 1st Brigade, 5th Infantry Division (mechanized). Because of enemy armored presence reported near the border, the U.S. brigade had recently been reinforced with a tank battalion (1/77 Armor). During the day, 23 March, U.S. air support continued at a high level: 756 helicopter gun-ship sorties, 11 B-52 missions dropping 941 tons of bombs which caused 77 secondary explosions, and 283 tactical air sorties.

In the morning of 24 March, as if propelled by the momentum of the pursuit, many Communist armored vehicles appeared on the Laotian side of the border. Near Route N÷ 9 and south of the road, between 1000 hours and noon, U.S. air cavalry reported up to five different locations of enemy armored vehicles near the border. The U.S. air cavalry and tactical air attacked and destroyed 10 Communist tanks, not counting those suspected of being damaged.

In the area of Fire Support Base Hotel, the remaining elements of the 258th Marine Brigade began to feel enemy probes. Not wishing to fight another Delta battle, the Marine Division commander ordered its evacuation. In the late afternoon, U.S. helicopters lifted out all six 105-mm and four 155-mm howitzers, and all of the Marines. Immediately upon reaching Khe Sanh, the 258th Brigade was sent to Lang Vei to set up a fire support base and take over an area of operations. On this same day, the 2d Regiment, 1st Infantry Division also deployed its units to provide security for Ham Nghi Bas© The 54th Infantry Regiment from Hue received orders to move to Khe Sanh and relieve the 2d Regiment which needed some rest. ARVN units including the 5th Regiment, 2d Division were also deployed to gradually replace U.S. units west of Quang Tr¸ On 25 March, upon special orders from I Corps, the Marine Division dispatched two reconnaissance teams to the Co Roc areÕ to control a vantage point essential for the security of Khe Sanh Bas© On this day,

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25 March, there were only two small ARVN reconnaissance teams left on Laotian territory.

Black Panther Raids

As I have previously mentioned, about a week earlier, on the afternoon of 19 March, President Thieu informed Ambassador Bunker and General Abrams that he had ordered a cautious pullback of RVNAF forces to South Vietnam. He conceived the possibility of the withdrawal lasting until 5 - 8 April 1971, to be followed by a surprise raid conducted by a regimental size force and directed at Muong Nong, the heart of Communist Base Area 611. Operation LAM SON 719 had the objective of disrupting two Communist base areas, one was Base Area 604 whose heart was Tchepone, the other, Area 611, centered on Muong Nong. All ARVN operations had been confined to Base Area 604. As far as Base Area 611 was concerned, the incursion went only as far as its northern boundary. The idea of further attacks into Muong Nong was, therefore, simply a follow up action to finish the incomplete operation. But, by 25 March 1971, most ARVN forces had already left lower Laos. Only two small Marine reconnaissance teams remained there, operating stealthily in the hilly area of Co Roc.

For several days, while the withdrawal was feverishly taking place in lower Laos, the logistical and command installations at Khe Sanh (Ham Nghi) had been gradually deploying to the rear, to÷ U.S. forces such as the 5th Mechanized Brigade and units of the 101st Airborne Division continued to provide security on the RVN territory and the area along Route N÷ 9 up to the border. But upon crossing the border, the Marine units were assigned responsibility for the Lao-Viet border in cooperation with the 1st Ranger Group still stationed northwest of Khe Sanh.

Although it no longer had any battalions in Laos, I Corps, whose forward command post was still located at Dong Ha, had an outstanding mission: the raid into Muong Nong. At this point, the world press as well as public opinion in South Vietnam and the United States tended

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to view Operation LAM SON 719 as an incomplete campaign, being too hastily terminated. Photographs of the battered ARVN forces in retreat taken by war correspondents, coupled with moving news reports created unfavorable feelings toward the RVN. The operation had received too much publicity and its objective had been misinterpreted as being decisive by some reporters. To terminate the operation at this time, well before the lower Laos rainy season, would surely be branded a defeat by public opinion. Moreover, the RVN military spokesman in his vague style of public announcement reiterated during a press conference after 25 March that the lower Laos operation was not really over and RVN forces were still attacking Communist logistical routes. To get itself off the hook, the GVN surely had to continue Operation LAM SON 719. The attacks against the Ho Chi Minh trail complex would continue, but less for military gains, than for face saving purposes, particularly in light of the fact that Communist troops had just launched a series of attacks in Quang Nam, Quang Tin and even in MR- 2.

After repeated bombings by B-52s throughout the night of 28 March extending into the early morning of 29 March, reconnaissance aircraft were sent to check the Muong Nong areÕ There were two serious obstacles there which prompted the raid to be called off: enemy antiaircraft guns had laid out an intense barrage of fire and the dense fog in the area would make air support almost impossible. Prolonged airstrikes would compromise the target and the units which were to conduct the raid as well as those supporting it would be subjected to further difficulties. The raid was, therefore, rescheduled for 31 March, but against another target.

Raids Across the Border
Map23: Raids Across the Border
In the early morning of 31 March, in the projected area of operation, a wave of B-52 strikes was followed by 22 tactical air sorties, all designed to prepare a landing zone south of the Laotian salient approximately 40 kilometers southeast of Lang Vei (Map 23). However, at 1030 hours reconnaissance aircraft reported continued heavy enemy antiaircraft fir© Preparations of the landing zone by air-strikes were resumed and at 1130 hours a Black Panther unit of the 1st Infantry Division, about 200 men and supported by the 2/17 Air Cavalry Squadron of

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the U.S. 101st Airborne Division landed without problems. In the meantime, a forward air controller aircraft and a communication relay aircraft circled over the areÕ The Black Panther unit searched the area and found the bodies of 85 enemy troops killed and 18 weapons destroyed by B-52 action. Continuing their search, the troops only made light contacts with the enemÜ On the night of 31 March, enemy vehicles were heard moving to the south and the information was immediately reported to the forward air controller. The forward air controller verified the information and called for an air attack in which five enemy vehicles were destroyed. The following morning, friendly troops continued the operation and found an enemy fuel dump hit by airstrikes along with a destroyed tunnel complex housing tracked vehicles.

The next afternoon, the Black Panthers were picked up by U.S. Army helicopters and transported to Hue while President Nguyen Van Thieu was visiting the operational headquarters of I Corps at Dong Ha and the units which had fought in lower Laos. To foreign and local press reporters gathered there, he expressed his belief that the lower Laos operation had been the greatest victory of all and announced a new phase of attacks against the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

In the meantime, the evacuation of Khe Sanh continued. After President Thieu's visit, the Airborne Division boarded aircraft bound for Saigon. On 2 April, the 8/4 Artillery Battalion, the last U.S. heavy artillery unit, left Khe Sanh, heading southeast. On the night of 4 April, the entire Marine Division left the Laotian border area and reddeployed near Quang Tr¸ Vietnamese and U.S. logistical installations at Vandegrift and Khe Sanh had by now all relocated. On 5 April, the ARVN 4th Armored Squadron and the 77th Ranger Battalion were the last units to leave the border area, bound for Dong HÕ

On 6 April, another raid of the Black Panther forces of the 1st Infantry Division was initiated against another area of the Lao- Viet border salient approximately 22 kilometers southeast of Lang Ve¸ At 1000 hours after preparatory air-strikes, the reinforced Black Panther company landed unopposed. The search it conducted lasted until late afternoon without making contact with the enemÜ At one location, the

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Black Panthers found 15 enemy bodies and 17 weapons along with large quantities of food and an intricate network of tunnels, trenches and huts, all destroyed. In the course of the operation, U.S. tactical air destroyed three antiaircraft gun positions. The Black Panthers were extracted at 1700 hours the same daÜ

A few hours before the Black Panther unit ended its second raid into enemy bases on the other side of the border, the last ARVN and U.S. units were on their way out of Khe Sanh. The 5th and 54th Infantry Regiments moved to Cam Lo where they boarded trucks to return to their respective parent units. The U.S. 1st Battalion, 11th Infantry Task Force was the last unit to board helicopters leaving Khe Sanh, thereby ending Operation LAM SON 719.

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(1) After-Action Report on LAM SON 719 dated 1 According to General Cao Van Vien, General Abrams mentioned sending the ARVN 2d Infantry Division into lower Laos to President Thieu who countered that a U.S. division should be sent alongside. The matter was dropped because U.S. ground forces were not authorized to enter Laos. The planning done by the ARVN 2d Division and the U.S. 23d Division was accomplished without orders or direction from the JGS.

(2) The next day, additional troops managed to reach safetÜ The reported strength of the 4th Battalion on 19 March was 82 men.

===> 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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