LAM SON 719
by Maj. Gen. Nguyen Duy Hinh
Published by U.S. Army Center Of Military History
LAM SON 719
The Withdrawal Phase
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
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
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
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
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
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
Thee Valiant ARVN 1st infantry Division
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
(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.