Indochina Monographs


by Lt. Gen. Ngo Quang Truong

Published by U.S. Army Center Of Military History



by Lt. Gen. Ngo Quang Truong


Defending Kontum

The NVA Force Buildup

Military Region 2
Map8: Military Region 2
Adjoining the southern boundary of Military Region 1 lay the vast territory of Military Region 2, an area of sprawling high plateaus, rolling hills and dense jungle commonly called the Central Highlands, which sloped down toward a long, narrow, and curving strip of coastal land to the east. MR-2 was the largest of our four military regions, occupying almost half of South Vietnam's total land area. But it was also the least populated, with approximately three million people, about one fifth of them Montagnards. (Map 8)

Along the narrow coastland where most Vietnamese lived, ran National Route QL-l which connected coastal cities such as Qui Nhon, Tuy Hoa, Nha Trang, Cam Ranh, Phan Rang and Phan Thiet. From the coast two major highways extended toward the highlands in the west: Route QL-19 and QL-21. Route QL-19 connected the port city of Qui Nhon with Pleiku and Kontum, two cities on the Kontum Plateau. Farther south, Route QL-21 connected Nha Trang with Ban Me Thuot, the only city on the Darlac Plateau. Both highways were important supply arteries for MR-2. Running the entire length of the highlands from north to south was Route QL-14 which originated from near Hoi An in MR-l and connected Kontum with Pleiku and Ban Me Thuot. Because of frequent enemy interdictions, road communication between Pleiku and Ban Me Thuot was not always possible. South of the Darlac Plateau lay the Di Linh Plateau with its famous resort city of Dalat which was connected with Bien Hoa and Saigon in MR-3 by Route QL-20. Almost always a Montagnard area, this sparsely populated part of South Vietnam rarely attracted the interest of Vietnamese low landers.

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The weather of MR-2, under the reversible influence of opposing monsoon cycles, proved to be a fairly important factor that regulated the pattern of military activities on both sides. Over the years, the period from February to April usually saw the biggest increase in enemy activity in the highlands. It was a short period of fair and dry weather little affected by either monsoon cycle. The enemy did not deviate from this activity pattern in 1972.

By early 1972, all US combat units had departed the Central Highlands, but there still remained some logistic units and security forces at Qui Nhon and Cam Ranh Bases on the coast. Two South Korean divisions were still deployed in MR-2, one in the An Khe - Qui Nhon area and the other in the Tuy Hoa - Ninh Hoa area. They were, however, in a drawdown status in preparation for redeployment back to Korea. The most that could be expected from Korean forces was a continuation of security for Route QL-19 from An Khe to Qui Nhon. Combat responsibilities in MR-2 therefore, lay squarely in the hands of ARVN units, just as in other military regions. II Corps performed its search and destroy missions largely with its own resources and the assistance of U.S. advisers, plus whatever U.S. combat support could still be made available.

The combat backbone of II Corps consisted of two infantry divisions and one mobile ranger group. Its combat support elements were similar to those of other ARVN corps. The 22d Infantry Division with its four regiments, the 40th, 41st, 42d and 47th, and under the command of Colonel Le Duc Dat, an armor officer and former province chief, was usually responsible for the northern part of MR-2. Its efforts were concentrated on two provinces: Kontum in the highlands, and Binh Dinh in the lowlands The 23d Infantry Division, under the command of Colonel Ly Tong Ba, also an armor officer, was headquartered at Ban Me Thuot with its three regiments, the 44th, 45th and 53d which were widely deployed over the division's large AO. For the defense of MR-2's long western flank, eleven border ranger battalions were deployed in camps and bases along the border, from Dak Pek and Ben Het in the north to Duc Lap in Quang Duc Province to the south, all under operational control of II Corps. II Corps Headquarters, under Lieutenant General Ngo Dzu,

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was located at Pleiku. In addition to its organic forces, II Corps occasionally received reinforcements from the RVNAF general reserve, usually airborne and ranger, when necessary to cope with increased enemy activities.

Starting in the fall of 1971, intelligence reports began to stream into II Corps Headquarters revealing the enemy's preparations for a major offensive campaign in the Central Highlands during the approaching dry season. Prisoner and returnee sources further disclosed that large enemy forces were moving into northern Kontum Province from base areas in Laos and Cambodia and their effort would concentrate on uprooting border camps and fire bases in northwestern Kontum, and eventually, "liberating" such urban centers as Pleiku and Kontum. In conjunction with this effort, the reports indicated, other enemy forces in the coastal lowlands were to increase activities aimed at destroying ARVN forces, particularly in northern Binh Dinh Province, where enemy domination had long been established. If these concerted efforts succeeded and joined forces, South Vietnam would run the risk of being sheared along Route QL-19 into two isolated halves.

In any event, the forces that the enemy would commit in this "Winter-Spring" campaign were substantial. Our intelligence sources had identified them as consisting of the NVA 320th and 2d Divisions and organic combat units of the B-3 Front, which would be the controlling headquarters for this highlands campaign. These units were supported by artillery and an entire NVA armor regiment, the 203d. This would, in fact, be the first instance of the enemy's employment of artillery and armor in the highlands. In the coastal lowlands, reports further indicated that disrupting activities would be conducted by the same old NT-3 "Gold Star" Division, augmented by Viet Cong main and local force units in the area. Finally, the enemy campaign was reported to be a multiphase effort and the first phase could begin some time in late January or early February, the period of traditional Tet.

Faced with the impending offensive whose indications had already become too clear, our II Corps Command and the Second Regional Assistance Group (SRAG) under Mr. John P. Vann stepped up air and ARVN border

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ranger patrols. These reconnaissance activities were concentrated on enemy Base Area 609 which encompassed the Tri- Border corridor of infiltration and the Plei Trap Valley, some 55 km due west of Kontum City. In late January and early February, VAAF and U.S. air cavalry reconnaissance pilots repeatedly uncovered traces of large scale enemy personnel and materiel movements in the area. Tracks of enemy tanks, perhaps a company of them were also discovered east of Base Area 609. At the same time, enemy documents seized by our patrols confirmed the presence of the NAV 320th Division in the B-3 Front's AO and revealed that the enemy had also introduced 122-mm and 130-mm artillery guns in the Tri-Border area. Consequently, B-52 and tactical air strikes were used to the maximum against targets detected, and ground operations by ARVN and territorial units were launched to search for the enemy. Simultaneously, II Corps began to reinforce the defenses of Kontum and Pleiku cities.

Western Highlands Battlefield
Map9: Western Highlands Battlefield
Intelligence reports on the enemy's buildup, especially on the presence of enemy tanks and artillery, greatly concerned Lieutenant General Ngo Dzu, II Corps commander. He reassessed all information available and after consulting with his adviser, Mr. John Paul Vann, whom he highly regarded and respected, General Ngo Dzu initiated a plan and began to re-deploy his forces for the defense of the Central Highlands. He moved the 22d Infantry Division Headquarters, one of its regiments, the 47th, and a substantial logistic element of the division from their rear base in Binh Dinh Province to the Tan Canh - Dakto area. There, the division co- located its command post with the 42d Regiment, another divisional unit which had been deployed there for some time, near the junction of Routes QL-14 and 512. By 8 February, all movements had been completed. In addition, elements of the 19th Armored Cavalry Squadron were ordered by II Corps to Tan Canh to reinforce the division's organic 14th Armored Cavalry Squadron. Colonel Le Duc Dat, the division's commander, deployed some of these elements to Ben Het to block this likely approach of enemy armor. To reinforce the defense of Kontum, the 2d Airborne Brigade was also placed under control of II Corps to secure a string of fire support bases on Rocket Ridge which

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dominated Route 511 to the west and Route QL- 14 and the Krong Poko River to the east, forming a screen protecting Tan Canh and Kontum City from western and northwestern approaches. The II Corps commander then delineated command and control responsibilities by assigning areas of operation to each of his principal subordinates, a technique similar to that employed in pacification. The 22d Division commander was given command responsibility over the Dakto area, to include ranger border camps at Ben Ret, Dak Mot, Dak Pek, Dak Seang and Fire Support Bases 5 and 6. The province chief of Kontum was responsible for Kontum City while the II Corps Assistant for Operations, Colonel Le Trung Tuong, was to command defense forces in Pleiku. II Corps was thus fully braced for the enemy attack.(Map 9)

The expected attack did not materialize, however, probably because of II Corps' high state of alert and improved posture. The people of Kontum and Pleiku enjoyed an uneventful Tet which was disturbed only by a few scattered harassment incidents. In spite of the quietness, evidence of enemy preparations continued to surface and B-52 missions kept up preemptive strikes against targets of enemy logistic concentration northwest of Kontum.

The enemy meanwhile avoided direct engagements but increased activities against lines of communication and minor installations. It was as if he was marking time, waiting for the appropriate moment to strike. And again, he had acted quite contrary to our intelligence estimates which, based on the enemy's usual predilection for military action for a political objective, had expected that the offensive might take place before President Nixon's visit to China on 21 February, in order to discredit American prestige. Nevertheless, to ARVN military authorities, the comprehensive enemy preparations which were continuing unabated in Base Area 609 unmistakably pointed toward a major action. This action had been withheld probably because the enemy was having some difficulty in moving supplies and troops into attack positions as a result of B-52 and tactical air strikes, or perhaps because weather conditions had not been favorable enough. In any event, a major confrontation with enemy forces in the northern Central Highlands was inevitable. It became now just a matter of time.

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The ominous NVA buildup in MR-2 attracted the attention and concern of our Joint General Staff in Saigon. At II Corps request, therefore, another airborne brigade and the tactical command post of the Airborne Division the last available reserves in the entire country were directed to Kontum during the first week of March to assume the responsibility of defending this city and the southern area of the province. As reinforcements poured in, II Corps became more assured of its defense capabilities and initiated additional aggressive search and patrol activities in the suspected area northwest of Kontum as of mid March.

During these operations, increased contacts with battalion and larger size units of the enemy 320th Division and 2d Division were made in the Rocket Ridge area and north of Kontum. Friendly forces, with the support of B-52's and tactical air, inflicted heavy losses on the enemy. During the first week of April, enemy assaults against fire support bases manned by ARVN paratroopers on Rocket Ridge again ended in dismal defeat and serious losses. These repeated enemy setbacks generated some doubts among II Corps staff as to the enemy's true capabilities to launch a major offensive as expected. They felt that the relentless use of B-52's and tactical air and the aggressiveness of friendly combat units had effectively delayed the enemy's timetable for offensive. This feeling was confirmed by depositions of enemy prisoners and ralliers who reported that NVA forces had indeed suffered extremely heavy losses in personnel and materiel as a result of B-52 strikes and contacts made with ARVN units. But they also revealed that the enemy continued to step up daily infiltrations to make up for the casualties incurred and to complete final preparations. Also, in early April, several enemy prisoners were captured during heavy clashes between the 22d ARVN Division forces and elements of the NVA 2d Division and B-3 Front north and east of Dakto. These sources disclosed that the enemy had reconnoitered ARVN defenses in the Dakto - Tan Canh area and was in the final preparatory stages for the offensive. The time for the attack was unknown but action was undoubtedly imminent.

These reports came at a time when in other military regions, NVA forces had already struck in force and obtained some initial objectives.

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The II Corps commander, therefore, took this information most seriously and was deeply worried that perhaps his forces in the Dakto area were not sufficient to contain a major NVA thrust. Despite the apparent strain on logistic support for ARVN forces in that area which arose from a single road situation, General Dzu still made plans to deploy the 22d Division's remaining two regiments from Binh Dinh to Dakto. If this plan were put into effect, Binh Dinh Province, which was another important target being contemplated by the enemy, would be stripped of all ARVN regular forces. Mr. Vann thought that this would be most unwise. Anxious to obtain an overall tactical balance for MR-2 in case of concerted enemy attacks, Mr. Vann persuaded General Dzu to keep two regiments in Binh Dinh for the defense of the coastal area and to move the 23d Infantry Division's AO northward to southern Kontum Province in order to add depth to the defense of Kontum City. This seemed to lessen, but not dispel, General Dzu's excessive worries.

Thus the northern Central Highlands lay poised for the expected enemy attack which was surely to follow Ouang Tri - Hue and An Loc. And if the enemy buildup in that area was of any indication, this attack would be at least as forceful as those already conducted on the other two fronts.

The Attacks on Tan Canh and Dakto

By the end of the second week of April, contacts with major NVA units had increased markedly and the area of Tan Canh - Dakto was virtually surrounded by enemy forces. On 14 April, Fire Support Base Charlie at the northern end of Rocket Ridge and 10 kilometers southwest of Dakto was heavily attacked by elements of the NVA 320th Division. In a classic conventional style, the enemy at first pummeled the base with heavy fire from assorted calibers, to include 130-mm and 105-mm artillery, 75-mm recoilless rifle, mortars and rockets. Then he launched two Korean type massive assaults against the base, which was defended by an airborne battalion. In spite of vigorous and accurate support by U.S. tactical air and gunships, the enemy's overpowering

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pressure did not relent and forced the paratroopers to evacuate the base during the night after inflicting serious losses on the enemy forces. A week later, Fire Support Base Delta at the southern end of Rocket Ridge, also defended by paratroopers, was overrun by enemy armor and infantry after several days of heavy artillery fire.

Elements of the ARVN 42d and 47th Regiments in the meantime continued to operate in the Tan Canh - Dakto area in an effort to control surrounding ridgelines, but the enemy pressure gradually forced them to fall back to their bases at Dakto and Tan Canh. The 22d ARVN Division Commander's lack of determination to hold on to the ridgelines in the north and east which dominated the base area where his command post was located made the division's defense posture more vulnerable. His defenses had been practically reduced to the main base compound at Tan Canh.

Meanwhile, the Airborne Division tactical CP and an airborne brigade were ordered back to Saigon by the JGS on 20 April. They were replaced by the 6th Ranger Group re-deployed from Hue and the 53d Regiment of the 23d ARVN Division which took over the AO vacated by the Airborne Division. At the same time, II Corps moved back some of its artillery elements in the Dakto - Tan Canh area to Dien Binh, six kilometers southeast on Route QL-14, apparently to provide more depth.

The 22d Division's defenses in Tan Canh, while appearing adequate, were in fact becoming precarious since the northern and eastern flanks had been left uncovered. The remaining fire support bases on Rocket Ridge appeared to be in the solid hands of the airborne brigade and the rangers but being located too far south, these bases were more useful to the defense of Kontum City than to Dakto - Tan Canh. In the immediate vicinity of Dakto - Tan Canh, there was only the 47th Regiment at Dakto II with a tank troop and an airbotne battalion in support. The 42d Regiment was deployed on defensive positions near the compound occupied by the 22d Division tactical CP in Tan Canh and, although the 42d's reputation was one of the worst in the ARVN, its presence there added to the security of the CP. The 42d had been deployed at

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Tan Canh for several weeks, and although Colonel Dat may have felt more secure with a better combat regiment protecting his headquarters, this was not an appropriate time to shift dispositions. Furthermore, it would have seemed illogical to place his least effective regiment farthest from the CP and in a position where it would be likely to be the first hit by the expected offensive. For two weeks, enemy artillery fire against the base complex in the Tan Canh - Dakto area had increased most significantly, averaging about 1,000 rounds daily. This fire was accurate, directed from high ground north and east of the Tan Canh compound and consisted of assorted calibers, from 82-mm mortars to l30-mm guns.

On 23 April, the attack began with a strong enemy force consisting of elements of the NVA 2d Division combined with B-3 Front units, sappers and tanks. The target was Tan Canh, which was defended by the 42d Regiment, two batteries of 155-mm and 105-mm, one M-41 and one M-113 troop and a combat engineer company.

During the attack, the enemy made extensive use of the wire-guided AT-3 "Sagger" missile which disabled our tanks and destroyed our bunkers with deadly accuracy. This was the first time our forces were exposed to this weapon and its use caught them and their U.S. advisers unprepared. One by one, the M-41 tanks positioned in defense of the division CP were hit and disabled along with several bunkers. Then the division tactical operations center took a direct blast at 1030 hours, burned, and had to be partially evacuated. All communications equipment was destroyed by the explosion. Without control and coordination, ARVN forces inside and outside the compound were left to fend for themselves. Morale and confidence had been dealt a devastating blow and rapidly deteriorated.

By noon, a makeshift division TOC was established by U.S. advisers at the 42d Regiment TOC with U.S. signal equipment. This helped the division command group regain some of its composure, but the division commander was visibly distressed. He declined to join the U.S. advisers at the new TOC and remained at his destroyed CP with his deputy, his aide, and some staff officers.

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During the afternoon, ARVN artillery units opened counter battery fire on suspected enemy gun emplacements without success. From the new TOC, advisers directed U.S. tactical air onto enemy targets based on reports from regimental advisers but bad weather and heavy enemy antiaircraft fire precluded accuracy and effect. The remainder of the day passed without significant events but when darkness closed in, enemy sappers destroyed an ammunition dump near the airstrip. Enemy artillery fire meanwhile increased markedly in intensity.

A few hours before midnight, Dakto district headquarters reported tanks approaching from the west. A Specter C-130 gun-ship was dispatched over the area; it located a column of 18 enemy tanks moving toward the district headquarters and engaged them with little success. At Tan Canh, reports of approaching tanks occasioned a flurry of defense preparations at the 42d Regiment; a major attack was apparently developing. At about midnight, reports indicated that tanks were moving south toward Tan Canh but no action was taken to stop their advance except for a short engagement by ARVN artillery fire which was rendered ineffective by heavy enemy counter battery fire. The two bridges on Route QL-14 leading south toward Tan Canh were left intact.

When enemy tanks and sappers began attacking the 22d Division CP compound shortly before daybreak, it was already too late for any effective counteraction. After several days enduring heavy enemy artillery fire and taking many casualties, troops of the 42d Regiment were deeply shocked by the appearance of enemy tanks at the very gate of their compound. They fought in utter disorder, then broke ranks and fled through the defense perimeter.

Realizing that the situation had become hopeless, the division advisory team fought its way through enemy small arms fire and was extracted by an OH-58 helicopter with Mr. Vann aboard. By then the Tan Canh compound had become defenseless but Colonel Le Duc Dat, the division commander, and his deputy, Colonel Ton That Hung still remained within the old CP. They and their staff took time to destroy all radio sets and signal SOIs. In the afternoon, it began raining hard

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and they all took advantage of the rain to slip out. Since then, no one has ever learned with certainty what happened to Colonel Dat and his staff; they were presumably all dead. Only his deputy, Colonel Hung, managed to survive and reached Kontum several days later(1).

At about the same time the enemy attacked the 22d ARVN Division Tactical CP at Tan Canh, several kilometers to the west, the 47th Regiment at Dakto II also came under heavy enemy pressure. The landing strip nearby was also attacked. On the division CP's orders two armored cavalry troops and an infantry platoon left Ben Het in a hurry to re-inforce the ARVN troops at Dakto II, using Route 512, the only roadway available, winding through hills and jungle. About half way, after crossing the Dak Mot Bridge, the armor column was ambushed by a large NVA force holding the high ground just east of the bridge. Enemy anti-tank weapons destroyed all of the M-41 tanks which were the division's last reserves in the Tan Canh - Dakto area.

Without any hope for holding Out successfully, the 47th Regimental headquarters and defending troops left the area in isolated groups. Subsequently, ARVN resistance faded away and the Tan Canh - Dakto area fell into enemy hands. During the next two days, NVA forces consolidated their gains and evacuated the thirty artillery pieces left behind by ARVN troops. They extended their control west of Dakto II and south to Dien Binh on Route QL-14.

In the meantime, the NVA 320th Division continued its pressure on the remaining fire support bases on Rocket Ridge. On 25 April, the II Corps commander decided to evacuate FSBs Nos. 5 and 6 because of their untenable positions. With this last protective screen finally removed, the entire area west of the Krong Poko River was abandoned to the enemy and Kontum City lay exposed to direct enemy attacks. NVA forces were now able to maneuver toward the city along Route QL-14 as the friendly

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positions in this area were evacuated one by one under heavy enemy artillery fire. As battered ARVN troops made their way south, they were joined by the local population while U.S. tactical air endeavored to destroy the positions and equipment they had left behind.

While the enemy was gaining ground in the Central Highlands and preparing to push toward Kontum, in the coastal lowlands of Binh Dinh Province, the NVA 3d Division and VC local forces cut off Route QL-l at Bong Son Pass and attacked the three isolated northern districts, Hoai An, Hoai Nhon and Tam Quan. This forced the 40th and 41st Regiments of the 22d ARVN Division to abandon their two major bases, Landing Zones English and BongSon, and other strong points in the area. Enemy attacks then spread out rapidly northward along Route QL-l and southwestward along the Kim Son River engulfing the district towns of Tam Quan and Hoai An in the process. In the face of the enemy's momentum, all defenses in the area crumbled rapidly.

With loss of Binh Dinh's three northern districts, the narrow coastal lowland of South Vietnam was practically cut in two, and if the enemy succeeded in taking Kontum City, then the defense posture of the country would look bleak indeed. Therefore, all attention now turned toward the Central Highlands where Kontum City was bracing itself for the inevitable NVA push.

In spite of the strong support of U.S. tactical air and B-52's, many ARVN commanders believed that Kontum could not hold. Lieutenant General Ngo Dzu was one of them. Distressed and demoralized by the loss of Tan Canh - Dakto, he felt remorseful about his refusal to reinforce Colonel Dat with the 22d Division's remaining two regiments. Had Colonel Dat not offered to resign his command the day before the attack just because he felt that he had not received adequate support?

General Dzu was doubtful that his remaining forces could contain the NVA multi-division push. He believed that Kontum City and even Pleiku, the seat of his own headquarters, would eventually turn into blazing infernos under the enemy's artillery and finally meet with the same fate as Tan Canh and Dakto. He thought of what had happened to Colonel Dat and he feared for himself. Tense, exhausted and unable to

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pull himself together, he spent his time calling President Thieu on the telephone day and night, begging for instructions even on the most trivial things. The big challenge had not come but the pressure had taken its toll.

To the JGS and President Thieu, General Dzu no longer functioned as a field commander capable of self asserting command and control. He was finally replaced on 10 May by Major General Nguyen Van Toan, ARVN armor commander who was also serving as Assistant Commander for Operations, I Corps.

Pressure on Kontum City

During the days that followed the 22d NVA Division's debacle in Tan Canh, the enemy gradually moved his forces to the southeast toward Kontum City. The pressure he exerted on that city from the north was growing with every passing day. South of the city, the short stretch of Route QL-14 which connected it with Pleiku was also interdicted by solid enemy road blocks in the Chu Pao area and every effort to neutralize these blocks only added more casualties to ARVN forces. Kontum was thus isolated and surrounded. The final enemy push to take the city would surely occur as soon as he had built up enough supplies and combat forces in staging areas.

With battles raging in other places throughout the country, re- enforcing Kontum City was becoming difficult. It was almost impossible now that all general reserves had been fully committed, here and elsewhere. Under such circumstances, obviously II Corps had to rely on the forces it presently controlled for the defense of Kontum. To meet the challenge, on 28 April, the 23d ARVN Division headquarters was moved approximately 160 kilometers from Ban Me Thuot to Kontum City to command of all ARVN forces in the area and reorganize them for defense. Security of southern MR-2 became solely the responsibility of the territorial forces.

II Corps' plan was to deploy four ranger battalions in blocking positions at Vo Dinh, 20 km northwest of Kontum, and along the Krong Poko

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River southward to include Polei Kleng, a border ranger camp. To reinforce this camp, an important strongpoint that controlled the western approach to Kontum City, another ranger battalion was brought in.

The 53d Regiment, of the 23d ARVN Division, was responsible for the defense of the city itself. Time was pressing, and to gain enough time for the disposition of defense forces, the 2d and 6th Ranger Groups were given the mission to delay the enemy on Route QL- 14 north of Kontum. In the meantime, B-52 strikes and tactical air were unleashed on enemy troop concentrations, particularly on the abandoned fire bases along Rocket Ridge.

The defense plan appeared to be sound and well conceived but there was still a problem of command and control. Colonel Ly Tong Ba, the 23d Division commander and defender of Kontum, was faced with difficulties in his exercise of operational control over various elements and units whose effectiveness had been adversely affected by the debacle at Tan Canh. Molding them into a cohesive defense force required more than his leadership could provide. For one thing, he commanded only one regiment, the 53d. Other units such as the ranger groups, the airborne brigade and territorial forces, although placed under his operational control, tended to maintain their own command channels with parent units. Colonel Ba's predicament was not unlike what General Giai of the 3d ARVN Division had faced in MR-l, though to a lesser extent. However, as far as the ARVN was concerned, here or elsewhere, operational control had proved difficult to exercise unless the field commander clearly outranked his subordinates or had an established reputation which commanded respect and submission. Colonel Ba apparently enjoyed neither(2).

Meanwhile, the 2d Airborne Brigade which had been holding Vo Dinh since before the loss of Tan Canh - Dakto, was ordered back to Saigon.

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This move left the 6th Ranger Group alone in the forward combat area with its battalions deployed on a high escarpment straddling Route QL-14 just south of Vo Dinh. On 27 April, the group CP was airlifted to FSB November, 12 kilometers southeast, just north of Kontum. On 1 May, the ranger battalions at Vo Dinh came under attack and were ordered to withdraw by the group commander. The ARVN defense line was thus moved back several kilometers to Ngo Trang, just 13 kilometers northwest of Kontum City.

This setback exposed the weakness of the command structure in Kontum. If this city was to hold, Colonel Ba's control would have to be strengthened. At the suggestion of Mr. John Paul Vann, General Toan agreed in early May to bring in the remaining units of the 23d ARVN Division, the 44th and 45th Regiments to replace the 2d and 6th Ranger Groups, respectively. This helped enhance not only Colonel Ba's command but also the overall effectiveness of the city's defense. Remnant forces of the 22d ARVN Division, meanwhile, were sent back to their rear bases in Binh Dinh Province for regrouping and refitting.

During this period, enemy attacks-by-fire increased substantially against those ranger border camps astride the NVA supply routes west and northwest of Kontum. Ben Het and Polei KIeng bore the brunt of these attacks because their positions obstructed the NVA movement of supplies into assembly areas for the attack on Kontum City. In spite of recent setbacks at Tan Canh, Dakto and Vo Dinh which to some extent had affected the morale of ARVN troops in the Kontum area, these isolated border camps held fast with support from the U.S. Air Force. But the enemy seemed determined to take Polei Kleng at all costs. On 6 May enemy artillery concentrated its fire on the camp, followed by ground assaults by the NVA 64th Regiment. Polei KIeng held on desperately for three days before the defending rangers were forced out by a massive tank-infantry assault on 9 May.

During these three days, B-52 strikes inflicted serious losses to NVA forces massed for the attack; the enemy paid a high price for the control of this western approach.

The rangers there resisted ferociously; they knocked out several

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enemy tanks and repulsed all ground assaults. Strangely enough, this lone and stranded outpost, the last one left dangling in a remote corner of Kontum Province, continued to remain under ARVN control until finally evacuated on 12 October.

Other ARVN positions of the 45th Regiment now assigned to delay the enemy on Route QL-14 north of Kontum also felt the mounting enemy pressure and gradually withdrew toward the city. At the same time, daily air reconnaissance missions reported new pioneer roads and new supply storage areas in the vicinity of Vo Dinh. Prisoners also confirmed on 10 May that the NVA 320th Division was moving into assembly areas north of the city.

Kontum now lay poised against the attack which could begin at any time. The enemy could not afford a long delay during which his concentrated forces would be vulnerable to U.S. air strikes.

The First Attack Against Kontum

The Attack On Kontum
Map10: The Attack On Kontum
By the end of the second week in May, the deployment of the 23d Division's units into positions in and around the city and their disposition for defense were completed. This disposition was essentially a perimeter defense with infantry and armor units blocking approaches from the north and northwest and territorial forces securing the southern and southeastern approaches, facing the Dak Bla River. The 44th Regiment was astride Route QL-41, about four kilometers northwest of Kontum, while the 45th Regiment defended the northern side of the city and the 53d, on the northeastern side, protected Kontum airfield. (Map 10)

In spite of this display of force, these defending units did not look impressive. Untried, their combat capabilities were very similar to those of the 22d Division. The 23d Division had yet to show that it was superior to its vanquished sister. But the division commander seemed to make a big difference. He personally inspected the defense perimeter with his staff, encouraged and provided guidance for his troops on tactical details and showed great care for them. The defense,

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fire support and counterattack plans were coordinated and rehearsed daily, drawing on the painful lessons learned at Tan Canh. All units were given the opportunity to practice fire the LAW antitank rocket until their troops became confident that enemy tanks were not as formidable as they had thought. More importantly, Colonel Ba's daily round of visits to his units greatly inspired his subordinates and instilled self assurance among the troops.

In the early morning of 14 May, the enemy's attack on Kontum began. The defending forces had been alerted since midnight and they stood ready. ARVN and United States military intelligence in the meantime had been able to detect every enemy movement and even knew the precise time of the attack. Therefore, as the NVA troop and tank columns moved down Route QL-14 toward Kontum, U.S. Cobra gunships, some of them armed with the new TOW missile, were already airborne from Pleiku. Unlike the attack on Tan Canh, the enemy did not precede his advance with heavy artillery preparations except on FSB November. A total of five enemy regiments converged on the city. From the northwest the 48th and 64th Regiments of the NVA 320th Division approached with tanks forming two columns on both sides of Route QL-14. From the north, the 28th Regiment of the B-3 Front moved south against the ARVN 44th Regiment and the 1st Regiment of the 2d Division attacked the ARVN 53d Regiment, while the 141st Regiment of the NVA 2d Division attacked territorial force positions along the Dak Bla River south of the city. Despite its force, the initial attack was quickly broken up after several lead tanks fell easy prey to our artillery, LAW and TOW missiles.

Kontum City continued to receive sporadic artillery and rocket fire and ground probes during the day. The reactions of friendly forces had been quick, decisive and successful and the support of tactical air and gun-ships, most effective. ARVN armored elements, although at greatly reduced strength and held in reserve, had quickly maneuvered to fill in gaps in the defense perimeter. It seemed that the enemy would have a much more difficult time at Kontum than at Tan Canh just

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three weeks earlier.

As night approached, however, the enemy renewed his attacks with greater force against the 44th and 53d Regiments. Due to the confusion of night fighting which precluded effective coordination, an enemy battalion succeeded in breaking through a gap between the two regiments. This situation became critical when this enemy unit enlarged the gap and exploited its gains with successive waves of mass assaults. Even our concentrated artillery fire failed to stop the assaults and it looked as if the defense would soon meet with disaster. As the situation was becoming mare precarious by the minute, Colonel Ba and his advisers worked feverishly on countermeasures.

The only way to turn back the large and growing penetration seemed to be B-52 strikes, two of which had been pre-planned for the night. Safety required however, that ARVN forces be pulled back one hour before the strikes. To fill this gap in time, increased and sustained artillery fire would be necessary. Both ARVN regiments were instructed to hold in place and move back on order. This was a bold and risky move but there seemed to be no other alternative to save Kontum from falling before dawn.

The two B-52 strikes came exactly on time, as planned, like thunder bolts unleashed over the masses of enemy troops. The explosions rocked the small city and seemed to cave in the rib cages of ARVN troops not far away. As the roar subsided, a dreadful silence fell over the scene. At dawn, ARVN search elements discovered several hundred enemy bodies with their weapons scattered all around. Kontum was saved.

Success in this first contest gave the defenders of Kontum added confidence. They believed that enemy forces were no match for the devastating firepower of the South Vietnamese and American planes and our artillery in spite of the enemy's numerical superiority and powerful tanks. They had seen for themselves how the NVA human wave assault was shattered by B-52 strikes. But it also dawned on ARVN commanders that their first success had really been a close shave and that Kontum might well have been in serious jeopardy had it not been for the two B-52 strikes.

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In a postmortem examination of the results, Colonel Ba realized that there existed several weaknesses in his defenses. His units had been stretched too thin over the defense' perimeter leaving gaps between them and making coordination difficult at limiting points. His staff had functioned well under stress but needed improvement, particularly in the coordination of firepower. So he set about tightening the defense by reducing the perimeter. He added some depth by moving the 44th Regiment back into a reserve position and replacing it with the 45th.

The new II Corps commander, General Toan and his adviser, Mr. John Paul Vann made a visit to Kontum City on 16 May. They reviewed the situation with Colonel Ba and approved his new disposition for' defense. They also realized that despite his reverse, the enemy still possessed strong capabilities and he would surely launch another major attack in the next few days, perhaps with greater intensity.

In preparation for his next move, the enemy continued to probe the perimeter and hold Kontum under indirect fire. The division headquarters, artillery emplacements, and the airfield in particular attracted enemy mortar and artillery fire. Aircraft landings, even only for short refueling periods became hazardous and several planes were damaged or destroyed. Supply by air, therefore, was frequently interrupted and increasingly difficult.

Meanwhile, the enemy studied the defense system to find its weaknesses. He infiltrated sapper elements into the city by slipping them through the southern defense sector which was manned by a heterogeneous mixture of territorial forces, some of them from Tan Canh and Dakto. These sapper elements later posed a thorny problem for the defense. At the same time, other enemy reconnaissance elements and artillery forward observers managed to penetrate the city under the disguise of civilian refugees and ARVN troops. Using these fifth column tactics the enemy prepared to renew the attack combining the "noi cong" or inside force with the "ngoai nhap" or outside attackers. Kontum was a prize well worth these painstaking preparations.

By the end of the week following the first attack, all efforts by NVA forces to seize Kontum City had been defeated. Several times

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during this period, the enemy succeeded in breaking through our defense perimeter by violent assaults against positions held by the 44th and 53d Regiments and penetrating between the 53d and 45th Regiment. The dent made into the sector of the 53d Regiment on 20 May was particularly serious and had warranted the commitment of M- 41 tanks held by the division in reserve.

Colonel Ba proved especially skillful in the maneuver of tanks, his own specialty for many years. His presence on the sites of battle also inspired his troops and helped them drive the enemy back. Elsewhere, the accuracy of ARVN artillery fire and the effectiveness of U.S. Cobra gun-ships, B-52's and VNAF Spooky gun- ships were instrumental in repulsing enemy assaults and penetrations. These successes enabled the restoration of the Kontum airfield to normal operation and the re-supply of ammunition and fuel by U.S. C-130's.

His defense line stabilized and consolidated, Colonel Ba set about regaining some measure of initiative. With the support of U.S. tactical air and gun-ships, he launched several limited offensive operations in the areas north and northwest of the city within the range of ARVN artillery. During these actions, scattered contacts were made as troops discovered additional evidence of heavy enemy casualties caused by B-52 strikes.

From Pleiku, in the meantime, General Toan launched a major effort on 21 May to clear Route QL-14 north to Kontum. This vital supply road had been interdicted at Chu Pao Pass for several weeks by the NVA 95B Regiment. The II Corps relief task force consisted of the 2d and 6th Ranger Groups, augmented by armored cavalry and combat engineer elements. Despite the vigorous support of tactical air and artillery firepower, to include B-52 strikes and the use of CBU- 55 bombs, the attack was slowed by multiple enemy blocking positions on both sides of the highway and finally stopped by a system of strong points entrenched on the rocky southern slope of the Chu Pao Mountain. Coordinated with the ferocious fire of concentrated artillery, this ring of enemy blocks inflicted serious losses and they continued to prevent road supply from Pleiku.

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In addition to the attempt to open Route QL-14, II Corps also waged an intensive psywar and civic action campaign in the battle area, aimed at raising the morale of ARVN troops, enlisting the support of the local population and calling for enemy troops to defect. Refugees stranded in Kontum City were evacuated by increments to Pleiku for safety and better care. This helped improve control in the city; although under siege, Kontum did not face the chaotic ordeal that Hue had gone through previously.

In spite of the modest results achieved through its offensive efforts, II Corps had effectively upset the enemy's timetable for a last ditch attempt to take Kontum. More importantly, II Corps had maintained the initiative and morale of its frontline troops both of which were most critically needed as the first signs of combat weariness began to show.

The Enemy's Final Attempt

After ten days of preparing his forces, the enemy resumed his attack on Kontum on 25 May. As the 23d Division commander had accurately predicted, this attack had all the intensity of a decisive, make or break effort. It had become imperative for the enemy to either achieve a quick victory or to withdraw his forces altogether for refitting. The drenching monsoon was setting in over the Central Highlands and its first effects had begun to be felt in the Kontum - Pleiku area. Even if he had the resources for replacements, a drawn out campaign at this time could only spell disaster.

The attack began shortly after midnight with artillery fire pounding all the units of the 23d Division in the Kontum area. The firing concentrated particularly on positions near the airfield and south of the city. At 0300 hours, two enemy sapper battalions, with the assistance of elements already in place, began to infiltrate the south-eastern positions held by territorial forces. They moved into an area near the airfield, occupied a school house, the Catholic Seminary and the Kontum diocesan office building. From the north and northeast,

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enemy infantry and tanks swarmed down and penetrated the city. Throughout the morning and into early afternoon, the division CP and artillery emplacements received continuous incoming artillery and mortar fire.

By late afternoon the enemy still held the areas within his penetration. The enemy's ferocious artillery fires during the day took a heavy toll. Among the artillery firing into the city were the 155-mm and 105-mm howitzers captured at Tan Canh. This fire was not only intense but it was also devastatingly accurate and it neutralized or destroyed a great number of our artillery pieces. The situation became so bleak that a tactical emergency was declared in order to divert all available tactical air and gun- ships to the area for the day.

During the next day, 26 May, enemy indirect fire increased and a coordinated attack by enemy tanks and infantry pressed against the 53d Regiment from the north. Pressure also mounted against territorial forces south of the city. With the support of Cobra gun-ships, a task force of one battalion of the 44th Regiment and eight tanks counterattacked and successfully contained an enemy penetration between the 45th and 53d Regiments. Still the enemy could not be ejected from the positions he had already seized. The situation remained stable for the day, however.

Meanwhile, supply shortages had become critical, since the airfield was closed to fixed wing aircraft, and the city's soccer field was used to accommodate CH-47 Chinooks hauling in emergency supplies and evacuating the seriously wounded. From the soccer field, VNAF helicopters shuttled supplies to the ARVN units north and northwest of the city.

At nightfall, the NVA 64th Regiment attacked again, penetrating between the 53d and 45 Regiments and concentrating its effort against the latter. Again, B-52 strikes diverted from scheduled missions, fell on the forces attacking the 45th and helped blunt the attack.

In the early morning of the following day, 27 May, the enemy made a surprise thrust with two regiments and one tank company against the 44th Regiment held in reserve in the city's hospital complex. Fierce fighting ensued in and around this area resulting in a melee between enemy infantry and T-54 tanks on one side and ARVN troops and TOW

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missiles and ARVN LAW rockets. By late morning the enemy advance had been halted but NVA infantry still held the northernmost compound and continued to harass the airfield.

From these and other positions across the northern part of the city, the enemy fanned out and formed pockets of resistance, Particularly in areas where friendly use of fire was limited. Despite all the efforts of ARVM troops and the firepower of U.S. tactical air and gun-ships, and even the commitment of ARVN tanks held in reserve, it was difficult to dislodge the enemy from his positions. He seemed determined to dig in and exploit this foothold in the city.

To prevent further penetrations and consolidate his defense, Colonel Ba decided, with the approval of the II Corps commander, to tighten the perimeter again. He moved the 45th Regiment back from FSB November and positioned it on the reduced defense perimeter. This not only helped strengthen his defenses but also allowed for better use of B-52 strikes in close support.

By the night of the 28th, the situation remained critical. NVA forces were still entrenched in the hospital's northern compound and territorial forces were being engaged in house-to-house fighting in the southern area of the city where the enemy still held a school and a few houses near the airfield. By this time, however, the enemy began to run into difficulties in re-supply. Hourly B-52 strikes had forced him to store supplies at great distances from the city and his transportation and communication lines were being disrupted by continuous airstrikes. The critical situation in the city also made friendly re-supply and medical evacuation increasingly difficult but airdrops and CH-47 Chinooks from Pleiku nearby responded adequately to emergency requirements.

The attrition caused by air-strikes and gun-ships finally allowed ARVN forces to counterattack and regain the initiative. To dislodge the enemy, they had to fight from bunker-to-bunker, using hand grenades. Shortly before noon on 30 May, they regained control of the entire hospital complex and although there still remained other scattered pockets of resistance in the northeastern area, the city

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was clearly out of danger.

In the afternoon, President Thieu flew into Kontum City despite sporadic rocket and mortar fire. He praised the endurance and fighting spirit of all forces defending the city and right there, with the battlefield still rumbling, he pinned the brigadier general star on Colonel Ly Tong Ba, the defender of Kontum, for "special frontline merits."

Slowly but surely, during the remainder of the day, all positions held by the enemy were taken back. By midday on 31 May, the battle was practically over; the NVA main forces had withdrawn. Thousands of NVA bodies lay scattered all over the battlefield with dozens of T-54 tanks, some intact, but most reduced to charred hulks, awkwardly perched among the ruins. The enemy 5 final attempt to take Kontum had ended in utter defeat.

By 10 June, the last vestige of enemy resistance in the city had disappeared. But ironically enough, the man who had contributed so much to the ARVN success in Kontum - Mr. John Paul Vann - did not live long enough to savor the fruits of his labor on this day. A strikingly strong, though controversial personality, Mr. Vann was the personification of courage, selflessness and dedication. At Tan Canh, he personally directed, at extreme risks to his own life, the extraction of the 22d Division advisory team. His helicopter crashed at Dakto II but he continued his rescue mission undaunted. During the battles for Kontum, he saved the beleaguered city at least twice by making bold decisions on the use of B-52's. He goaded ARVN commanders on the battleline into action and shuttled almost daily, day and night, in and out of the battle area, with complete disregard for his own safety, to make sure that U.S., support for the defense was adequate. On one of his flights into Kontum City, the night before ARVN regained complete control, his helicopter crashed and he was killed. His replacement as chief of SRAG, now redesignated a command, was Brigadier General Michael D. Healy.

While the ARVN defenders were systematically eliminating all remaining pockets of resistance in the city, the NVA 320th Division

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withdrew toward Tan Canh - Dakto and continued the occupation of this area. Elements of the NVA 2d Division meanwhile returned to their former jungle redoubt in Quang Ngai Province, licking their wounds and recuperating. Subsequently, enemy activities in the Central Highlands dropped to a low level.

Riding on the crest of the Kontum victory, the General Toan successively launched clearing operations north and northwest of the city in an effort to reclaim the lost territory. In mid June, the 23d ARVN Division conducted an air-mobile raid into the Tan Canh area with its reconnaissance company. The objective was to create a psychological impact on the population living in the occupied area and to throw the enemy off balance. Two more heliborne assaults were conducted during the following months but the objectives and results were limited.

Several ground operations were also conducted along Route QL-14 between Kontum and Vo Dinh to destroy enemy forces and enlarge friendly control during October. However, the limited capabilities of the division precluded any advance further than 10 kilometers northwest of Vo Dinh where ARVN control remained established until cease-fire day.

During the same period, other vigorous efforts were made to clear Route QL-14 between Pleiku and Kontum. Despite the enemy's fierce resistance in the initial stages, by the end of June the Chu Pao Pass area was cleared and the highway opened to commercial traffic in early July. The enemy continued to harass traffic with sporadic attacks by fire, however, and Route QL-14, although opened, remained insecure.

In the coastal lowlands of Binh Dinh Province, the 22d ARVN Division slowly regained its combat effectiveness after reorganization and refitting. In late July, in cooperation with territorial forces of the province, the division, now under Brigadier General Phan Dinh Niem, retook Hoai Nhon and Tam Quan district towns and reestablished communications on Route QL-l north to the southern boundary of Quang Ngai Province. This accomplishment received little public notice but in terms of psychological, political and military impact, it equalled other ARVN successes such as the reoccupation of Quang Tri and the defense of Kontum.

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(1) Colonel Ton That Hung later retold his escape odyssey in a book he published under the title "Nguoi Ve Tu Tan Canh." (The Man Who Came in From Tan Canh).

(2) Although the TOE called for a major general to command a division, the practice of assigning colonels, brigadiers, and even lieutenant generals to these posts was widespread. This clearly caused serious problems, but the practice persisted. The rationale seemed to be that promising colonels should be given the opportunity to prove themselves, especially if they had powerful political sponsors.