Wednesday, May 26, 2010

From the Pages - Fighting to Leave

In early 1972, the North Vietnamese kicked off the Nguyen Hue Offensive, also known as the Easter Offensive--a campaign designed to capture as much of the invaluable province of Quang Tri as possible and substantially weaken the South Vietnamese forces. Included in the offensive was the goal of capturing the provincial capital of Quang Tri City, opening an avenue of attack straight through the strategically important city of Hue. After an arduous, month-long battle, Quang Tri City finally fell to the North Vietnamese.

In the following excerpt from Fighting to Leave: The Final Years of America's War in Vietnam, 1972-1973, Col. Robert E. Stoffey, USMC (Ret.) details the retaking of Quang Tri City by the South Vietnamese (supported by U.S. air and sea power) and the events that followed.
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The 325th NVA Division, reinforced by elements of the 308th and 320th NVA divisions, defended their hold on Quang Tri City.

Each day of July and August 1972, the VNMC Brigade 258 slowly fought forward as they increased their attacks against the now-defending NVA at the Quang Tri Citadel.

As the Lam Son 72 attacks by the Vietnamese Marines began with the objective of retaking Quang Tri City, the 1st VNMC Battalion, commanded by Maj. Nguyen Dang Hoa, landed in a landing zone beside the city. They immediately encountered heavy NVA fire and began taking casualties as they fought elements of the 320B NVA Division.

Major Hoa led his troops in a charge into two trench lines of NVA defenders, killing 126 communists, capturing six NVA, and strategically flanking the NVA position.

Marine Corps 1st Lt. Stephen G. Biddulph, ANGLICO naval gunfire spot team officer, was wounded in the leg, shortly after disembarking from one of the assault helicopters. Marine Corps Captain Lawrence H. Livingston, adviser to the 1st VNMC Battalion, carried the wounded Lieutenant Biddulph to safety. ANGLICO corporal Jose F. Hernandez came under heavy NVA fire as he helped wounded VNMC troops. At the same time, he called in naval gunfire to halt attacking NVA reinforcements.

Hand-to-hand fighting followed as the 1st VNMC Battalion fought to expand their perimeter and forced the NVA to withdraw to the west toward Quang Tri City.

During this same three-day period, the 7th VNMC Battalion attacked an armored regiment command post destroying numerous NVA tracked vehicles and trucks.

Because of the extended attacking locations of the VNMC Battalions that were helicopter-lifted behind the NVA, resupply would become a problem. Therefore, a request came in for the Seventh Fleet commander, Admiral Holloway, to provide a five-section causeway pier at Wunder Beach, now fully under control of the South Vietnamese.

My boss, Jim Froid, rapidly coordinated providing the USS Alamo (LSD 33) and a tugboat for support of the causeway pier. He also dispatched an underwater demolition team to clear the area of obstacles.

On July 13, naval construction personnel, Seabees, began installing the pier. The Seabees completed installation by 1300 the same day. A U.S. Marine shore party and naval beachmaster went ashore from TF 76 to supervise the Vietnamese for operation of the pier.

By July, the Vietnamese Marines had cut the NVA line to Quang Tri City along Route 560. By July 20, the VNMC Division positions were consolidated to prepare to attack the NVA holding Quang Tri City. The NVA, defending Quang Tri City, intent on keeping it as a symbol, dug in to fight and retain it.

General Lan, fully aware the NVA were concentrating on defending Quang Tri, executed raids against other NVA units on the NVA left, or eastern flank, along the coast.

Using our Marine helicopters and the VNMC Brigade 147, with three battalions, the VNMC enveloped the NVA. This forced the NVA to retreat north back across the Thach Han River.

This helicopter assault took place on July 22 when Lieutenant Colonel Hertberg’s HMM-164 helicopters launched with the VNMC 5th Battalion in two waves of 688 troops in each wave. U.S. Army F Troop Cobra helicopter gunships escorted the U.S. Marine assault helicopters carrying the VNMC troops into LZ Lima. The VNMC 5th Battalion, after meeting some resistance, linked up with two ground-assaulting VNMC battalions. The battle ended on July 24 with 133 communist troops killed. Three NVA tanks and two armored command vehicles were captured. Numerous NVA weapons were captured along with an NVA one-hundred-bed hospital.

During the night of July 27, the VNMC Brigade 258 moved forward and relieved the ARNV Airborne units that had been attempting to defeat the NVA at the Quang Tri Citadel. For the next four days, the NVA fired more than one thousand artillery and mortar rounds against the Marines, who responded with their own heavy firings.

Marine Corps 1st Lt. Edward G. Hayden II, ANGLICO, was killed. Marine Corps Capt. David D. Harris, adviser to the VNMC, who was next to Hayden, was wounded with severe leg and back injuries.

The communists continued to strongly defend the city with their 325th NVA Division, reinforced by elements of the 308th and 320th NVA divisions and supporting units in southeastern Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces. During July, these communist forces paid a heavy price in their defense of invaded territories in the Quang Tri City area. The NVA suffered 1,880 killed and the VNMC captured 51 armored vehicles, 7 antiaircraft guns, 4 artillery pieces, a 20-ton ammunition dump, and 1,200 individual weapons. Yet, during the start of August 1972, the NVA still held control of most of Quang Tri City. The NVA still had many artillery units in the Ai Tu combat base area and the area west of the Thach Han River. Sub Unit One, 1st ANGLICO, under command of Lt. Col. George E. Jones, was extremely busy coordinating counter fires of naval gunfire and air strikes against the NVA artillery. ANGLICO aerial observers flew dawn to dusk forward air control spotting for U.S. and Vietnamese Air Force attack bombers.

On August 22, a large NVA force occupying Quang Tri City attempted to break out from the Citadel. The attacking 8th VNMC Battalion forced the NVA back into the Citadel. This certainly was an indication that the NVA realized the South Vietnamese counteroffensive had the North Vietnamese divisions trapped inside of Quang Tri City, the prize the North Vietnamese intended to hold. The Lam Son 72 counteroffensive was well under way. At this juncture, the VNMC had suffered 1,358 killed and 5,522 wounded during this five-month battle period, while killing 10,285 communists.

After a month of shelling and attacks upon the NVA inside the Quang Tri Citadel, the VNMC 1st, 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 8th battalions attacked through the rubble to reach the Citadel. On September 5, the NVA attempted a counterattack but failed.

At 1015, on September 15, the VNMC 3rd, 6th, and 7th battalions reached the Citadel walls as massive NVA artillery fire rained upon them.

At 1700 on September 15, the Vietnamese Marines had gotten into the Citadel and had complete control of it as the NVA retreated. The VNMC 6th Battalion raised the red and yellow flag of the Republic of South Vietnam over Quang Tri City’s west gate at 1245. The city was liberated.

During the seven-week battle to recapture Quang Tri City, the VNMC suffered 3,658 casualties, 25 percent of the entire South Vietnamese Marine Corps, which had proven its fighting capabilities with their recapture of Quang Tri City.

With this victory, the VNMC began movements back toward the north on September 25, 1972, to reoccupy territory lost during the NVA Easter invasion.

Six NVA divisions still remained in Quang Tri Province as the heavy monsoon rains began to fall in October. The heavy rains would continue until the end of the year.

The U.S. Air Force began dropping propaganda leaflets onto North Vietnam. The reason for this was to stir up the populace by telling them that unless they got their leaders to leave South Vietnam alone, the B-52 raids would increase. Simultaneously, our Seventh Fleet started a navy radio broadcast program, using Vietnamese language tapes, directed into North Vietnam. The information disseminated by the leaflet drops and the Seventh Fleet radio broadcasts said about the same thing. The only problem with the navy radio transmission program was that the large number of rural peasants in North Vietnam did not have radios like the city folk in the Haiphong–Hanoi areas. To move along with the propaganda program, the navy rapidly purchased thousands of inexpensive mini-radios from a commercial source in Japan. These simple radios had only one station or frequency band. The Seventh Fleet began parachuting these mini-radios with special-ordered small parachutes, which were normally used for night illumination flare-drops. Along with this operation, my boss, Jim Froid, placed the USS Ogden (LPD 5) off the North Vietnamese coast.

Commander Froid, with minimal assistance from me, set up a program using weather balloons tied to the mini-radios. After establishing everything by message traffic, Froid flew over to the Ogden in the admiral’s Black Beard One helicopter. While on the Ogden, the ship’s crew began launching hundreds of mini-radios into North Vietnam. Using the prevailing winds from the sea, the airborne balloons carried the radios into North Vietnam. There was no scientific way to determine exactly where all the balloons were falling into North Vietnam, and therefore it was not known how effective this was. The navy continued the Vietnamese radio broadcasts and soon we found out that the balloon-carried radios must have been received by many of the rural peasants in North Vietnam. Within three weeks of commencing the balloon-carried radios program from the Ogden, it stirred unrest in the communist propaganda world, when they found out the radios had been manufactured in Japan. Because Japan was not involved in this war, and we were holding the defensive shield up for Japan against the continual ravenous expansion of communism in this area of the world, the communists immediately began to exploit this navy program. Magically, communists worldwide began screaming in the liberal news media that Japan was supporting the U.S. war effort in Vietnam. The Japanese Communist Party, particularly, began exerting political pressure upon the Japanese government, claiming Japan was getting involved in the Vietnam War.

During one period of launching mini-radios from the Ogden, the crew ran out of weather balloons. Typical innovative sailors, the crew promptly came up with an immediate, temporary solution, which—when I read the message to us from the Ogden—left me wondering exactly how to brief the admiral the next morning. Commander Froid and I discussed it and decided to tell the admiral exactly what was happening.

Because Jim Froid and I daily briefed the admiral, Jim covering his responsibilities of the amphibious ships and I, jointly responsible for the amphibious Marines aboard those ships, we often briefed simultaneously. During the briefing, covering numerous ships and associated Marine activities, I nervously said to the admiral, “Admiral, the Ogden ran out of weather balloons late yesterday afternoon. The crew quickly improvised and continued launching the radio operation using available prophylactics . . . condoms . . . rubbers, filled with helium.”

The admiral looked amazed. The rest of the staff began to laugh. Froid continued, “According to a message from the Ogden, the condoms worked perfectly and carried the mini-radios directly over the enemy’s homeland.”

Naturally, there were mixed expressions on the admiral’s face, and the staff quickly teased Jim and me about the impact this would have when the Ogden hit ports for liberty. “The VD rate in the fleet is certain to go up, with the loss of so many condoms used for the war effort. However, on the brighter side, the VD rate in North Vietnam should drop significantly.”

As the Paris peace talks continually experienced ups and downs, during the fall of 1972, rumors swept around the world that the end of the war was near.

On October 27, 1972, the North Vietnamese said they were willing to meet again in Paris with Henry A. Kissinger, but they demanded a Vietnam Peace Treaty be signed by October 31, 1972. North Vietnamese chief negotiators Le Duc Tho and Xuan Thuy invited Kissinger to have champagne and tea with them in Paris because they felt there was nothing more to negotiate. They quoted, “President Nixon, himself, approved the text of the lengthy treaty. The North Vietnamese feel that the text had been heavily discussed and was completed since October 20. The text had been sent by message from the United States to the North Vietnamese Prime Minister, Pham Van Dong.” We then read the message traffic that laid out Hanoi’s peace terms in Paris, which had been forwarded to our staff, via the chain of command. The message said that:

Both parties agree that the following will take place:

•    Stop the bombing and mining in North Vietnam
•    Sign the peace agreement
•    Ceasefire takes effect in South Vietnam
•    Preparations for elections in South Vietnam will commence
•    All U.S. and allied troops withdraw from South Vietnam within sixty days
•    Prisoners of war to be returned
•    Gradual unification of North and South Vietnam
•    United States to contribute to North Vietnam for reconstruction

We all read the various documents the lawyers at the Paris negotiation teams drafted. As the talks continued, some of the language within the text changed. Because we on the Seventh Fleet staff would be responsible for executing the U.S. side of much of those agreements, we carefully studied each new Paris text change to assure we understood our forthcoming obligations. Naturally, though, the most important item to all of us continued to be the return of the prisoners of war.

More weeks passed and nothing new came out of Paris, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

On November 1, 1972, Saigon headquarters directed the VNMC to send Marines north, across the Thach Han River. The NVA counterattacked with massive firepower. The 6th VNMC Battalion could not advance farther. This was to be the last major effort by the South Vietnamese Marines to cross the Thach Han River before the ceasefire agreement in January 1973.

On November 11, 1972, the 4th VNMC Battalion made another attempt to cross to the north side of the Cua Viet River. The NVA strongly resisted and held the northern side of the Cau Viet River.

During December 1972, as Kissinger continued negotiations at the Paris peace talks, the frontlines remained about the same. The North Vietnamese units of the 27th NVA Regiment, 48th NVA Regiment, and 101st NVA Regiment dug in and continued to hold their captured territory north of the Cau Viet River, south of the DMZ inside of South Vietnam.

ANGLICO transitioned the South Vietnamese to give their artillery forward observers the naval gunfire support capability. By the end of December 1972, the South Vietnamese began calling upon our Seventh Fleet’s Task Force 72 naval gunships for fire support.

Captain Edward Briggs became our new chief of staff. Captain Briggs was young and sharp and very enthusiastic. His full crop of blonde hair made him look much younger than his years of experienced naval service reflected. He rapidly applied that experience and became deeply involved in all Seventh Fleet activities and our daily staff actions in support of Admiral Holloway’s objectives.

Considering the massive numbers of North Vietnamese, reinforced with large numbers of tanks and heavy artillery, they were up against, the U.S. supporting units and the South Vietnamese casualties were minimal. Despite the heavy loses suffered by the South Vietnamese Marines during the recapture of Quang Tri City, when compared with the numbers of NVA troops and supporting artillery and tanks, the loses were less than they could have been. This was primarily due to air and naval gunfire support. Historically, from a military viewpoint, Lam Son 72 was this long war’s most successful strategic military victory. It totally prevented devastating defeat at the hands of the large North Vietnamese invasion force. The North Vietnamese plan to divide the south and conquer it had failed.

The Marine Corps helicopters’ vertical envelopment behind the NVA, carrying South Vietnamese Marines and landing close in to the units, was totally successful. It was a classic maneuver for future military historians and tactical commanders to keep in mind.

This helicopter vertical envelopment concept was invented by the Marine Corps in the 1950s, and then followed by heavy usage in U.S. Army tactics. It was, and continues to be, practiced by the Marine corps amphibious forces.

The all-out invasion launched by North Vietnam on March 30, 1972, had failed to accomplish its objectives. General Vo Nguyen Giap of North Vietnam had set, as his announced goals to destroy the South Vietnamese Army, demonstrate the failure of the Nixon administration program, overthrow the regime of South Vietnamese President Thieu, and capture Saigon for a total victory.

When the dust settled in late 1972, General Giap had lost more than 60,000 killed of the 200,000 regular NVA troops committed in the invasion through and around the DMZ, the central highlands of Kontum and Pleiku, and from Cambodia into the Mekong, attacking toward Saigon. Giap had lost 400 tanks of the 600 tanks that he had committed into South Vietnam. Most important of all, Giap had not witnessed any so-called liberated South Vietnamese civilians joining his North Vietnamese liberators as supporters.

What General Giap did learn, the hard way, was that conventional warfare requires air superiority, and in or near coastal areas, naval gunfire support is paramount.

Our Seventh Fleet support of the South Vietnamese Lam Son 72 counterattack cost us, and the U.S. Air Force, the loss of a fair amount of jet attack aircraft and aircrews, until we knocked out the SAM sites in the DMZ. The Seventh Fleet also lost a CH-53 helicopter to the SA-7 Strella missile, costing the lives of two Americans and many South Vietnamese Marines. The Seventh Fleet also lost two CH-46 helicopters plus several severely wounded Marines, which impacted us all. The U.S. Army and Air Force lost more helicopter aircrews during this time frame due to not only supporting Lam Son 72 but also search-and-rescue efforts.

The reports of these brave Americans killed and wounded made me think back in time again . . . seven years ago . . . during the summer of 1965, when I was stationed at Da Nang. Many others, at that time, had the same thoughts that I had. Put simply, we had the commonsense question: Why didn’t the Americans fighting in Vietnam get permission and congressional approval and support to declare war and bomb the hell out of the enemy in Hanoi? We could have started the systematic destruction of their communications system, and then their troops in North Vietnam, followed by our supporting an invasion of North Vietnam by the South Vietnamese, across the DMZ, and a U.S.-supported amphibious assault at the heart of the enemy, Haiphong Harbor. This would have immediately brought the war to the enemy’s homeland. North Vietnam’s cities and villages would have been ravished as the battlefield, not the cities and villages of unfortunate South Vietnam. Non-supporting congressional members created pressures on several of our serving presidents in a row. As a result, limits were placed upon military commanders at all levels under directives dictating Rules of Engagement, which quite often were rules favorable to an aggressive communist army. The U.S. military, during the Vietnam War, was directed to fight as if, during World War II, we had tried to free France from Hitler’s army by purposely fighting only in France and not bombing, and then not invading, the heartland of Germany. The old saying remains true: “If you’re going to talk, then talk. If you’re going to fight, then fight. But if you’re going to fight, fight to win with all that you have at your disposal.” While the South Vietnamese were recapturing much of the NVA-invaded land using Lam Son 72 and other counterattacks, our Seventh Fleet staff was heavily engaged in numerous other activities. We were deeply involved in squeezing North Vietnam by mining Haiphong Harbor and North Vietnam’s waterways. During this period of vicious land war of 1972, the Seventh Fleet and the Seventh Air Force were finally authorized to bomb North Vietnam and sever main supply routes from communist China and the Soviet Union.

As this took place, our staff members’ orientation also turned to the activities of our bumbling politicians in Washington and Paris. What would our political leaders returning to the Paris peace talks demand and obtain from the North Vietnamese communists who had just suffered a major defeat on the battlefields? What would they give to the North Vietnamese? Would our civilian leaders leverage the North Vietnamese failure of their major invasion into South Vietnam . . . while the United States did not recommit ground-fighting units back into South Vietnam to help the south?

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