The 3rd Ranger group based in the III-Corps with three battalions 31st, 36th, and 52nd and served as a reaction force for the III-Corps. All three ranger battalions were well known, each for its special characteristic. This article was a tribute to the 52nd which I had a close relationship.
Not all of a suđen that the 52nd obtained the reputation as "Thunderbolt of the East". Men of the 52nd earned that reputation with their sweats, bloods, and bones. "Thunderbolt of the East" reminded the readers with battles of quick, lightning strikes like thunders on the enemy, and the famous victories in the Corps Tactical Zone III (CTZ-III), and in South Vietnam.
Probably, many people still remembered the reaction to the ambush at Kim Hai, the battle of Suoi Long. These two typical "Reaction to Ambush" battles surprised high ranking officers, US advisors. These unbelievable battles made them felt like and respect the rangers of the 52nd. Because of that fighting capability, the 52nd was one of the first RVN battalion received the US Presidential Unit Citation.
The victories of the 52nd battalion were too many to mention. I had served on the battalion since I was a young aspirant, platoon leader in company 4th, 52nd Ranger battalion then up to the interim operation officer (S-3) of the 3rd Ranger group. The following story happened when I served as the interim S-3 officer.
After three months in An Loc and the accomplishment in Phuoc Tuy province, all the rangers the 3rd Ranger group were decorated by the headquarters of the III-Corps in the provincial installation in July 1972. In early August, the 3rd group moved back to Bien Hoa and ready for new deployment.
The responsibility areas of the rangers were the east and northeast of the Bien Hoa province, included Tan Uyen district, north and northeast of Ho Nai, and highway 1 from Ho Nai to Trang Bom district.
In the daylight, the ranger group deployed small units at platoon, company level in search and destroy operations in those areas suspected that the enemy might use to shell 122 mm rockets into Bien Hoa airbase and the headquarters of the III-Corps.
At night, all battalion used squads to set up ambushes at those areas that had been search during the day. These ambushes were set up to detect and prevent enemy transported rockets into the area for "hit and run" bombardments.
This new AO could be called home, because it included Phan Hanh camp, home base of the 3rd Ranger group and the battalions, so we were happy.
At the meeting, the group commander, Colonel Nguyen Van Biet positioned his ranger group as following:
- The headquarters of the group stayed in Phan Hanh camp and ready to move as needed.
- The 31st battalion under the command of Lt. Col. Truong Khanh, operated in the district of Tan Uyen. Collaborated with the district in night operation to prevent friendly fires.
- The 36th under the command of Lt. Col. Hong Khac Tran, operated in Ho Nai area toward the north and northeast.
- The 52nd under the command of Major Tran Dinh Nga, operated in the area northeast of Ho Nai, along highway 1 and north of the highway about 5 to 10km. When needed, the 52nd battalion would become strategic reserved force for the group. Because, this battalion operated near the highway, can be assembled and deployed quickly.
- The 3rd recon company was the reaction force. It protected the headquarters and the 105mm battery in the Phan Hanh camp.
Colonel Biet also warned all three battalions be prepared for "Eagle" tactic because the area of operation was suitable for this tactic (open field for landing by helicopters). He emphasized searching as many suspected areas as possible.
The 3rd ranger group entered the new AO smoothly. On the first few days in the AO, the rangers only encountered closed and brief gunfights then the enemy disappeared. In some dense areas, all three battalions discovered well camouflaged enemýs trenches, fox holes. At some rocket launch sites, the rangers found the launchers but not the rockets.
Things in the AO went on peacefully until one early morning at the end of August 1972. The "hot line" telephone in the tactical operation center (TOC) rang out, and on the other end of the line, the G-3 officer of the III-Corps, and he wanted to talk to the group commander.
The two high ranking officers talked for about twenty minutes. I stood by and got some feeling "This... must be a big one!" Hang up the phone, Colonel Biet said to me "We have job to do!"... After a moment, he told me to call Major Nga, the XO, and all company commanders of the 52nd to a meeting at 6am.
Stood in front of a map, he pointed at the town of Trang Bom and said.
- The enemy already cut off highway 1 from Trang Bom to the three-way intersection of Dau Giay in the province of Long Khanh. This caused traffic jams, in the north from Dinh Quan, La Nga to the three-way intersection, and from here to Long Khanh...
And the commander went on... and on.
- They occupied the rubber plantation and the air strip of Trang Bom (belong to the plantation). The Regional Forcés outpost was overrun, and they controlled the town. The III-Corps ordered us to clear highway 1 and retake the town as soon as possible.
At 6am, all staff officers of the group and the 52nd reported for the meeting. After the briefing, Colonel Biet gave order directly.
- The 52nd must deploy two companies, under the command of Major Huynh Cong Hien, the deputy commander. This force will be helicopter-borne into the battlefield, and to capture and hold three "bald" hills and the wood areas surrounding the town of Trang Bom in three directions, north, northeast, and southeast of the rubber plantation.
Colonel Biêt pointed to the three circled hills on the map which he named "Target A, B, and C". These three hills were not far from each others, strategic advantage points to control the town and the plantation of Trang Bom. And they also blocked the escape route for the enemy, when we opened a frontal attack toward the town.
- The other two companies were commanded directly by the battalion commander, Major Tran Dinh Nga, moved by trucks on highway 1, and attacked toward the town. This was the principle force for the attack.
- The S-3 officer of the group worked closely with observation air plane "Birdog" L-19 for covering and clear the landing zones. And all other supports for the operation.
- The 3rd Recon company served as the reaction force, assembled at the flag pole and ready for combat.
- Companies of the 52nd must be ready at the landing pad or at the trucks stop. Each men would have two days of C-rations.
For closing, Colonel Biet said.
- The forward headquarters of the group, me and four 105mm guns will move to a hill in southern of highway 1, 2km away from Trang Bom, for direct commanding and support. The deputy commander of the group (Lt. Col.) and the rest of the S-3 keep track with the other two battalions as normal.
Then, turned to me, he said.
- Prepare the order of battle and send out. You go with me for running the operation.
At the forward headquarters near Trang Bom, we received some more information from civilian and People militia who got away from the town of Trang Bom. Enemy only controlled some areas of town. Most of them assembled in the rubber plantation, where they dug trenches, fox holes and camouflaged very well. It was not easy to be seen from the air. This information was passed to the 52nd immediately.
. . .
At 8am, two companies which will be transported by trucks were assembled and ready. At the same time, following the direction of the group commander, I coordinated with air support in preparing the landing areas. The jets dived in to release bombs on the hills, then after the air strikes, Major Huynh Cong Hien requested a "T.ỌT." artillery bombardment on the three hills before his landing.
After the landing zones were clear, the first company landed at the foot of hill A and moved up with two platoons on the right flank. The rangers secured the hill easily, enemy reacted lightly then fledged. The send company landed next without any problem. Major Hien ordered to move up on hill C where the rangers found dead corpses with their melt weapons. He ordered one platoon to stay and hold the strong point, and led the rest to attack on hill B.
When the scout team crossed the railroad toward hill B, the enemy positioned in the banana trees yard opened fires. The scout team quickly ran for cover behind the mounds, and tried to locate the enemy. But the banana trees yard was too big and enemy fires was so powerful, the scout team couldn't do much, and the L-19 covered in the air also couldn't see anything. Major Hien requested for armed helicopters support and the scout team must try to locate the enemy for air strike.
Four gunships circled the area and fired rockets, machine gun on the target for fifteen minutes. The banana trees yard below caught fire and the enemy started to pull out. Then the artillery continued the bombardment.
When the fire support finished, Maj. Hien stood up and screamed out "Ranger, Go forward" for the rangers to attack. All the rangers opened fire and charged forward into the banana trees yard. Some men got hit, but Maj. Hien ordered to continue the attack until the rangers completely controlled the entire big yard. The enemy ran to the wood in the southeast.
Major Hien directed the rangers to charge up the hill B and completed the task assigned to the two companies under his command (Bravo wing, half of the battalion under the command of the battalion XO). Now the rangers completely control the strategic area.
The area was secured, a helicopter brought in a team of Combat Engineer with equipment for detecting mines. The highway 1 from Long Khanh was clear for traffic.
When the Bravo wing under Maj. Hien secured the area, Col. Biet ordered the Alpha wing under the command of the battalion commander, Maj. Tran Dinh Nga to start the attack toward the town of Trang Bom.
The Recon teams got inside the town and reported that the enemy reacted lightly, and the governmental section was still intact, the enemy probably moved out of town. Maj. Nga directed a company to enter the town and spread out to the north and east of the town in search for enemy signs.
When a platoon in this company was moving to the east near the airstrip and the edge of the forest then the gunfight broke out. The company commander reported that enemy dug in for the fight. Maj. Nga told the company hang in there and ordered the remaining company to move along the highway next to the rubber plantation and attack from the north downward. The battalion commander also requested for gunships support. It was an ideal condition for airstrikes, the distance between friend and enemy was an empty field as big as a football field, and there was the airstrip ran along the edge of the rubber plantation from east to west.
Looking down from a C&C with Col. Nguyen Van Biet, the group commander, It was a beautiful picture, the sky was clear, few white clouds were floating in the air. And the ground below filled with the green of grass and lines of the rubber trees.
When Maj. Nga requested for airstrikes, the Colonel nođed his head and I called for air support. Four gunships arrived quickly then started circling in the air and fired rockets, machine guns on the enemy position. Col. Biet told the 52nd commander try to get the job done as soon as possible then clear the road for traffic (he probably wanted to get the Corps commander out of his nerve and off his back).
While waiting for the gunships to finish, Maj. Nga ordered the company facing the enemy line at the airstrip to line up and ready to attack. The rangers were ready, when the gunships left, they opened fires to suppress the enemy and charged forward, screamed the battle cry "Ranger Attack!", "Ranger Kill!".
At the same time, Maj. Nga ordered the other company to attack from the north. The enemy was attacked on two directions, panicked, ran for their lives. The Alpha wing controlled the battlefield quickly. One company continued to move eastward to link up with Bravo wing and Maj. Hien.
Late in the afternoon, the 52nd Ranger battalion completely controlled the area of operation, from Trang Bom to the three way intersection Dau Giay. Near 7pm, the group commander ordered the 52nd to keep three companies with the battalion XO there to secure the area until some other unit (likely the Regional Force) arrived to relieve the rangers.
The headquarters of the 52nd and one company returned to its home base in the north of Ho Nai area. Major Nga on his Jeep led the convoy going home. When the convoy reached the edge of a rubber plantation near Trang Bom, the enemy ambushed with AK-47 and RPG B-40, one B-40 rocket missed Maj. Nga Jeep, but the driver terrified caused the Jeep rolled over off the road. The rangers heard the explosion and noise of gunfight, jumped off the trucks and took positions on one side of the road.
Major Nga directed the rangers to fire on enemy position and moved forward to counterattack. According to him, these runaways from the rangers during the fight in Trang Bom, now waited until dark to escape. They probably thought, there was only one Jeep of Maj. Nga. After 15 minutes of gunfight, the enemy disappeared again. The ranger killed three, captured one and two Ak-47.
The operation was success, the highway was reopened. The town of Trang Bom was back to normal. The following morning, the 52nd Ranger battalion reported:
- Enemy: Killed 115 (including by airstrike). Captured 50 AK-47s, 35 M-16s, 3 machine guns, 5 RPG B-40s, 1 mortar 61mm. Destroyed ammunition. Captured 14 POWs.
- Friend: 28 wounded. Weapons preserved.
The rangers transfer the AO to the 18th Infantry division and moved back to the area north of Ho Nai. At noon, Major general Do Ke Giai, commander of the Ranger High Command, Colonel Nguyen Thanh Chuan, commander of the III-Corps Ranger arrived at camp Phan Hanh to decorate a number of rangers.
As a strategic reserved unit in the III-Corps, the 3rd Ranger group always accomplished its duties and the 52nd Ranger battalion again, scored a victory, and deserved the nick name "Thunderbolt of the East".
California June, 26 2003