THE 31st RANGER GROUP
RETREATED FROM CHON THANH (4/1975)

Ranger Khue Q. Nguyen

Translated by Hieu dinh Vu


After more than a year of defending the city of An Loc, Binh Long province, since the Paris Agreement in early 1973. In early spring 1974, the entire 31st (former 3rd) group with three battalions 31st, 36th, and 52nd was ordered from the III-Corps headquarters to move back from An Loc by helicopters to the town of Chon Thanh, to replace a regiment from the 5th Infantry division.

In the new area of operation, the 31st Ranger group was responsible for defending the district, against the enemy in "land grabbing" campaign. And to block the enemęs 5th, 7th, 9th divisions entering the Binh Long, Binh Duong provinces. The group was under the command of Colonel Nguyen Van Biet, Lieutenant Colonel Hong Khac Tran was the deputy commander. Commander of the 31st battalion was Major Nguyen Van Tu, the 36th was Major Dao Kim Minh, and the 52nd was Major Tran Dinh Nga. The ranger group also had the operational control of the following attached units:

  1. The military district of Chon Thanh, with its Regional Forces, People Militia under the district chief Lt. Col. Quoc.
  2. A company of combined of tanks M-41 and APC M-113 under the command of First Lieutenant Quang. These tanks and APC cannot move because of mechanical broke down, used only in defending.
  3. An Artillery platoon with four 105mm guns, under the command of a First Lieutenant.
Chon Thanh was a small district on highway 13, midway between An Loc, Binh Long province in the north and Lai Khe combat base of the 5th Infantry division in the south (Binh Duong province). Chon Thanh was only 75km from Saigon by air. Highway 13 was cut off from Lai Khe to Chon Thanh and from Chon Thanh to An Loc. After the Paris agreement, the enemy set up many roadblocks on highway 13, therefore all supplies, troop movements between Lai Khe, Chon Thanh, An Loc were done using helicopters.

The redeployment of the 31st Ranger group by helicopters from An Loc to Chon Thanh was done smoothly, without any casualty. The headquarters of the ranger group was greeted by the military district commander and his staff when they landed in a base of an Infantry regiment. After a briefing on friends, enemy force in the area by commander of the regiment, the 31st Ranger group positioned its force as following:

  1. The group headquarters and the headquarters of the 52nd battalion, and the platoon 105mm guns stationed in the old Infantry regiment base located on the east of highway 13, and Chon Thanh district military installation. This operation base was defended by a company from the 52nd, the recon company of the group, and the tanks company. The defense was boosted with antitank newest weapon, four TOWs positioned at four corners of the base. These TOWs were under the command of First Lieutenant An.
  2. The 31st battalion positioned and operated in the north of the district, the further most blocking element of the battalion was 3km away from the town. The battalion spread out on two sides of highway 13, to protect this main road.
  3. The 36th battalion took the AO in the south of Chon Thanh. The further most position was about 4km away from the town. In the area of operation, the 36th rangers coordinated with the regional force at the platoon level. It was a good exercise for the Regional, People Militia forces to learn mobility from the ranger units.
  4. The rest of the 52nd battalion operated toward the east of the combat base, placed one company to protect the road from Chon Thanh to Phuoc Long province. The further most element of the battalion held a small bridge on the Dong Nai river, 3km away from the base.
After settled down in the new AO, all battalions deployed platoon, company sizes operations to expand the controlled areas. In this type of "Land Grabbing" operations, each ranger carried a Republic of Vietnam flag in his back-pack, so the rangers can mark their territory.

The security became more stable, the rangers pushed enemy away from the town, out of their bombardment range. People became more active in doing business.

In early spring 1975, from intelligence sources, the 31st Ranger group knew that the enemy was moving large units closer to the area of Chon Thanh, and they intended to flatten the town and move on to Lai Khe. Also, electronic sensors planned deep inside enemęs territory by recon teams sent back signals to show that large enemy units were in the areas. Any time the Tactical Operation Center (TOC) of the ranger group received these signals, the rangers requested long range 175mm guns in Lai Khe combat base and its four 105mm guns to open TOT fires on detected locations.

The following day, recon teams from the 52nd was sent to search the bombardment area for assessment. The team reported back that they found tracks of enemy vehicles and their damage equipments left behind.

Several days in early of March 1975, all units reported of enemy signs of small units in the area with brief gunfights. The night ambush teams also reported of hearing noises of enemy vehicles and tank engines.

With information collected from the enemęs activities, Colonel Nguyen Van Biet, the commander of the 3rd Ranger group believed, very soon the enemy will open a major drive through Chon Thanh combat base. He ordered all units must prepare adequate ammunition, supplies and positioned anti-tank weapons, M-72 rocket launchers.

As predicted, the enemy started a major attack by the end of March with tanks and infantry units. First, they bombarded heavily on the defender positions with 82mm mortars, rocket 122mm, and 130mm field guns. The rangers already prepared for the attack, fortified their bunkers, foxholes with lids covered, so the casualty was light.

The TOC bunker got hit by rocket 122mm caused a corner collapse, and the ranger staffs had to move to the secondary TOC.

After the third round of bombardments, the attack by tanks and infantry began. They attacked both the headquarters of the 3rd Ranger group, and the headquarters of the military district compound. The rangers from the 52nd battalion and the 3rd recon company blasted with their M-72 antitank rockets, knocked out 6 tanks around the base. Two of the six tanks were trapped in the anti-tank trench barbwire then be destroyed by M-72 rockets.

The enemy pulled back, left behind eight tanks T-54 (two were knocked out by the Regional Force defending the military district installation), numerous weapons including machine guns and 57mm recoilless guns, and dead corpses on the battlefield. The rangers lost two M-41 tanks, two 105mm guns from bombardments. Four M-41 tank crew members were wounded. Casualty on the rangers and regional force men were much lighter in comparing with the enemy.

The 31st battalion reported pushing back two waves of attacks, killed one hundred enemy and captured many weapons. Meanwhile, the 36th battalion positioned in the south of Chon Thanh was bombarded but not attack.

This battle, the ranger and regional force troops must defend without air support, since all the air resources were deployed to military regions I and II.

In the early April 1975, the radio operator brought a secret message to the group commander. The message was sent from the headquarters of the An Loc Front (The forward HQs of the III-Corps Ranger).

  1. Praised the 3rd ranger group and Regional Force of Chon Thanh after the attack.
  2. The entire HQs of the An Loc Front will follow order from the HQs of the III-Corps, moving out of An Loc. The 32nd (5th) and the 33rd (formed by Border Ranger battalions) Ranger groups will be helicopter-lift to Lai Khe combat base (of the 5th Infantry division). The commander of the An Loc Front (Colonel Nguyen Thanh Chuan), his light CP and the 30th battalion of the 32nd Ranger group (attached to protect the HQs of the An Loc Front) will be helicopter-lift to Chon Thanh to join the 31st Ranger group.
  3. Next orders will be directly to the group commander when the commander of the An Loc Front landed in Chon Thanh.
On April 3rd 1975, around 11am, Colonel Nguyen Thanh Chuan and his staffs landed in Chon Thanh on a C&C helicopter. He immediately met with the commander of the 3rd group. This was a fake operation with the landing of the 30th Ranger battalion in Chon Thanh to make the enemy believe that the rangers were consolidating the defense of Chon Thanh. The two Ranger groups 32nd and 33rd were already brought back to defend the Bien Hoa and Tay Ninh provinces. Eventually, the 30th and the 3rd Ranger group with the two headquarters (3rd Ranger group and the An Loc Front) will retreat back to Lai Khe combat base on foot. Then the 30th battalion will be released back to its parent, the 32nd group, the 31st group will be placed under the command and control of the III-Corps.

After landing in Chon Thanh, the 30th Ranger battalion commanded by Major Nguyen Ngoc Khoan was placed under the control of the 31st group and was assigned a section of the defensive line. After the two Colonels met, the group commander directed the S-3 officer to call all battalion commanders, district commander, and the commanders of the Amor, Artillery forces to a briefing at 1pm on the same day. In fact, it was a very short meeting. Col. Biet said brieftly.

"According to the direction of the headquarters of the III-Corps, Colonel Chuan commander of the An Loc Front ordered us: The entire 31st Ranger group and the military district's force will retreat out of Chon Thanh to Lai Khe tonight, on foot. The retreating plan will be executed as following:"

  1. The 36th battalion in the south of Chon Thanh. Major Minh (battalion commander) tries to find a safe corridor for the battalion and a Regional Force battalion down there to retreat to Lai Khe. Report back to the group headquarters about the corridor and the retreating direction before the departing. All men must carry enough ammunition and move quickly to the rendezvous X, there will be unit of the 5th Infantry waiting. They will get into our communication channel to contact with us.
  2. The 31st battalion in the north under the command of Major Tu will retreat with "mat folding" tactic, until rendezvous with a company of the 52nd then retreat together. The two battalions maintain communication to avoid friendly-fires.
  3. The 52nd and the 30th work together for the retreat under the direction of Major Nga, because Major Nga knows the terrain of this area well. Using "mat folding" tactic.
  4. The headquarters of the military district of Chon Thanh responsible to direct all Regional Forces, People Militia for the retreating. Again using "mat folding" tactic.
  5. Commanders of the Amor and Artillery must destroy all heavy weapons, equipments before the retreat.
  6. The time G is set at 9pm tonight. One hour later, these bases will be the targets for our 175mm guns from Lai Khe combat base.
At the end, the commander told everyone to keep secret. As the S-3 officer of the group, I worked with the signal officer to prepare a new and two backup "plan A, plan B" communication directives. These directives were sent to all units and to the headquarters of the 5th Infantry division for following up.

As the evening approached, from inside the combat base, we heard peoplés noises calling and even livestock moving on highway 13. We understood immediately, the retreating plan was leaked and refugees started moving south. The group commander ordered all units to start the retreat sooner then he personally called Major Nga, the commander of the 52nd directly.

Major Nga answered that he already called two companies to pull back to the east of the base and ready to protect the headquarters on the move. The CP of the battalion and one company will move out to protect the rear of the retreating column, after destroying all reserved ammunition. The 30th battalion already followed one company of the 52nd to open the retreating corridor.

After the headquarters of the 3rd Ranger group and the An Loc Front moved out of the combat base, the enemy started shelling into the camp with all type of heavy weapons. The CP of the 52nd and a protecting company were the last unit to retreat, they had to fight their way out because enemęs infantry and tanks support already closed in.

Major Nga, the battalion commander reported that his CP already moved out but had to leave behind serious wounded men, including a master sergeant Danh who was an assistant in operation (S-3).

After moved out of the base to the south a distance, one C-47 airplane circled the area to maintain the communication with the retreating column on the ground. The airplane dropped flairs on the western of Chon Thanh to divert the enemy about the retreating path. Sometimes we looked back and saw the camp was burning and flairs shooting from the ground, the enemy celebrated after swarming into the abandon camp. We also heard the explosions from 175mm shells on the camp. Through the airplane, we knew that the 175mm guns in Lai Khe combat base were destroying the Chon Thanh combat base.

Near midnight, the retreating column was moving in the wood and it was dark. Suđenly, there were noises of gunfight in front of the column. Major Giai who walked next to the group commander told me that the lead element of the 31st battalion clashed with a small group of the enemy. They tried to disrupt the retreating. The column halted for a break and waited until the rangers cleared the road block then continued.

A little while after 2am, the headquarters can maintain the communication with the two battalion 31st and 36th commanders, Major Tu and Major Minh. We have not been able to contact Major Nga commander of the 52nd only Captain Nhan the battalion's XO and Captain Tanh the operation officer. The two captains also reported that they cannot communicate with Major Nga about more than half an hour ago. Captain Xuan, the XO of the 30th battalion also reported lost communication with the battalion commander, Major Khoan about an hour ago. We believed the two battalion commanders encountered with the enemy and had to break to another direction and cut off the radio communication for avoiding the enemy trailing.

The retreating column continued until the sunrise, there was a "Bird Dog" L-19 observation airplane covered in the air. The airplane communicated very good with us but unable to see because we were moving in a thick canopy forest on the eastern side of highway 13.

The 36th battalion reported did not encounter enemy and was moving at a fast speed and has been contacted with the 5th Infantry division at the rendezvous point. The 31st was moving on the left flank of the group headquarters. Captain Phan, operation officer of the 30th battalion reported was moving on the right flank with the light headquarters of the 52nd battalion under the command of the battalion XO, Capt. Nhan. One company of the 52nd was at the rear of the retreating column to protect the HQs of the group (including the An Loc Front).

At 4pm in the afternoon, the column moved out of the forest to an open area then gunfight broke out in the direction of the 31st battalion. Both the 31st and the 52nd battalions reported encounter enemy and were under the bombardment of their 82mm mortars.

And a rain poured down heavily, we were all wet. The group headquarters and the An Loc Front ran up a small hill covered with elephant grass to see the fights. I called the L-19 and requested for a clear observation. The 30th battalion also reported encountered enemy road block and pinned down under their bombardments. Major Tu reported, enemy road blocks was dug in and had machine guns. While I, the S-3 officer of the group was monitoring the fight via PRC-25 radios, suđenly a strange voice cut in "Surrender, live. Fight, die... Better surrender, you are encircled". I called out to all units the code to switch to the second communication plan. At the same time, company of the 52nd at the rear reported that they found many telephone lines of the enemy running from west to east. I told the S-3 of the battalion to direct the rangers to cut off the telephone lines whenever they found.

Studied the situation, Col. Biet, Maj. Giai and I agreed that the blockages are big at company level with heavy weapons. These blockages kept us in place while their larger units will hit our flanks. The group commander circled some points on the map and requested for airstrikes at the edge of the forest on the direction of the Dong Nai river to block the enemy attack on the 52nd battalion (only two companies, one was at the rear of the column, and one was missing with the battalion HQs). The 31th and the 30th battalions reported under bombardments and the rangers can hear noises of their trucks. The group commander believed the enemy used vehicles (trucks, Molotova) to chase the retreating column.

The airplane L-19 covered also warned the rangers that the enemy was moving along highway 13. We requested for airstrike with Napalm bomb to build a fire-wall along the highway to block the enemy from attack on the flank of the retreating column. Less than five minutes, squadrons of F-5 and A-37 jets dived in to release bombs. The 31st, 52nd and 30th battalions also requested for airstrikes on the enemy blockages. I contacted the airplane for the airstrikes but the L-19 answered not possible because the line between enemy and the rangers was too close. The smoke cannot be used because the wind was blowing to our position. The pano was not usable neither, I suggested the rangers to tie the RVN flags on their guns or on their rucksacks so the pilots can distinguish enemy or friends. From the air, the pilot on the L-19 reported that he saw the rangers but... too close.

The group commander decided to use M-72 rocket launchers and M-79 to fire on enemy positions then ran forward, stepped on their heads then moved on. This was the last choice for survival, and the ranger succeeded.

After the last fight, a helicopter from the 5th Infantry division landed and picked up the two ranger Colonels. Then a convoy arrived to transport the rangers to Lai Khe combat base. The retreating was a success except for the two battalion commanders of the 30th and the 52nd.

The 31st Ranger group was back to its home base in Ho Nai for refitting, especially the 52nd. On the 13th of April, the group was airlifted to defend Phan Rang city. This city fell on the 17th of April as with the 31st Ranger group.

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