THE 52nd RANGER BATTALION

THE RETREAT FROM CHON THANH

Nga dinh Tran

Translated by Hieu D. Vu


In early Spring 1974, the 3rd Ranger Group was air lifted from An Loc to Chon Thanh to fill in the area of operation (AO) of an infantry regiment from the 5th Division. Chon Thanh was a town on Route 13, about 75km from Saigon. Since the town was encircled, all resupply was done by air. The district chief was a Lieutenant Colonel under the command of the province chief, Colonel Pham Van Phuc, who was former commander of the 3rd Ranger Group. The task assigned to the ranger group was to remove enemy pressure on the district and to block the thrust from three enemy divisions and the Binh Long regiment northwest of Saigon.

The 3rd Ranger Group was commanded by Col. Nguyen Van Biet. The group had three battalions: the 31st, 36th and 52nd, and attached units of one platoon of 105mm guns, one squadron of M-113 APCs, and Regional Forces of the Chon Thanh district. The air-lift was done without any problem. Infantry officers briefed us in a hurry, as they wanted to leave quickly. The rangers were happy to move to the town, as Chon Thanh was closer to Saigon and the enemy's pressure was lighter.

According to the battle plan, Major Dao Kim Minh and the 36th were positioned in the north, Major Nguyen Van Tu and the 31st covered the western flank, and the 52nd under Major Tran Dinh Nga stayed with and protected the group headquarters and the combat base. All three Ranger battalions rebuilt the defenses, set up blocking positions (teams with 3 to 5 men in a strategic position) and all companies conducted patrols at least 5km away from the defensive line.

During the first few days after the rangers arrived, the Viet Cong were everywhere. They crawled close to the defensive line to open fire, using hit and run tactics. The road from the combat base, located next to the district installation to the market, was about 2km long, but needed to be cleared every morning. After two weeks, the district was secured.

The 52nd formed recon teams, dressed in enemy uniform and carrying AK-47s. These teams worked behind the enemy's line on a three days rotation. Their primary duty was to collect information about the enemy, kill, and kidnap their personnel, and make them feel insecure. They also pinpointed enemy positions for artillery bombardment or air strikes.

By fall of 1974, enemy pressure was reduced considerably. The only clashes were at the squad or platoon size in the enemy controlled area. The commander of the 3rd Ranger Group ordered the rangers to help rebuilt a Buddhist temple near Chon Thanh market with a beautiful gate. He personally attended the ribbon cutting ceremony when the temple reopened for the people.

Experienced from the battle of An Loc, Col. Biet ordered other battalions to send men to help the 52nd build an anti-tank trench that was twelve feet wide and ten feet deep around the combat base which housed the headquarters of the 3rd Group and the 52nd Battalion.

The digging of anti-tank trench was just finished when the enemy started a new offensive. At a meeting at the group headquarters with all unit commanders, the briefing was done by the S-2 (Intelligence, security) and S-3 (Operation, training) officers. Col. Biet ordered all units to carry three basic loads of ammunition, and store food for a long fight. Then came bad news! The brother 5th Ranger Group, with the 30th, 33rd, and 38th, received orders to retreat out of An Loc. This meant all enemy pressure from the north will be directed at Chon Thanh. After the battle of An Loc, the defense of the city was carried out by the two ranger groups, the 3rd and the 5th.

When the 5th Ranger Group was air-lifted to Tay Ninh, Colonel Nguyen Thanh Chuan, commander of the III-Corps Rangers, moved his command post and his staff to Chon Thanh and stayed with the 3rd Ranger Group.

The 52nd received one company from the 36th to help protect the group headquarters, the command post of Col. Chuan (III-Corps Ranger), and a company of 105mm artillery located about 1km to the northeast. The battalion commander deployed his forces as following: The 4th company protected the artillery location, the 1st held strategic strong points (high positions) at the three way intersection of Xuan Lai, about 3km to the east of the combat base. The rest covered the defensive perimeter to protect the base. All companies set up strong-points in their area of responsibility.

On the last days of March 1975, recon teams operated at night clashed with the enemy and reported that they heard enemy tanks noises. The ranger group directed artillery bombardments on enemy suspected locations. The further most positions of the 36th also reported enemy tanks to the west of their position. At the headquarters of the ranger group, Col. Chuan and Col. Biet predicted the enemy would heavily pound the ranger positions with their artillery, then open a two prong attack. One from the east would head directly through the defensive line of the 52nd to reach the ranger headquarters. The other prong would attack from the west through the 36th toward the government district installation.

There were open fields on these two sides, an ideal condition for the tanks to maneuver and maximize fires power. The 31st defended the northern sector, which had civilian houses and small roads, so the enemy could only use infantry to attack.

As predicted, early in the morning of March 31st 1975, the enemy started their bombardment on the ranger positions. They used many delayed warheads for purpose of flattening ranger bunkers and caused maximum damage to the trenches. Then their infantry and tanks moved into the battlefield. All forward positions of the 52nd were attacked. One company of the 36th under the command of Captain Huy was attacked from the west. He entered the communication channel of the 52nd and requested fire support from 81mm mortars, because the enemy was too close for using 105mm guns. Both ranger battalions pushed back the first enemy wave and captured numerous guns.

At noon, the battle cooled down, but at the blocking positions outside the main defensive line reported seeing enemy's tanks. The 52nd requested artillery support, but the enemy assembly position was out of 155mm guns range, and 175mm guns delivered a few rounds then stopped firing. Air support was also not available! The only thing the rangers could do was to place mines on the road leading to the combat base.

The enemy did not reopen another attack, but they continued to shell the ranger positions to build tension and stress on the defenders. At 6am in the morning of April 7th 1975, enemy tanks moved in, they lined up away from the ranger defensive line about 700, 800 meters and fired their 90mm guns (mounted on the turrets) into the combat base. The radio communication room was located on the lowest floor of a three stories, concrete house. The top floor had a 50mm machine gun that was blown to pieces, but the radios were unharmed and still maintained communication.

When the enemy's T-54 tanks started rolling toward the combat base with their infantry, the rangers blasted back with rocket launchers, M-72, TOWs, machine guns on the M-113 APCs, and artillery 105mm guns (these 105mm guns lowered their barrels and fired directly on the enemy tanks.

At 9am, four T-54 tanks got through the ring of fire but were trapped in the anti-tank trench by barbwires and were captured. Their accompanying infantry troops pulled back to the woods. The ranger's casualties were light, and wounded men were carried off to the underground meeting bunker of the 52nd Ranger battalion.

With strong reaction from the rangers, the enemy had to put the attack ?on hold?. In the late afternoon of April 11th 1975, around 5pm, the two Colonels called the commander of the 52nd back to group's headquarters and asked about the battalion's condition (ammunition, food supply and morale). The high ranking officers then asked a direct question ?How long can the battalion hang on?? I (the battalion commander, author of this article) replied that there were casualties, but the morale was still high and ammunition was not yet a problem. The battalion can hang on for several weeks. In the worse case, we can pull a company on the outside back to boost up the defense of the combat base.

After a moment of thinking, the group commander showed me an ?ultimate secret? message. It was an order from the III-Corps headquarters that the 3rd Ranger group was to retreat back to Lai Khe for new deployment (after the disasters from the I and II-Corps, the RVN ran out of its strategic reserved forces, therefore the JGS wanted to send the 3rd Ranger group to defend Phan Rang province). I really did not understand this order. If we abandoned Chon Thanh, the enemy would push toward Bien Hoa province and eventually Saigon city.

And this was, in fact a difficult task. The battalion had many wounded men, and the enemy's infantry and tanks encircled the combat base. To my understanding, the other 31st and 36th battalions already received the order to retreat as well and the G time was set at 11pm.

Back at the battalion, I ordered the Rangers to dump captured weapons on the flooded trench then filled with soil. The four APC M-113 were burned after firing all rounds of M-50 machine guns (their engines were broken out, damaged, and without fuel). The 1st Company was ordered to pull back and stay with the 4th inside artillery base. The 2nd company protected the headquarters of the 3rd Group and CP of Colonel Chuan, moving out of the combat base through the back gate on the eastern side. The remaining 3rd Company would be the last unit to move out with the CP of the battalion.

Probably, the enemy knew about the retreat by intercepting messages on the PRC-25 radio channel. They started the bombardment and the ranger combat base was shaking like an earthquake and caught fire. I was told that Col. Biet had just moved to the artillery compound, Major Ky, the deputy commander of the battalion and two companies (1st and 4th) will be waiting. At that moment, we were too occupied with wounded soldiers and heavy weapons.

At that time, the enemy infantry got close to the combat base and we can hear the gunfire break out, with the screaming from both sides. The rest of the 52nd including the CP followed the trench through the east and marched about 1km until they met elements of the 4th Company which were stretched out to wait for the CP and men of the 3rd Company. The rangers rested and realigned the unit then continued to march in the darkness of the night.

Meanwhile the group headquarters and other companies had gone too far ahead and out of the radio's range. Our group cannot move faster because of heavy weapons and wounded soldiers, the enemy will catch up with us sooner or later. Looking back, the combat base was burning with explosions. For survival, we felt badly to make a painful decision, leaving serious wounded men behind... very sorry... and farewell!

At 9am on the next morning, those rangers guarding the rear of the retreating column reported that they spotted enemy's scouts following on the trail. I ordered my soldiers to lay hand grenade traps. Later we heard a blasting sound, and then we left the trail.

We continued to march in a dense forest until 3pm in the afternoon when we reached an area with many bushes of bamboo trees. We discovered that we were surrounded. Machine guns mounted on T-54 tanks blasted into the bamboo forest with incredible sounds, but they cannot crawl in because of the blocking bamboo bushes. When the machine guns stopped, the enemy used loud speaker to call us to come out and surrender. Inside the bamboo forest, I called all remaining officers together for a plan to break out. In the north and east, there were empty fields without large trees, and their tanks would kill all of us. I dispatched two recon teams to the 4th Company and ordered this company to mount a diversionary attack toward the southeast.

The enemy was caught by surprise, and the rangers mixed up with the enemy. My rangers were around me fell one by one. All company commanders, platoon leaders were wounded, some were carried by soldiers. Other officers were seriously wounded. They handed over the maps and volunteered to stay... and all sacrificed their lives.

The rest of the retreating column ran off and reached another bamboo forest. We stopped for rest and bandaged wounded men. The number of us, reduced to fifty men, and that included Armor and Artillery men.

We continued to move on. When we reached another bamboo forest about 7km way from Lai Khe, the enemy caught up, and again used loud speaker to call us to surrender, but was afraid to come in. We waited until dark then...

At 9pm, all the rangers lined up, opened fires and fled to the south, where we met again at a rendezvous point near a small stream. This area was near Lai Khe, a large combat base, so the enemy gave up. Thirty rangers of the 52nd battalion arrived Lai Khe, after days of fighting.

 

Reference:
Tran Dinh Nga, "Tap San Mu Nau", number 8.

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