As an Operations Officer assigned to the Headquarters Staff of the 3rd Ranger Group from late 1969 until 30 April 1975, I participated in all the Group's battles, large and small, in 3rd Tactical Zone and then in the final battle at Phan Rang before the Group was forces to lay down its arms on 30 April 1975 in accordance with the nation's destiny. During the battle of An Loc/Binh Long in 1972, I held the post of Assistant S-3 and concurrently Air Support Officer for the Group. 3rd Ranger Group took part in the battle of An Loc from 7 April 1972 to 7 July 1972. As one of the Group Headquarters operations officer, and especially as the officer responsible for air support.
Today, more than 30 years after the battle, I would like to record my memories of the those days with the hope that I can in some way contribute to the documentation on the An Loc Battlefield as recorded in ARVN's military history abroad. I hope this memoir, which discussed both the losses suffered by and the achievements gained by the soldiers of 3rd Ranger Group will help to increase the pride of the soldiers of our branch, the Ranger of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam.
3rd Ranger Group consisted of Group Headquarters and three subordinate battalions: 31st Ranger Battalion, commanded by Major Truong Khanh; 36th Ranger Battalion, commanded by Major Tong Viet Lac; and 52nd Ranger Battalion, commanded by Major Le Quy Dau. The Ranger Group Commander was Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Van Biet, whom all the headquarters staff officers called
"Eldest Brother" [Anh Hai] during quiet, intimate moments when the staff officers ate their daily meals with him. Whether we were out on an operation or resting in our rear base, he was always friendly and affectionate toward us, so we all respected him greatly and called him
"Eldest Brother," because he was the Eldest Brother to all of us in his military family.
Before we were sent into An Loc, in March 1972 the entire 3rd Ranger Group was conducting an operation on the other side of the Cambodian border in the area of Bat Thu and the Parrots Beak. 3rd Ranger Group advanced like a hot knife through butter. When we encountered the enemy, they put us cursory resistance and then ran away. The Group's subordinate battalions achieved good results from each clash with the enemy, capturing large numbers of enemy food and weapons caches in the Group's area of operations. In addition, we captured enemy heavy weapons, including 82mm mortars and 57mm recoilless rifles. Major Le Quy Dau's 52nd Ranger Battalion had most of the heaviest firefights and reaped the greatest successes.
The Group was advancing with high morale when suddenly the Group Commander received an order: A helicopter would arrive to pick him up and take him to Tay Ninh for a meeting at the III Corps Headquarters at noon on 2 April 1972. The Chief of the Ranger Group S-3 Section, Major Hong Khac Tran, accompanied him to this meeting. After the meeting, the entire Ranger Group was ordered to leave Cambodia and withdraw to Trang Lon Airfield in Tay Ninh to prepare to be transported into An Loc/Binh Long by Chinook helicopters.
According to the operations order, the 31st, 36th, and 52nd Battalions had already been assigned deployment locations on the Operations Map the Corps had sent down to us, so when the helicopters landed them in An Loc, the battalion's moved into their assigned positions according to that interim deployment order. As for the Ranger Group Headquarters, we moved into the city itself, and the Group Commander went to the 5th Infantry Division Headquarters in An Loc to meet with the Division Commander and receive his orders.
Based on the demands of the situation, on orders from the 5th Division Commander 31st Ranger Group was sent into An Loc first, on 6 April 1972, to occupy the important pieces of high ground north of An Loc, such as Dong Long Hill, Can Le Bridge, and the northern end of the An Loc area. The 5th Division Headquarters was afraid that this section of their defense line was weak, so 31st Ranger Battalion was sent in a day early.
At about 10:00 on the morning of 7 April 1972, the Ranger Group Headquarters divided into two sections - a heavy (main) headquarters element and a light headquarters - element to be transported into An Loc along with 36th and 52nd Ranger Battalions.
Prior to the battle of An Loc, whenever he split the Group Headquarters, Lt. Col. Biet always asked me to ride along with him, either in the same helicopter or in the same vehicle (if we were traveling by road), but this time he ordered me to accompany the Deputy Group Commander, Major Nguyen Thanh Tien, who commanded the light headquarters section. Also accompanying us were Captain Dao Van Nang and the assistant S-3. Those in the heavy [main] headquarters element included the Group Commander; Major Tran, the Chief of the S-3 Section; First Lieutenant Tai, the S-2; Captain Tho, who was also an assistant S-3 officer; a number of other officers; and the U.S. Advisory Team, made up of one captain (the Senior Advisor), one first lieutenant, and two corporals who carried and operated the team's radios.
I remained behind with the light headquarters element, commanded by the Deputy Group Commander and including a platoon from the Group's 3rd Reconnaissance Company, to accompany 52nd Ranger Battalion in on the second lift. It was planned that after landing in An Loc, the two headquarters elements would re-unite into one and advance together into An Loc to take up defensive positions in a former U.S. CIDG base in the city, near the Headquarters of 5th Infantry Division.
When the Chinook carrying our light headquarters element was still in the air over An Loc, I heard the voice of the Group Commander over the radio ordering us to be careful once we landed. He ordered us to disperse immediately and not bunch up to avoid casualties, because enemy heavy artillery barrages were waiting to greet us. He said that when his headquarters element had landed, they had been met by heavy artillery fire, which was continuing. I immediately looked down at An Loc and saw puffs of smoke around the airfield, providing clear evidence that the landing area was under artillery attack. I immediately realized that the situation would not be as simple and as easy it had been in Cambodia or as we had imagined.
After the light headquarters element landed, we dispersed and advanced slowly toward the heavy headquarters element at the end of the airfield in a small row of civilian houses there. When we reached them, I saw that the Group Commander had been slightly wounded in the wrist, where a piece of artillery shrapnel had cut into his arm. It was a small piece of shrapnel, however, so the wound was not series. Major Tran also had a minor arm wound. The most seriously wounded were First Lieutenant Tai, the Chief of the S-2 Section, and Captain Tho, the assistant S-3 officer.
Lieutenant Tai had been hit in the eye by a piece of shrapnel, and he eventually lost the eye entirely. As for Captain Tho, I could clearly see that a piece of shrapnel had amputated one of his legs just above the ankle. He recovered and was discharged from the armed forces after the battle of An Loc. All the wounded personnel, privates, NCOs, and officers, were evacuated from An Loc in the helicopter that carried in the last element of 52nd Ranger Battalion. However, Lt. Col. Biet and Major Tran remained behind to continue to command the Ranger Group as we advanced into our assigned positions according to the operations order.
The battalions that had landed in An Loc all arrived in their assigned positions safely and reported that they had suffered no losses. I felt like a load had been lifted off my chest, but my brain was still filled with thoughts that I had been saved by fate. If the Group Commander had ordered me to accompany him on this helicopter lift, as he usually did, perhaps I would have suffered the wounds that befell First Lieutenant Tai or Captain Tho, or perhaps I would have left this earthly realm if such had been my destiny.
The 5th Division Headquarters sent a jeep to transport the Group Commander to the Division command post to report in to the Division Commander and receive his orders. He asked me to accompany him, along with two radio operators with two PRC-25 radios, so that if necessary he could contact the Ranger Group and issue orders immediately.
After a slow, roundabout drive taking ten minutes, because we had to avoid all the artillery craters on the road into the city, we finally reached the Division Headquarters. The Division Commander, Colonel Le Van Hung, and Division Deputy Commander, Colonel Le Nguyen Vy, were waiting there to greet us.
The Division Commander and the Division Deputy Commander shook hands with my Ranger Group Commander and said a short sentence that I will always remember:
"Lieutenant Colonel, you guys arrived just in the nick of time." They then turned and looked at me. The Group Commander understood their action and introduced me to the two colonels as one of the Group's S-3 officers and the Group's Air Support Officer, whom he had ordered to accompany him to this meeting because the Chief of the Group S-3 Section had been slightly wounded and was back at Group Headquarters working with the Deputy Group Commander to move our subordinate units into their assigned positions. The Group Commander also reported to the two colonels that all subordinate elements had moved into position successfully and without losses. Because of this initial meeting, whenever we saw each other again at meetings at Corps Headquarters, after the meeting Colonel Le Van Hung would come over to see me, because he remembered me, and would ask me how I was doing. After we exchanged greetings, he would shake my hand warmly and then go out to his vehicle to go back to his unit. All I knew to do was to respond with a short word of greetings. I apologize for my shortcoming, Colonel.
[Translator's Note: This is addressed to the spirit of Colonel (later General) Le Van Hung, who as Deputy Commander of IV Corps committed suicide on 30 April 1975 rather than surrender to the communists.]
After shaking hands and exchanging a few pleasantries, the Deputy Division Commander briefed us on the current friendly and enemy situation in An Loc.
The Division's forces in the city consisted of Division Headquarters and the 7th and 8th Infantry Regiments. Enemy forces had overrun the division's 9th Infantry Regiment at Loc Ninh, a small district capital north of An Loc along the Cambodian border. Other friendly consisted of RF and PF units subordinate to the Binh Long Province Military Headquarters. The enemy had captured Loc Ninh district, and 9th Infantry Regiment and 1st Armored Squadron had been forced to evacuate from Loc Ninh and were trying to escape back to An Loc.
Colonel Vy told us to alert our 31st Ranger Battalion that it must keep a close watch out to the north. If any of our retreating infantry or armored units arrived, the battalion was to receive the evacuees cautiously and report to headquarters immediately.
As for the newly-arrived 3rd Ranger Group, Colonel Vy said that the group should remain deployed in the positions specified in the operations order, for the moment at least. A decision would be made later about re-deploying the unit.
With regards to the current situation in the city, enemy artillery was bombarding the city with harassing fire in order to disrupt the people's daily lives and to frighten the people in order to make it easier for the enemy to control and manipulate them.
It had been learned that three enemy divisions, the regular main force 5th, 7th, and 9th Divisions, were closing in on Binh Long from many directions, including down from Cambodia and in from Phuoc Long. That was all that was currently known about the enemy situation. If anything else was learned, Division Headquarters would inform us.
As for Route 13 from Lai Khe to An Loc, the enemy cut the road and had established fortified roadblocks at many locations. For this reason all road traffic had been interrupted from An Loc southward. RF troops and the division's 8th and 9th Infantry Regiments were stationed in the Xa Cam Rubber Plantation on both sides of Route 13.
At this point, I finally understood why we had achieved success so easily in Cambodia in March, before we were ordered to move to An Loc. Our Ranger Battalions had fighting only against Viet Cong rear services and transportation units, so the enemy troops fled when our troops attacked them, leaving behind their weapons and food caches. All the enemy main force units had been sent to Binh Long. Later, during my time in communist prisons, I had a chance to think about this issue more deeply and realized that the III Corps Headquarters had sent our Ranger units into Cambodia during the period just before the attack on An Loc in order to draw out and expose the positions of the enemy's 5th, 7th, and 9th Divisions, because these three units had suddenly disappeared from our intelligence maps.
Because Corps Headquarters suspected that the enemy forces were massing in Cambodia for some future attack, our Ranger Group had been sent out to try to locate them.
In fact, enemy documents we captured in Cambodia at the time revealed that the units our Ranger Group was fighting were just rear services [logistics] units of threes enemy divisions, and that we were not encountering main force regulars. Only when the Loc Ninh district headquarters was overrun and 9th Regiment and 1st Armored Squadron were forced to evacuate did III Corps Headquarters finally realize that these three enemy divisions were massing in the Binh Long sector. Corps Headquarters had then issued immediate orders for the entire 3rd Ranger Group to withdraw from Cambodia and be airlifted into An Loc by helicopter in order to reinforce 5th Infantry Division to help it withstand the enemy attack on An Loc. After the loss of Loc Ninh, it was clear that the enemy's target was An Loc city, the Binh Long province capital.
After leaving the 5th Infantry Division Headquarters, on the way back to Group Headquarters, the Group Commander ordered me to summon all the battalion commanders to Group Headquarters for a meeting. During the meeting, the Group Commander briefed the battalion commanders on the enemy and friendly situation so that would know how to handle the situation. The Group Commander passed on Colonel Vy's instructions to the 31st Ranger Battalion Commander and was informed that Major Khanh had ordered two companies of the battalion forward to secure the northern front. Second Lieutenant Truong Tan Phuoc's company was holding the sector from Dong Long Hill and the smaller hills around it to Be Moi Hamlet near the Can Le Bridge. The right side of Route 13 north of the airfield was held Second Lieutenant Son Do's Company, which was occupying the high ground in this area.
Major Khanh had already advised the two company commanders to keep a close lookout and be prepared to receive friendly troops retreating back to An Loc.
During this initial phase, 2nd Lt. Phuoc's company defending An Loc's northern sector on a number of occasions received escaping soldiers from the 9th Infantry Regiment who had sought their way back into 31st Ranger Battalion's sector. 2nd Lt. Phuoc let them into his lines after carefully questioning them as a precaution against enemy troops pretending to be our soldiers in order to infiltrate into our lines. One of these occasions was a very important event that 31st Ranger Battalion reported back to Group Headquarters. This was when 2nd Lt. Phuoc received the major who was Loc Ninh district chief and military commander, his senior American advisor, and the advisor's interpreter. All three came in at the same time, and luckily Lt. Phuoc's soldiers watched them carefully, stopped them some distance away, and ordered them to provide their name, rank, and parent unit. They were terrified that they would be shot by friendly troops mistaking them for the enemy, so they shouted out their names, ranks, and units at the top of their lungs. The soldiers were overjoyed and immediately reported the arrival to 2nd Lt. Phuoc, who came out to the blocking position at Be Moi Hamlet near the Can Le Bridge to receive them. There the district chief and his American advisor were let in through the lines by 2nd Lt. Phuoc after Group Headquarters informed the battalion that we had received confirmation from the Binh Long Province Military Headquarters that these were the right men.
2nd Lt. Phuoc told us that when he received them into our lines, the district chief was so overjoyed that he hugged Lt. Phuoc and wept for joy because he knew he had finally escaped from the jaws of death. Phuoc said the American advisor did the same ting. As for the Binh Long Province Headquarters, after learning that 2nd Lt. Phuoc had indeed brought the Loc Ninh district chief and his senior advisor into our lines, the province chief himself thanked the Group Commander and requested the Group's permission to switch to the radio frequency used by Phuoc's company and personally speak to the district chief in order to calm his nerves after his dangerous escape.
Lt. Phuoc also told us that during Phuoc's conversation with the province chief, the province chief was so happy that he told Lt. Phuoc that if he needed anything, the province chief would send it to Phuoc's company in the jeep that was being sent out to pick up the district chief and the American advisor to bring them to province headquarters. Phuoc said that he only needed a little food, but when the jeep arrived, there was nothing in it for Lt. Phuoc's company. Phuoc decided that the province chief had been so busy that he had forgotten about it, so he said nothing. We were told that the district chief and the American advisor provided us important new information about the enemy, including that they had heard that enemy tanks would be used in the attack on An Loc.
As for the 36th Ranger Battalion, Major Lac reported that his unit had moved into position safely and had finished deploying along the northeastern perimeter of the city, stretching from north of the White Bridge [Trang Bridge] area down along the road from the center of the city to the Quan Loi Rubber Plantation. Two of the battalion's companies were deployed along this line, one company was deployed with the battalion headquarters along the city's inner defensive perimeter, and one company was occupying high ground along the edge of the Quan Loi Rubber Plantation along the edge of the city.
52nd Ranger Battalion and the 3rd Ranger Reconnaissance Company were on the outer defense line protecting the 5th Infantry Division Headquarters and protecting the Ranger Group Headquarters, which was located in the former U.S. CIDG base a little to the west of the 5th Division Headquarters but still within the An Loc city limits. One company from 52nd Ranger Battalion occupied Windy Hill, southeast of the city. High-points and hills around Windy Hill were used as forward outposts for this company and for the 3rd Ranger Reconnaissance Company.
Units of 5th Infantry Division, 7th and 8th Regiments, and Binh Long province forces held the fronts west, northwest, southwest, south, and southeast of the city. These units also occupied a number of pieces of high ground outside the perimeter to provide observation and early warning. This was especially true northwest of the city, where we were waiting for soldiers escaping from Loc Ninh.
I remember clearly that when the Ranger Group landed in An Loc, as we moved toward our positions down the streets of the city, down back alleys or crossing the walled compounds in the well-to-do neighborhood, we say people moving around and going about their business. At this time, loudspeakers from the province Chieu Hoi Office were broadcasting announcements in the center of the city, trying to calm the people down by telling them that reinforcements were arriving in An Loc and requesting the people to remain calm, to go about their business, and to keep a watchful eye out for enemy infiltration. If they saw anything suspicious, they were to report it to their local governmental authorities to allow them to deal with the problem.
A few days after my Ranger Group landed in An Loc, around mid-April 1972, the enemy began increasing the intensity of his artillery attacks on An Loc, which included the use of long-range heavy artillery such as 122mm rockets and 155mm howitzers the enemy had captured from our forces in Loc Ninh. The enemy also made extensive use of his organic artillery, 130mm guns, and of captured 105mm howitzers. Every day, as many as 10,000 enemy artillery shells rained down on An Loc. There was no point anywhere along the city's defensive perimeter, or inside the city itself, that did not have bunkers and fortifications, and if these were carelessly built the soldiers were likely to be wounded by enemy artillery. For this reason, during the shelling attacks, the bulk of the casualties were ordinary civilians. Their agonizing screams, the bodies and body parts blown around the area, even hanging from tree limbs or laying on the roofs of the houses, made for a tragic situation. Under this heavy artillery shelling, a large number of civilians abandoned their homes and fled to the soldiers' defensive fortifications to seek refuge against the danger. All of our battalions reported that their defensive positions at the company level all had civilians taking refuge in our fortifications. They cooked and ate with the soldiers, and our soldiers tended their wounds and gave them medicine. It was a true fulfillment of the slogan
"Soldiers and Civilians throughout the nation love one
One morning, when the shelling had stopped, I had just climbed up onto the top of the Operations Center to observe the situation in the surrounding area when, suddenly, I heard the loudspeakers appeal to both sides to cease firing and cease artillery shelling to allow innocent civilians to flee from the battle area. After the loudspeaker appeal, a large number of people appeared, walking in a long line. They were led by Buddhist monks and Catholic priests, and they carried white flags that they waved back and forth.
Major Lac, the 36th Ranger Battalion commander who had just come out of a meeting with the Group Commander, heard the shouting and climbed up on top of the Operations Center bunker to watch what was happening. The column of civilians walked south down the street in front of and to the east of the Ranger Group Headquarters, planning to turn onto Route 13 to flee down the highway to the south. When the column of people moved past the section of the perimeter held by provincial forces, we suddenly heard heavy artillery explosions from that direction. Looking closely, I saw that the enemy had not stopped his shelling and in fact was deliberately shelling the column of evacuees. The civilians in the column, hit by one heavy artillery round after another, screamed in terror, and the sounds of crying children echoed all the way to the place where I was standing. When Major Lac saw the scene that was unfolding, he cursed the enemy, shouting that these barbarians would not even grant mercy to priests, monks, women, or children. They wanted to kill us all, even the rants, he shouted. This time the enemy seemed to have forward observers adjusting fire, because the shells all landed right in the middle of the column of civilians, sending bodies flying in all directions.
Arms and legs could be seen hanging from the trees along the side of the road.
Because this was in an open area along the vehicle road into the city, there was no cover the civilians could use to escape the shelling, and a number of them were forced to seek shelter behind the trunks of large trees. After the enemy artillery barrage, the civilians, and even the priests and the Buddhists monks, dispersed and returned to their homes and their former places of refuge, because the enemy shells clearly demonstrated the enemies vicious intentions toward them.
Later, while I was in a prison camp in North Vietnam, I mentioned this incident in a self-criticism statement after a massive round of political
"training" and self-criticism involving the entire camp. The political officer explained to me that,
"The revolution shelled this civilian crowd because this was a crowd of puppet civilians, filled with reactionaries and counter-revolutionaries. We could not exempt them, and we had to teach them a lesson."
After that explanation, there was nothing else I could say.
During this period of increased enemy artillery attacks, and especially during the afternoon ad in the middle of the night, we could hear artillery rounds constantly flying overhead and exploding. These sounds, and especially the tremendous blasts of shells exploding around the Ranger Group Headquarters, filled me with fear and dread, since I never knew when one might hit my location. If a round hit our position, if we weren't killed we would certainly be wounded, because the enemy was using heavy artillery with every type of shell imaginable. We were especially afraid of what military professionals called the
"delayed fuse" rounds, a type of 155mm round that penetrated a bunker and buried itself in the dirt before exploding, causing tremendous destruction and widespread casualties.
In the middle of this tense situation, all of a sudden the Ranger Group's American advisory team suddenly began packing their bags and putting all their equipment in a neat pile. It looked as if they were preparing for a move. I asked them about it, and an American sergeant told me that they had received orders to prepare for a helicopter that was arriving to pick them up. I ran to report this to Lieutenant Colonel Biet. He asked the senior advisor and received the same answer, and no further explanation. A few minutes later a helicopter flew in from the east of Quan Loi at tree-top level, turned toward the Ranger Group Headquarters, and landed at the old helipad near the headquarters. The entire advisory team ran out to the helicopter, boarded, and then the helicopter took off and disappeared into the eastern sky.
In such a situation, after seeing the American advisory team suddenly and unexpectedly withdrawn without a word of explanation, the entire Ranger Group Headquarters was shocked and frightened. Worry and concern were evident on every man's face, including my own. Lt. Colonel Biet immediately grabbed the telephone to call the 5th Division Headquarters to report this and ask what was going on, but he found that the telephone line had been cut and we had no electronic contact with division headquarters.
The telephone line had been hit by enemy artillery rounds, and division and Ranger Group communications specialists who went out to check on the line confirmed that the line had been cut in numerous places. For this reason, whenever the division had special orders for the Ranger Group they had to send a courier down from division, although ordinary communications were handled over our PRC-25 radios. The division told Ranger Group Headquarters that the division was checking on our report [of the withdrawal of the American advisors] with Corps Headquarters and would advise us of the results later. That evening, the division informed us that the Group's American advisory team had completed their tour of duty and therefore had to be recalled. They said that a new advisory team would be landed at Ranger Group Headquarters the next morning. After hearing that, everyone breathed a sigh of relief, because without American advisors to personally request support for themselves we would encounter many difficulties and delays when requesting support. It was our experience that operations accompanied by American advisors received quicker and more extensive air support than those without American advisors. Some people had thought that the withdrawal of the American advisory team at such a critical, life-or-death moment meant that perhaps the Americans were abandoning us. Everyone was concerned.
All worries faded, however, when at dawn the next morning a helicopter suddenly appeared from the direction of Quan Loi and landed at the helipad. Four American advisors wearing
"tiger-stripe" camouflage uniforms leapt out of the helicopter and ran toward the Group Operations Center, while the helicopter took off again immediately and disappeared into the sky to the southeast. I met the team at the entrance to the Operations Center, saying
"Welcome" to them. The man in front wore the insignia of a major. He was followed by a first lieutenant and two NCOs carrying radios that appeared to be
"special radios." I introduced myself as the Ranger Group's "S-3 for Air" and led them in to see the Group Commander. Lt. Col. Biet greeted them and shook their hands.
The Major immediately apologized for the unannounced change of advisory teams. He said it had been done in this manner to preserve secrecy. The major also assured Lt. Col. Biet that the Americans would provide maximum support to An Loc and were prepared to defend An Loc with everything they had, especially air support. He also said,
"Lieutenant Colonel, if you need anything at all, you just ask me and I'll
request it for you."
All this firmed the morale of everyone in the Group and completely dispersed all the previous worries and suspicions. The American advisor also told us that three communist divisions were advancing to attack An Loc city, but the U.S. had made all necessary preparations to provide effective support to our troops. I heard this the next morning, when the city's loudspeakers broadcast the statements of the Senior American Advisor to III Corps/Military Region 3 appealing for calm and for firm resolve to fight to defend An Loc. The senior American advisor said that the U.S. armed forces and he himself would support An Loc with every air resource available, including both strategic as well as tactical air. He said that his name was General Hollingsworth, the Senior Corps Advisor, and that he was ready to support An Loc.
Captain Dao Van Nang, the former commander of the 3rd Ranger Reconnaissance Company, had been relieved of his duties because he was waiting for his discharge papers from the armed forces, and he was working in the Group Headquarters as an assistant S-3 officer. One evening in late April 1972, Captain Nang was on duty in the Operations Center. Captain Nang was supposed to have been on duty from the afternoon until 12:00 midnight, while I slept. I was to wake up at 12:00 to replace him on watch. However, Nang asked me to switch watch duty with him to let him try to get some sleep, because he hadn't been able to sleep for several nights. I agreed and took over the Operations Center, sitting next to the radio sets and the nearby operations maps while Nang laid down in my cot next to a firing slit in a corner of the bunker to sleep.
. . . . . .