3rd Ranger Group

The Battle of An Loc, Binh Long (3)

"Ranger Magazine, Issue 7", Tet 2003 Issue
Tap San Biet Dong Quan, So 7

Khue quoc Nguyen
Translated by Merle  Pribbenow

       . . . . . . .

       When air support aircraft were ready in the skies over the target, I radioed Major Lac to ask him to clearly designate the target he wanted to be attacked. He told me and I called OV-10.  I asked the OV-10 is he could see the tank with the twin shiny barrels lying stuck down below.  The OV-10 pilot replied that he saw it, and I asked him to fire a smoke rocket 20 meters north-northeast of the tank.  The OV-10 immediately fired a smoke rocket.   Major Lac asked that the gunship's fire be directed at a point five meters north of the smoke rocket and that the gunfire sweep from west to east across the target.  I passed these instructions on to the OV-10, and the Stinger immediately began firing on the direct just as Major Lac wanted.  Lac asked for addition fire against enemy troops 20 to 30 meters farther north and also sweeping from west to east.  The Stinger fire was very accurate, and the Stinger continued firing constantly, the sound of the six-barreled gun aboard the aircraft making a continuing bussing sound.  The tracer bullets flashing through the night sky looked like fire spouting from the mouth of a dragon, and for this reason our soldiers called the Stinger the "Fire Dragon."

       After constant fire for more than an hour, the enemy must have been hit by the gunship's bullets, because they were no longer firing.  Our three men crawled out of the bomb crater carrying all the documents and the enemy radio.  They returned to battalion headquarters and reported by radio that they were all safe and had their captured booty.  Only then was Lt. Col. Biet's mind finally at ease.  Throughout the time that the Stinger was providing supporting fire to Major Lac, Lt. Col Biet paced back and forth, his face in a frown as he was deep in thought.  He was probably just anxious for Major Lac's safe return.  After hearing Major Lac's report, Lt. Col. Biet smiled, picked up the radio handset, and said to the Major, "This is 72. Don't do anything else stupid, do you hear me, Mister?"   When he used the word "Mister" to address subordinates, everyone on the headquarters staff knew that he was very angry but could not say so out loud..

       Major Lac also knew this, because he had known Lt. Col. Biet for a long time, every since they both were lieutenants.  As soon as Major Lac reported the good news, Lt. Col. Biet ordered Major Tran to make an immediate report to Division.  Division ordered that all the documents and the radio be brought to the Group Headquarters.  Division would send someone from its G-2 office down to pick them up for study and analysis.  After Second Lieutenant Quan and two soldier brought the captured booty to our headquarters, Lt. Col. Biet, Major Tran, and I were all shocked, because among the radio documents that had been collected was the secure radio plan and codes of 5th Division.  As we were thinking about what this meant, Division radioed that someone from Division G-2 was on the way down to Ranger Group Headquarters to collect the documents.  A few minutes later, Colonel Vy appeared with two Division G-2 officers.  We handed him the document privately in one corner of the bunker.  Colonel Vy looked at them and then asked Lt. Col. Biet who in 36th Battalion, other than the battalion commander, knew about this document.  Lt. Col Biet said that, aside from the 36th Battalion commander and himself, only two other people, Major Tran and Captain Khue, knew about the document.  After hearing this, Colonel Vy made an immediately decision: Absolutely no one was to be told about this information (because 5th Infantry Division's secure radio plan and radio codes were in enemy hands) so that he could go back to Division Headquarters to investigate this matter thoroughly.  He then commended the Group for its actions and returned to division headquarters along with the other documents that the two G-2 officers had carefully packed in their briefcases and with the enemy radio set..

       Immediately after this incident, the division's secure radio plan and codes were immediately changed.  Our Ranger Group was informed and received the new secure radio plan.  Within our Ranger Group, Lt. Col. Biet ordered the Chief of the Group's Communications Sections to immediately draw up a new internal secure radio plan for the Group, setting out code-words to be used in voice communications, and to disseminate the new plan to the battalions for them to use to avoid enemy eavesdropping and enemy efforts to break in our communications network.  In addition, the S-3 Section was ordered to draw up a list of key coordinate positions for An Loc city and Binh Long province and encode them for the battalions to use when reporting fire support targets and enemy positions in the area.  All these documents were also forwarded to 5th Infantry Division Headquarters to enable them to monitor and support our operations.  These measures had an immediate effect, as the enemy no longer broke into our communications channels to disrupt our communications, cursing us and inciting us to surrender or desert and threatening that if we did not they would destroy us with artillery barrages and human wave attacks. They always said to us, "surrender and you will live; resist and you will die!"   Now we were no longer bothered by these interruptions..

       As a result of the attack on the Chieu Hoi Office, the fire support mission for Major Lac, and this latest action [the new secure code system], I gained even greater respect for the Group Commander's composure, the intelligence, and his ability to make quick decisions.  Throughout the time I served in the Ranger Group, I never saw him lose his temper or shout at his subordinates, even during the time he was Deputy Group Commander under Colonel Phuc, the Group's previous commander.  He always issued his orders in a quiet, calm manner, but very firmly and with a look of steel on his face that forced his subordinates to listen to and obey his orders.  When speaking with the Group's privates and NCOs, he always used words designed to calm and gentle words of encouragement and instructions, so all the soldiers respected and loved him.

       He treated the Group Headquarters staff officers the same way.  He looked on us as one big family, and when he was happy he often used very affectionate terms to address us.  Because we knew he was the "Oldest Brother" in our family, we all called him "Oldest Brother," and he liked that very much.  However, when we did something he did not like, he would address us by our ranks or by the term, "Mister," and we immediately knew that "Oldest Brother" was angry with us.  We always tried to correct the mistakes, and he understood us and did not stay angry with us for long.

       Because of his affectionate attitude toward his subordinates, even though this time Major Lac had acted somewhat rashly, because of the results Lac had secured, Lt. Col. Biet's anger cooled and he only gave Major Lac one light word of reprimand, saying, "If he hadn't informed "Oldest Brother," how could Khue have requested air support for you on his own authority?" After saying this, he smiled and ordered Major Lac to instruct his men to be careful, to try hard, to endure, and not to withdraw when attacked or shelled because the Air Force would provide them with immediate and effective support.  Major Lac also did not forget to praise me for my good judgment requesting instructions from the Group Commander to resolve this problem.  As for Major Lac, I must admit that he was a good and skillful soldier, because he knew everything there was to know about army life.  He could repair a jeep or a GMC truck, he could repair one of our radios himself, and he even was able to fly a helicopter.  While serving as the Chief of the Group's S-3 Section during the time the Group was operating on the outskirts of Saigon, when Colonel Pham Van Phuc was the Group Commander, Major Lac usually flew in the C&C (Command and Control) helicopter during night missions to check on the Group's area of responsibility.  Every time he went up, he always asked the pilot to let him fly the aircraft.  After he became commander of 36th Ranger Battalion, every time the battalion conducted a helicopter assault, he personally flew the command ship to direct the landing.  I greatly respected his abilities and his interest in studying and learning new things.  In addition, he was very courageous and stubborn.  When he encountered the enemy, he fought them to the end, using every trick in the book to push back or to destroy the enemy.  During the most recent incident, he had adjusted the Stinger's fire very precisely to the point from which enemy gunners were pinning him down, thereby enabling his group to return safely with their captured booty to turn over to Group Headquarters.

The author, Captain Khue, in An Loc in 1973        One night in mid-May 1972, An Loc again came under heavy artillery bombardment, which was followed up by another enemy infantry attack, with a powerful enemy attack spearhead directed against the northeastern perimeter of the city, where Major Lac's 36th Ranger Battalion was located.  Thanks to their heavily-fortified positions and to the fact that they were alerted to the enemy plan ahead of time, the battalion's soldiers courageously repelled wave after wave of enemy attackers with support from the Air Force.  The sky glowed bright with flares dropped by C-47 flare-ships to illuminate An Loc.  Because the enemy force had such overwhelming numbers, however, a number of 36th Ranger Battalion's outposts in the northeastern sector were driven back or overrun.  Major Lac ordered his two companies in that area to dig in and hold out in the area of the Chinese School.  This was a high building with high, strong walls.  Even though it was hit by many enemy artillery rounds, the walls had not completely collapses, and so 36th Ranger Battalion was able to use this position to stop the enemy attack.   In addition, air strikes against the enemy attack were very accurate and very effective.  The aircraft also bombed the area of the airfield and the area north of An Loc in order to cut off the enemy's rear.

       After fighting for almost two hours, 36th Ranger Battalion reported that the enemy had ceased his attacks.  The battalion managed to establish a very solid defense line at the Chinese School.  However, it also reported that the battalion had lost contact with a number of squad and platoon-sized forward outposts located south of the airfield.  A number of enemy troops had managed to penetrate into the northeastern portion of the city and were pinned down there.  The enemy was hiding among the civilians in homes in that area.  However, during this time we constantly had OV-10s overhead, working with Specter and Stinger aircraft that took turns firing on suspected enemy troop concentrations.

       In 31st Ranger Battalion's sector, defending the eastern side of the city from the White Bridge area in the city to the Quan Loi Rubber Plantation, where a number of forward outposts were located, the enemy made exploratory attacks against the forward outposts in the Quan Loi Rubber Plantation.  At 2:00 in the morning, simultaneous attacks were launched against the 36th Ranger Battalion's positions.  The enemy sent in human wave attacked that drove our forward outposts back to the White Bridge area.  31st Ranger Battalion fought back and stopped them there after effective air strikes provided by U.S. Air Force A-37s and F-4s.  However, enemy forces took turns driving a powerful attack spearhead into the positions of 36th Ranger Battalions, using all types of heavy weapons, including 82mm mortars and 57mm recoilless rifles.  Under directions provided by 31st Battalion, OV-10 observation targets marked targets for destruction by our jet fighters.  However, the enemy continued his attack, sending in one wave after another.  The 31st Ranger Battalion Commander, Major Khanh, provide reports on suspected enemy troop concentrations in Quan Loi to Group Headquarters that were taking turns attacking to try to punch a hole through the line held by his units.  He said his line was holding firm because of its heavily-fortified bunkers and the precise and effective air strikes..

       Major Khanh requested that aircraft attack the targets he had described immediately.  Otherwise, he said, the enemy would penetrate 31st Ranger Battalion's lines, and that would put both the Ranger Group Headquarters and 5th Infantry Division Headquarters in danger.  Lt. Col. Biet ordered me to tell our American advisor to request a B-52 attack on the targets Major Khanh had recommended, because the Group Commander believed that only B-52s could crush these concentrations in time.  The American advisor submitted the request to Division, and division immediately approved the request.  Division requested the Group to immediately draw out a B-52 box and send the coordinates to the division.  Major Tran and I, assisted by the Group Commander, drew a rectangular box one kilometer from 31st Ranger Battalion's front lines.  The box ran seven kilometers north-south and four kilometers east-west.  The B-52 box ran right along the eastern side of the city, covering the entire middle section of the Quan Loi rubber plantation down into the jungles of southern Quan Loi.  We sent the B-52 box to Division Headquarters and simultaneously handed it to our American advisor so that he could submit it through U.S. channels in order to obtain support as quickly as possible.  A little over 15 minutes later, the American advisor told me that his superiors had approved the request.  When B-52s reached the area, an OV-10 would inform the Group Senior Advisor so that we could inform our subordinate units located near the bombing box.  The American advisor also told us that when the OV-10 reached out area and called the Group's call-sign on the radio, Tiger 3 Alpha, twice, all we had to do was to squeeze the speaker button on our radio handset twice to confirm to the OV-10 that we knew B-52s were about bomb the targets we had requested.  Just as the American advisor finished saying this, I heard the OV-10 calling over the Group's air support radio. .

       Immediately I squeezed the handset button twice.  Five minutes later we heard a string of tremendous explosions from the Quan Loi area.  When I walked out of the bunker, I could see the entire sky over Quan Loi was lit up as columns of smoke boiled high into the sky.  Three B-52s at a time dropped their bombs on the target, and the sound of the bombs streaking down through the heavens was terrifying.  The enemy would probably be entirely destroyed this time.  When I ran back down into the bunker, I heard the voice of Major Khanh, the 31st Battalion Commander, screaming, "Mother-Fuck," over and over again over the radio:

       "Khue, you Mother-Fucker, you called in a B-52 strike and did not inform the battalion ahead of time to give us time to take cover! Why the hell did you call them in so close?".

       The Group Commander, Lt. Col. Biet, was standing nearby.  He immediately grabbed the radio handset and said, "This is 72. Are your men all right? The planes arrived so quickly we didn't have time to alert you, but we have tried to keep you and your men safe.".

       Major Khanh was probably busy checking on the status of his units over the radio, so Captain Nieu, the Battalion S-3, replied to Colonel Biet:.

       "72, our men are OK, but a number of them were stunned and shaken up in their bunkers, so that's the reason we were yelling so loudly.".

       Lt. Col. Biet ordered 31st Ranger Group to try to hold their lines firm, and said that B-52s would provide them with the maximum support possible.  He told them to make preparations so that, after the B-52s completed their bombing strike, the battalion could send forces out to clear the target.  Early the next morning, the Quang Loi area was still smoldering, and black clouds of smoke continued to billow into the sky.  Seeing that everything was quiet, 31st Ranger Battalion sent teams of men out into the rubber plantation.  As they advanced further east to reach the rubber plantation, they found large numbers of dead, charred enemy bodys along the eastern and southeastern edge of Quang Loi.  Their weapons, both light weapons and heavy weapons, lay charred among the enemy bodies. 31st Ranger Battalion reported the results to Ranger Group Headquarters, and Group Headquarters forwarded them back to Division Headquarters.

       After the B-52 strike, enemy pressure in the area eased completely, and from that time on 31st Ranger Battalion was not attacked again.  At the same time, the division informed Ranger Group Headquarters that, according to the technical team from the Joint General Staff, the enemy had suffered heavy losses of both personnel and equipment. In addition, the commander of the enemy's 9th Division had been killed.  The technical team had collected this information had been collected from intercepted radio reports by enemy units to higher authorities..

       After that, the situation in An Loc quieted down temporarily.  Because of fears that the communists would resume heavy artillery shelling and launch another massive ground attack, in mid-May 1972 airborne forces were sent in to reinforce An Loc's defenses.  An Airborne Brigade Headquarters commanded by Colonel Le Quang Luong landed in An Loc, moving in from Windy Hill.  On orders from Group Headquarters, 52nd Ranger Battalion sent a reconnaissance platoon into this area to meet and escort Colonel Luong and his headquarters staff officers into An Loc.  They stopped by Ranger Group Headquarters and then were led to Division Headquarters to meet with the Division Commander to receive their orders.  This gave me a chance to see Colonel Luong again.  He was still the same as he had been during the cross-border incursion into Cambodia, when he had regularly come to visit the Ranger Group Headquarters before going out to see his Airborne battalions that were attached to the Group, together with an armored cavalry squadron, to form a Mobile Task Force to cross the Cambodian border.  This task force, formed in 1970, had been commanded by Colonel Pham Van Phuc. When I saw him again in An Loc, he still remembered me.  After shaking hands with Lt. Col. Biet, he turned to me, patted my stomach, and said softly, "Are you well?" I replied softly, "I'm awfully tired, Colonel."   He laughed, and then he and his brigade headquarters left for 5th Division Headquarters..

       After his arrival, one airborne battalion landed in An Loc and was deployed in defensive positions to cover our rear, while another battalion set up positions on high ground in the area of the Xa Cam Rubber Plantation and the southwestern perimeter of An Loc.  Because of anticipated enemy attacks, III Corps reinforced An Loc's defenses with elite units from the Joint General Staff's (JGS) general reserve force.  For that reason, the JGS also sent the 81st Airborne Ranger Group into An Loc and placed it under the overall command of the commander of 5th Infantry Division.  81st Airborne Ranger Group was commanded by Lt. Col. Pham Van Huan (at that time he was a lieutenant colonel, but after he commanded the clearing of the entire northeastern portion of the city, the III Corps Commander, General Minh, flew in and, on behalf of the President, pinned his new colonel's insignia onto his shoulders in a ceremony at the 5th Divisi0n Headquarters..

       The Airborne Rangers had their own special methods of operations and tactics, and they were especially skilled at night combat.  We knew of this talent of theirs already, and the more we saw them, the more respect we gained for them.  When 81st Airborne Ranger Group arrived in An Loc, it was immediately deployed to positions inside the city.  At the same time the Group was ordered to immediately clear the northeastern portion of the city and to recapture the city's airfield, which was then under the control of enemy forces.  That night, I heard a request over 81st Airborne Ranger Group's coordination frequency to speak with our Ranger Group's S-3 officer. I sat down next to the radio to respond.  The Airborne Ranger Group S-3 asked me to ensure that our Ranger Group not use any flares, not even small hand-flares that night so that the Airborne Rangers could begin their attack.  I accepted the request and reported it to Major Tran and Lt. Col. Biet. Lt. Col. Biet ordered Major Tran to tell all our battalion's that they must strictly and absolutely follow this request to use no illumination flares.  Major Tran then switched to 81st Airborne Ranger Group's internal radio frequency to monitor the progress of this elite unit.  Using their quick, sure advance tactics in the dark of night, step by step they cleared the area, one house after another.  Moving into the northern and northeastern portions of the city, by early the next morning they had gained control of this area and attacked toward the airfield, driving the enemy in the northern sector a short distance back from the airfield.  They then set up defensive positions.  Because they had moved so far and so fast, when they set up their defense line they noted that both their flanks were exposed, so 81st Airborne Ranger Group asked 5th Division Headquarters to send infantry up on the left flank of their unit and Rangers up on their right flank to link up with them and cover their flanks.  At first Division Headquarters explained to them that these units had suffered heavy casualties during the enemy attacks and shelling and said that headquarters was not sure if they had enough manpower to send troops forward to link up with the Airborne Rangers or not..

       Division Headquarters directed the question to the Headquarters of 3rd Ranger Group first. Lt. Col. Biet quickly answered that we would try.  The Group Commander had already assessed the enemy situation and estimated the probable enemy positions.  Because he was anxious to join forces with this friendly unit and because he wanted to expand our perimeter of control in his area of responsibility, Lt. Col.  Biet ordered Major Lac to send two companies forward to the northeast toward the airfield. The companies were ordered to occupy high ground in the area to link up to the flank of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group.  One company from 36th Ranger Battalion attacked and occupied this area easily, meeting only scattered resistance from enemy soldiers who quickly fled into the jungle.  36th Ranger Battalion was able to link up with an outpost of 81st Airborne Ranger Group northeast of the airfield.  The commander of 5th Division was very pleased and sent a radio message to the Group commending us for our sense of responsibility and high fighting spirit.  At the same time, Ranger Group Headquarters ordered 31st Ranger Battalion to expand further to the east to the high ground in the Quan Loi plantation.  The battalion encountered no enemy resistance, so it established a number of forward outposts in this area..

       When discussing the battle of An Loc, I cannot fail to mention the subject of parachuting in supplies.  The road to the city was cut in many different places, and Route 13 from Lai Khe through Chon Thanh to An Loc was captured by enemy forces.  The enemy established many roadblocks, forcing the cessation of all supply convoys to An Loc.  Therefore, throughout the siege and the terrible shelling attacks, the soldiers and civilians of An Loc were supplied by supplies parachuted from C-130s and C-47s of the U.S. and Vietnamese Air Forces.

       At first the supplies were dropped from high altitude and the parachutes were set to open quickly, so a portion of the supplies landed outside the city in areas under enemy control.

       We lost a lot of the supplies, and enemy anti-aircraft fire was so heavy that our aircraft were forced to fly at higher altitudes to avoid the enemy air defense weapons, which ran from 12.7mm machineguns to 37mm anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles manufactured in the Soviet Union.  Because of the failure of the initial effort to re-supply An Loc by Air, the U.S. Air Force studied the possibility of dropping supply pallets from high altitude and not opening the parachutes immediately, but guiding them down to a specified altitude where the parachutes would open down low, near ground level, to ensure that the supply pallets landed inside the perimeter of An Loc city.  After a successful initial test, the Air Force and Logistics supplied food and ammunition to An Loc in this fashion.  However, throughout the period of these airdrops, there were some aircraft that were hit by enemy anti-aircraft fire, caught fire, and crashed in the area east of Quan Loi.  In An Loc, the parachuted pallets also killed or injured a number of our Rangers.  One Sub-Lieutenant [or Aspirant] from the 36th Ranger Battalion was killed while looking up in the sky at a parachuted pallet when another pallet came down and crushed him.  At Ranger Group Headquarters, an American advisor, a black sergeant named Moon, was looking up at the airdrop when another pallet hit him in the head, cutting his head open. Holding his bloody head in his hands, he sat there cursing the U.S. Air Force.  As the siege progressed, the supply airdrops became increasing accurate.  The soldiers and civilians of An Loc now had enough to eat, and the airdrop provided enough supplies to re-fit our units fully with weapons and ammunition.  This was a considerable contribution by the U.S. Air Force.

       In late June 1972, 21st Infantry Division moved up from Military Region 4 to reinforce our regiments advancing up the road from An Loc to Chon Thanh.  The effort to clear enemy fortified positions along Route 13 was making good progress.  6th Airborne Battalion, which had left An Loc by helicopter after its heavy battles in the Windy Hill area, now returned after receiving replacement personnel and being re-equipped.  This time the battalion was landed south of Xa Cam and attacked up both sides of Route 13, forming a horizontal line to assault and overrun the enemy positions. It continued its advance.  Faced with the assault spirit of 6th Airborne Battalion, enemy troops turned and ran. 6th Airborne Battalion advanced through Xa Cam to the southern perimeter of An Loc, where it linked up with 8th Airborne Battalion, the airborne unit assigned to defend that sector..

       An Loc had been rescued.  Our defense forces pushed outward, gradually expanding the perimeter out from the city to the hill positions and key terrain features being held by airborne and airborne ranger units.  Inside the city, the civilian population began to move around again.  Occasionally enemy artillery would still try to drop a round or two into the city. It seemed as if the farther the enemy pulled back, the more they were likely to be hit by B-52 "boxes" requested by 5th Infantry Division or III Corps..

       In early July 1972, the 3rd Ranger Group received orders to leave An Loc.  Group Headquarters ordered my S-3 Section to draw up a plan to withdraw from An Loc by helicopter.  After the plan was completed, we held a meeting with all battalion commanders on 5 July 1972.  Early in the morning of 7 July 1972, the main Group headquarters element, including the Group Commander, flew down to Lai Khe to meet with III Corps Headquarters to receive new orders.  36th Ranger Battalion was transported out at the same time.  A light Group headquarters element, commanded by the Deputy Group Commander, and Major Tran remained behind to control the two remaining battalions as they were picked up, one by one, to be transported to Lai Khe...

       In Lai Khe, Colonel Nguyen Thanh Chuan, the III Corps/Military Region 3 Ranger Commander, received us in a moving and affectionate manner.  He praised the Group highly for returning from a heroic victory that had burnished the laurels of the Ranger Branch after three months of gallant, life-and-death battle.  He said that our men would rather die than surrender to the enemy..

       3rd Ranger Group was the first reinforcement unit to land in An Loc, and it was the unit that suffered the heaviest losses of all the units sent to reinforce An Loc.  All the soldiers of 3rd Ranger Group fought courageously, gallantly endured the enemy's terrible artillery barrages, and stopped and drove back the enemy's insane attack waves that strove to capture An Loc, no matter what the cost, in order to gain international attention.  However, An Loc held firm, and its image remains firm and strong in the hearts of the Vietnamese people..

       I hope that this memoir provides additional details that contribute to the undying glory of the military history of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam..

       California, 14 February 2002

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