THE 4 RANGER GROUP
AT THE NORTHERN FRONT IN BINH-DINH
Colonel Vu-Phi-Hung was one of the eight original Vietnamese Officers who graduated from the Ranger course at Fort Benning in late 1955. He commanded the 6th Ranger group in 1969 then the famous 4thRanger group in 1973. The following story came from his book "Into a Tornado". The book tells about his life as a teenager until the end of the war. Colonel Vu-Phi-Hung now lives a peaceful life in Montreal Canada since 1991, after serving thirteen years in reeducation camps in North Vietnam.
By late 1973, the 4th Ranger group was operating in the province of Phu-Yen, this coastal province lied between Binh-Dinh in the north and Khanh-Hoa in the south. The central of Vietnam is too narrow, many ridges of the Truong-Son (Long Range) mountain stretches out to the sea and cut off the National Highway 1. In the AO (area of Operation) of the ranger, there was a part of the rail road about twenty kilometers from Phu-Yen to Binh-Dinh province. The rail road ran through a valley which covered by steep slopes of the mountain on both sides. Before the arrival of the 4th Ranger group, there were two trains blown up from mines and the wreckages still lied on the sides of the rail road.
On board a helicopter, the operation officer talked to his commander.
- Colonel! This part of the rail road from here to the Binh-Khe pass is the most troublesome.
- Do you see the cliffs erected on both sides of the rail road? Then a battalion commander answered
- If they want to come in to lay mines, they could sneak in by only a few paths.
Colonel Hung approved the suggestion from the commander of the 42ndRanger battalion. This top ranked battalion formed several mobile squads to set up ambushes at the suspicious points where the rangers believed the Viet-Cong regional force men would sneak in to lay mines. As the result, in early of November, one squad killed three enemies and captured one prisoner.
In the early of 1974, the 4th Ranger group had moved to a new AO in the northern region of the Binh Dinh province. The NVA regulars got beat up by the 1st Ranger group at Sa-Huynh (southern of Quang-Ngai province) in early of 1973 then the 6th group moved in to replace the 1st group for controlling the area. The communist 2nd and 3rd (Yellow Star) divisions retreated back to their sacred sanctuary in the mountainous jungle. From An-Lao valley (north of Binh Dinh province), the 12th regiment of the 3rd division stretched out to form blocking knots along the hill tops of the mountain. The enemy intended to cut off the road which linked the two provinces Quang Ngai and Binh Dinh.
The 42nd and the 44th battalions of the 4th group needed almost a month to clear those blockages except one located at the provincial line of Quang Ngai. One ridge of the Truong-Son mountain ran to the sea and divided the two provinces. The communist hang on under dug in trenches at the Binh-Khe pass and cut off the communication on highway 1. The last battalion of the group, the 43rd was given the job of destroying the enemy strong hold. After twelve sorties of air strikes (F-5E Tiger) and four hundreds rounds of 105mm bombardment, the 43rd still could not reach the foot of the pass.
Colonel Vu-Phi-Hung arrived at the headquarters of the 43rd battalion to oversee the front. The NVA troops dug their fox holes underneath mountain rocks for cover and fired their RPG B-40, B-41 and mortars on the rangers crossing a swamp at the foot of the pass. The battalion headquarters located three hundreds meters away received thirty rounds of artillery from the An-Lao valley. After three days, the ranger casualty rose to twenty men.
Back to the group headquarters in the late afternoon, Col. Hung sat quietly in the underground TOC, trying to find a way to dealt with the situation then the S-3 officer reported that the headquarters of the 43rd was under attack. Within minutes, RVN artillery fired on the surrounding position of the 43rd ranger to support the defenders. At the same time, the NVA field artillery long range 130mm shells breezed through the air and explosions shook the ground like an earthquake. One of the 130mm shell hit the ammunition storage of the Northern Front of the Binh-Dinh province and caused a big fire and many explosions. Colonel Hung was reported on the next morning that the Regional Forces ammunition storage was destroyed and two RF troops killed, seven wounded.
In the afternoon, Col. Hung contacted with the Regional Forces of Duc-Pho, Quang-Ngai to "borrow" the route. The recon company of the group landed on the top of a ridge in Duc Pho about two kilometers from the enemy blockage then moved secretly toward the target. Meanwhile, the 43rd was directed to increase its diversion activity and to prepare for the assault. At night, the recon company reported that it was ready for the early morning raid, Col. Hung directed the artillery commander to tow the 105mm guns and shells to a strategic location during the night.
When the morning came, the sun rose slowly above the sea. Col. Hung stood at the foot of the pass, he ordered the rangers to attack. Hundred of 105mm shells fired directly on the top of the pass and the smoke shell signaled the recon company to begin the attack. At the same moment, two companies of the 43rd ranger crossed the swamp quickly then moving upward to the top of the pass. Half an hour later, the gunfire slowed down then silence. Colonel Hung received a preliminary report that thirty two enemies killed, the two company of the 43rd continued to attack down to the northern foot of the pass. The 43rd reported that they found NVA camp for a battalion. They did not build camp at the top of the pass to avoid air strikes or artillery bombardment, but they had quite enough men to sustain the deadly blockage at the top of the pass.
One night, the NVA mounted an attack trying to regain the control of a hill blocking the pathway to the An Lao valley. Their effort was broken, the rangers eliminated thirty and captured two. A sergeant reported to Col. Hung that the two NVA troops came out from a hidden cave near a stream to surrender. Looking at the two young men with their arms tied behind their backs, the colonel ordered his troops to untie the prisoners and brought them two large bowls of hot noodle soup. Colonel Hung also ordered the "Kitchen" to bring them hot coffee, cigarettes and woodland camouflage uniforms to replace the POW tatter green uniforms.
- Where are you two soldiers from? The colonel asked in a kindly manner.
- We came from the same province Ha-Dong (near Ha Noi city) Sir! They did not know the RVN ranks.
- How long have you two been in the south?
- Since March, last year. Sir!
- What's your unit?
- Regiment 2nd, 3rd division (Yellow Star).
- What made you two to surrender?
One NVA prisoner handed the colonel a piece of folded paper hidden inside his trouser pocket.
- This is my uncle address in the South. Before I left the North, my mother told me trying to find my uncle, my mother's younger brother.
Before the S-2 intelligence officer took the prisoners away, Col. Hung told his subordinate officer "Be kind to them".
When the 4th Ranger group operated in the province of Binh Dinh, every months there were NVA/VC returnees under the "Open Arms" program (Those returnees were granted pardon and help to rebuild new lives in the South). One high ranking returnee was brought by the G-2 intelligence to speak at the headquarters of the ranger group. The former enemy, Maj. Tan was quick and a good speaker. He was displease with the political commissar of the Binh Dinh province after the attacks at Tam Quan and Bong Son counties (northern of Binh Dinh province). He was criticized for not serving with full heart even though his regiment had lost 3/4 of men power and lowered his function.
After the speech, Maj. Tan allowed thirty minutes to answer questions. The last question from First Lt. Thom, commander of the recon company.
- I had tried many times to sneak into the valley of An Lao (NVA strong hold and sanctuary) but always had been detected! Would you tell "how could you" do that?
- Not only the guard unit, we used many ways to detect the intruders … For example…
The major returnee reached down to take out one of his rubber sandal then showed everyone … "We en-scripted a special symbol at the bottom of the sandals to leave mark of friendly unit… The foot prints from your boots can not hide your existent… We knew your direction of moving and probably your purpose…".
- I am very please with your speech! But do you have courage to take us into the valley?
- Not too difficult! But you men must dress in NVA uniforms and follow my instruction.
- Alright! Will do as your instruction.
- You can take two more men with you.
First Lt. Thom was a young officer of the ranger group. The recon company had many misfit soldiers but they loved the commander with his "gangster" leadership. Colonel Hung learned about the young officer was that Lt. Thom spent all of his salary drinking with his men, but he always volunteered for tough jobs. When approved for Lt. Thom and two recon men to go with the major returnee into their sanctuary, the group commander felt uneasily for the safe of his men… his very good men. Three days later, Lt. Thom returned with a stack of pictures taken right inside the heart of the enemy.
After viewing the pictures, one of them showed the NVA convoy passing a under water pontoon (The NVA built pontoon bridge just below the water level for cover from reconnaissance air plane) . The group commander praised his young officer.
- You are truly "Number One Big Brother" (Anh Hai So Dach) as your men addressed you.
- Not done yet, Colonel! I also brought back three Vee Xee (VC). They just arrived from the North.
- How??? Great deal!!! Tell me detail the story.
The young officer gave credit to the returnee… Major Tan led Lt. Thom and two rangers dressed in NVA uniforms with AK-47 assault riffles into the An Lao valley. They walked freely inside the enemy land and secretly took pictures, before their departure back to the ranger position… Major Tan and Lt. Thom waved their hands at a group of three NVA troops and asked them to stop. After some greeting, Lt. Thom pointed the gun to the three NVA troops then quickly pulled them off the trail to where other two rangers in NVA uniforms waiting… That was it! Lt. Thom told his commander "Major Tan deserved the credit".
From the POWs information, the 4th Ranger group planned a new attack into those fishing villages along the coast in the north of Binh Dinh province. The S-2 officer of the Bong Son county informed the Ranger unit that those villages were under the control of the enemy. The Regional Forces had tried many times unsuccessfully… After the conference at the group headquarters, Major Nguyen-Van-Tuoc commander of the 43rd battalion was given the job. Major Tuoc planned for an assault directly from the sea.
The 43rd battalion waited until midnight when the sea level lowered then started moving from the assembly area at a beach in the Tam Quan county.
At sunrise, the C&C (Command and Control) helicopter carried the commander of the 4th group and his staffs was already in the sky above the battlefield. Three companies of the 43rd battalion lined up on a straight line for the attack, the rangers from the sea liked the waves swamped into the villages. The guerillas were caught in a surprise attack, reacted lightly then fled into the mountain. The 43rd battalion searched the AO and captured one thousand rice bags. The local enemy forces in those villages transported rice and other supplies to An Lao valley at night then trucks continued to transport those supplies to the central high land.
In April 1974, the NVA 3rd Yellow Star division with local forces attached attacked in many areas of the Binh Dinh province. The communist also put pressure on Phu Cat air base, the 4th Ranger group was replaced by the 6th group with three battalions 34th, 35th, and 51st in the AO of northern of Binh Dinh province. The 4th group moved south to release enemy's pressure on the air base and defended the city of Qui Nhon (principle city of the Binh Dinh province). In the new deployment of the RVN II-Corps, the 4th group attached to the 22nd Infantry division. The ranger group attacked toward the north, pushing the NVA 3rd division back to the An Lao valley. More than a week of intense fight, the rangers killed more than two hundreds enemies.
By the end of a day of fighting, Col. Hung received a report from the Medicine platoon. There were fifty wounded rangers, thirty seven killed. Among the casualty, there were five officers including First Lt. Huynh-Van-Thom. Colonel Hung ran toward the LZ to see the recon company commander, when he arrived, other rangers were surrounding a cot, Lt. Thom lied im-motion, his head tilted to one side, his hand still hold the K-59 hand gun captured from the enemy, blood still came out from his temple… He did not want to become a disable vet after learning that he would lost both legs.
March 1975, the RVN III-Corps positioned its forces to defend the capital city of Saigon as following:
- Northwest: The 25th Infantry division n Cu Chi, Tay-Ninh province.
- North: The 5th Infantry in Lai Khe, Binh Duong province.
- Northeast: The 18th Infantry and the 3rd Cavalry brigade.
- Southwest: The 22nd Infantry after retreating from the Binh Dinh province in Tan An, Ben Luc
- Three Ranger groups in the west and south of Saigon city.
- One Airborne brigade in the north.
On the 28th of April 1975, Duong-Van-Minh became the new president of the South. The NVA already surrounded the city and their deadly 130mm field guns were pulled into positions.
- Northwest of Saigon, the NVA III-Corps with divisions: 70th, 316th, 320th and 969th moved into the area of Ben Cat, Binh Duong and continued to move into Cu Chi, Tay Ninh.
- North of Saigon, the NVA I-Corps with the 312th, 320-B and 338th divisions from Loc Ninh and Phuoc Long moving into Lai Khe.
- Northeast of Saigon, the NVA IV-Corps with the 6th, 7th, and 341st divisions were moving into Bien Hoa province.
- East of Saigon, the NVA II-Corps with the 3rd, 304th, 324-B and 325th divisions were moving into Xuan Loc, Long Khanh province.
- Southwest of Saigon, NVA Group 232 with the 5th, 8th, 9th division and the 37th Sapper group were moving into Tan An and Hau Nghia province.
- The NVA also had 350 tanks and 630 field guns artillery.
At the RVN Joint General Staffs headquarters, all the generals were gone. The central nerve of the RVN Arms Forces was disable. The general commandant of the Ranger reported directly to the new president, in turn General Do-Ke-Giai ordered all the Rangers to hold positions at all cost.
In the night of the 29th of April, the NVA from Ben Luc, Long An province crossed the Binh Dien bridge to attack the 7th and 8th Ranger groups positions in Binh Chanh and Phu Lam areas. Enemy tanks from Bien Hoa moved on highway Dai-Han (built by the Korean) to attack the 9th Ranger group in Hoc Mon. The Rangers hang on under enemy's artillery bombardment. Until 3:00am on the 30th of April, Col. Hung was reported that the 9th group knocked out five T-54 tanks but the enemy swamped over positions of the 9th ranger group, one battalion commander was killed (Major Hai). At 4:30am, another battalion commander, Maj. Tran-Tien-San of the 86th battalion was seriously wounded, the battalion XO, Maj. Nguyen-Van-Thieu (incidentally name of the former president) killed in a counter attack toward the plantation Ly-Van-Manh west of Binh Chanh county.
At 5:00am, NVA 130mm field guns from Nhon Trach pounded heavily on the headquarters of the group. The headquarter was in flame, Col. Hung saw the shadow of the Lt. Colonel, the XO of the group carried a M-60 machine gun passing by, he ran to a fox hole as the last stand… When the communist entered Saigon city, they looked for General Do-Ke-Giai first, they believed the general planned to stay for some reasons…
According to Colonel Chung-Dinh-Vu, former Chief of Staffs of the 22nd Infantry division. "The 4th Ranger Group commanded by Col. Hung did a great job in regaining the control of the Binh Khe pass. We (the 22nd Infantry) had one regiment there but couldn't get the job done and again the Ranger mounted an excellent attack on those communist fishing villages in the Bong-Son area… They attacked from the sea liked Marines unit, the real Marines was given the task couldn't do much as they tried to attack on land along the highway".
* From the book "Into a Tornado" by Colonel Vu-Phi-Hung, The RVN Ranger
Dallas, Texas 01/01/1998
Translated by Hieu D. Vu