- Ho Chi Minh Campaign
Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Ho Chi Minh Campaign
13 December 1974- 30 April 1975
Republic of Vietnam
result=Decisive North Vietnamese victory,
capitulation of the Republic of Vietnam
Van Tien Dung(overall),
Le Trong Tan (Tri Thien Front),
Hoang Minh Thao (Tay Nguyen Front)
Tran Van Tra(Southern Regional Headquarters),
Nguyen Minh Chau (232nd Tactical Forces)
Nguyen Van Thieu(overall),
Ngo Quang Truong(I Corps),
Pham Van Phu (II Corps)
Du Quoc Dong (III Corps, replaced by
Nguyen Van Toan), Nguyen Khoa Nam(IV Corps)
strength1=Regular Forces: 200,000-270,000 [Forces which actually participated in the offensive. William E. Le Gro, "From Cease Fire to Capitulation". Washington DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1981, p. 28.]
Total Forces:1.000.000 [Spencer Tucker, Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History, ABC-CLIO, 1998, p 770. "At war's end in 1975, the PAVN numbered nearly 1 million troops, despite the loss..."]
strength2=Regular Forces: 229,000
Regional and Popular Forces: 500,000 [Forces which actually participated in the offensive. Le Gro, p. 28.]
The Ho Chi Minh Campaign ( _vi. Chiến dịch Hồ Chí Minh), was the final title applied to a series of increasingly large-scale and ambitious
offensiveoperations by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam(North Vietnam) which began on 13 December 1974. The eventual goal of these operations was to defeat the armed forces and force the surrender of the government of the Republic of Vietnam(South Vietnam). After the initial success of what was to be a limited campaign in Phuoc Long Province, the North Vietnamese leadership increased the scope of the People's Army of Vietnam(PAVN)'s offensive and quickly threatened the Central Highlands city of Ban Me Thuot.
The new communist offensive was different from the ill-fated
Easter Offensiveof 1972. The subsequent resignaton of U.S. President Richard M. Nixonfollowing the fallout of the Watergate scandalmeant that the diplomatic promises of the disgraced former president would not be honoured by the United States Congress. Decreases in American military aid, which had become the lifeblood of South Vietnam's armed forces, created material and psychological turmoil in an army steeped in the American way of war. Inability to cope with the situation and find alternative military methodologies contributed heavily to the rapidity of South Vietnam's collapse. The gradual impact of this perceived American abandonment of South Vietnam on the psyche of that nation's political and military leadership and civilian population was devastating. The South Vietnamese government, alarmed at the speed and ease with which the North Vietnamese offensive was proceeding, attempted to regroup its forces by truncating the area that its troops had to defend, thereby surrendering space for time. This attempt, however, provoked the civilian population in the affected areas to take to the roads, making coherent military movements virtually impossible. This situation was exacerbated by confusing orders, lack of command and control, and a well-led and aggressive enemy, which led to the fall of Ban Me Thuot and the destruction of the bulk of an entire Army of the Republic of Vietnam(ARVN) corps in the Central Highlands.
A similar attempt to reduce defended areas in the northern provinces (this time to coastal enclaves) and to create a strategic national reserve met a similar fate, as command confusion, massive refugee migrations, and, in the end, total anarchy prevented any coherent defense and led to the utter collapse of ARVN's forces and the loss of the northern two-thirds of the country. Surprised by the rapidity of the South Vietnamese collapse, the objective of the communist campaign then became the transfer of the bulk of its northern forces more than 350 miles to the south in order to capture the South Vietnamese capital of
Saigonin time for the northerners to celebrate their late President Ho Chi Minh's birthday and end the war.
South Vietnamese forces regrouped around the capital and managed to conduct a commendable defense of the key transportation hub at Xuan Loc, but a loss of political and military will to continue the fight were becoming ever more manifest. Under political pressure, South Vietnamese President
Nguyen Van Thieuresigned from office on 21 April, in hopes that a new leader that was more amenable to the North Vietnamese could reopen negotiations with them. It was, however, far too late. With PAVN spearheads already entering Saigon, the South Vietnamese government, then under the leadership of Duong Van Minh, capitulated on 30 April 1975.
The signing of the
Paris Peace Accordin March 1973 did not end the fighting in South Vietnam since both sides immediately violated the cease-fire and attempted to gain control of as much territory as possible. Occupation meant population control in any future negotiations or reunification effort. [Samuel Lipsman, Stephen Weiss, et al. "The False Peace". Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1985, p. 37.] The fighting that erupted was not small in scale. The three-phase North Vietnamese "Land-grabbing-and population nibbling" campaign, for example, included four division-sized attacks to seize strategically advantageous positions. [Cao Van Vien, "The Final Collapse". Washington DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1985, pgs. 31-33.] The International Commission of Control and Supervision (ICCS), established by a protocol of the Paris agreement, had been assigned the task of monitoring the implementation of the cease-fire. [The ICCS was made up of Canadian (later replaced by Iranians), Indonesian, Polish, and Hungarian members. Clark Dougan, David Fulgham, et al. "The Fall of the South". Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1985, p. 11.] The principles of consultation and unanimity among the members, however, doomed any effort to control the situation or to stop cease-fire violations, and the ICCS ceased to function in any meaningful way within a few months of its establishment. [James H. Willbanks, "Abandoning Vietnam". Lawrence KS: University of Kansas Press, 2004, p. 192.]
At the end of 1973, there was serious debate among the
Hanoileadership over future military policy as the Central Committee of the Lao Dong Partyconvened to assess the progress of its efforts in the south. General Van Tien Dung, PAVN chief of staff, and Defence Minister Vo Nguyen Giapstrongly urged the resumption of conventional military operations, warning that increasing passivity would affect the morale of the army. Premier Pham Van Dong, however, feared that resuming operations would drain vital resources needed for reconstruction in the north. [Frank Snepp, "Decent Interval". New York: Random House, 1977, pgs. 92 & 93.]
The final result of this debate was "Resolution 21", which called for "strategic raids" on South Vietnamese forces in order to regain territory lost to the ARVN since the conclusion of the peace accord and to test the reaction of both the South Vietnamese military and the American government in Washington. [Willbanks, p. 210] The first blows of the new policy were delivered between March and November 1974, when the communists attacked ARVN forces in Quang Duc Province and at
Bien Hoa. Hanoi's leaders watched closely and anxiously as strikes by American B-52 Stratofortressbombers failed to materialize. During these operations, however, PAVN retook the military initiative, gaining experience in combined arms operations, depleting ARVN forces and causing them to expend large quantities of ammunition, and gaining avenues of approach and jump-off points for any new offensive. [Le Gro, pgs. 96-122.] South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieuhad made his position on the cease-fire agreement quite public by proclaiming the "Four Nos": no negotiations with the communists; no communist political activities south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ); no coalition government; and no surrender of territory to the North Vietnamese or Provisional Revolutionary Government(PRG) - policies which all but abrogated the Paris Accords. [Willbanks, p. 193.] Thieu still believed the promise made by President Richard Nixon to reintroduce American air power to the conflict if any serious violations of the agreement took place. It was also assumed that U.S. financial and military aid would continue to be forthcoming at previous levels.
1 July 1973, however, the U.S. Congresspassed legislation that all but prohibited any direct or indirect U.S. combat activities over or in Laos, Cambodia, and both Vietnams. On 7 Novemberthe legislative branch overrode Nixon's veto of the War Powers Act. During 1972-1973, South Vietnam had received $2.2 billion in U.S. assistance. In 1973-1974, that figure was slashed to $965 million, a more than 50 percent reduction. [Anthony J. Joes, "The War for South Vietnam". New York: Praeger, 1989, p. 125.] The American president's growing political difficulties (especially the Watergate scandal) and the increasing antagonism between the legislative and executive branches over Vietnam policies, did little to dampen South Vietnamese expectations. Some among the Saigon leadership were more realistic in their appraisal. According to Vietnamese Air Force General Dong Van Khuyen: "Our leaders continued to believe in U.S. air intervention even after the U.S. Congress had expressly forbidden it...They deluded themselves." [Dong Van Khuyen, "The RVNAF". Washington DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1979, p. 387.] The shock of reduced aid was compounded on 9 August, when Richard Nixon, the guarantor of South Vietnamese independence, was forced to resign from office. Taking advantage of North Vietnam's period of recuperation in 1974, President Thieu had stretched his own forces thin by launching offensives that retook most of the territory captured by PAVN forces during the land grab of 1973 and retaken 15 percent of the total land area controlled by the communists at the time of the cease-fire. [Willbanks, p. 199.] In April, Thieu launched the Svay Rieng Campaign against communist strongolds in eastern Cambodia. This proved to be the last major offensive operation launched by the ARVN.While these operations were successful, the cost in terms of manpower and resources was high. By the end of the year the military was experiencing shortages as a result of decreased American aid, while communist forces continued to gain strength.
By the end of October the North Vietnamese
Politburohad decided on its strategy for 1975 and 1976. In what became known as "Resolution of 1975", the party leadership reported that the war had reached its "final stage". The army was to consolidate its gains, eliminate South Vietnamese border outposts and secure its logistical corridor, and continue its force build-up in the south. [Dougan & Fulgham, p. 11] During 1976 the final general offensive would begin. [Van Tien Dung, "Our Great Spring Victory". New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977, p. 12. The strategy was undoubtedly conservative, but the North Vietnamese General Staff overestimated the capabilities of the ARVN, which had fought reasonably well in the summer and into the fall. They continually believed that the South Vietnamese, technically at least, were still superior in overall strength. Willbanks, p. 221.] The following month, PAVN field commanders and their political officers were called to Hanoi to asses the new strategy. It was first decided that an attack in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam would have the greatest chance of success, but this concept was challenged by Lieutenant General Tran Van Tra, COSVN's military commander. His staff had already drawn up a plan for a direct attack against Saigon, and Tra quickly proposed that his forces launch a "test" attack in Phuoc Long Province to see how well the ARVN would fight and if the U.S. would react. [Tran Van Tra, "Vietnam" vol 5, "Concluding the 30-Year War". Ho Chi Minh City: Van Nghe Publishing, 1982, Chapter Two. [https://www-cgsc.army.mil/carl/resources/csi/tra/tra.asp On-line edition] .] Tra's plan offered the potential for great gain at relatively low risk. First Party Secretary Le Duanapproved the plan, but warned Tra that failure would not be acceptable, telling him "Go ahead and attack... [But] you must be sure of victory." [Dougan & Fulgham, p. 17.]
After the signing of the Paris Accord the South Vietnamese government fielded the fourth largest military force in the world as a result of the American Enhance and Enhance Plus programs. The nation received new combat and transport aircraft, armored vehicles, helicopters, artillery pieces, and other equipment worth $753 million. [Vien, p. 23.] The arms shipments were welcomed by Saigon, but the lack of sufficient training and dependence on the U.S. for spare parts, fuel, and ammunition caused maintenance and logistical problems. South Vietnamese forces certainly outnumbered combined PAVN/
National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnamforces in the south with approximately one and one-half million troops in uniform. [Le Gro, p. 28.] But almost 482,000 of this number belonged to either the Regional or Popular Forces, organizations that were notorious for their unreliability. Even the lesser number was misleading. Only about 200,000 of the remaining total served as regulars in the combat arms. The rest were in the administrative and logistical "tail" required to support them. [Willbanks, p. 190.]
The South Vietnamese army had always had problems keeping men in the ranks, but during 1973-1975, the problem reached epidemic proportions. During 1974, for example, only 65 percent of authorized manpower was present for duty at any one time. [Lipsman & Weiss, p. 149.] The nation's officer corps still suffered from the promotion and retention of generals due to their political loyalties, not their professional abilities. Corruption and incompetence among the officers was endemic, with some "raising it almost to an art form." [Willbanks, p. 205. To mollify his critics, President Thieu had sacked the II and IV Corps commanders, Generals Nguyen Van Toan and Nguyen Van Nghi, both Thieu loyalists notorious for their corruption. Unfortunately, both men were also proven leaders, popular with their troops, and versatile on the battlefield. Dougan & Fulgham, p. 26.]
The severe cutbacks in U.S. aid directly effected military performance. Artillery batteries that had previously been allocted 100 rounds per day were reduced to firing only four daily. Each ARVN soldier was restricted to only 85 bullets per month. Because of fuel shortages and lack of spare parts, sorties by South Vietnamese helicopter and cargo aircraft shrank by 50 to 70 percent. [Le Gro, pgs. 80-87.] Due to President Thieu's "no surrender of territory" command, the army was stretched to the limit defending useless terrain along a 600 mile frontier. Even the nation's strategic reserve, the Airborne and Marine Divisions, were occupied in static defensive roles. The ARVN, which had been schooled by the Americans in rapid mobility and the application of massive firepower, were losing the ability to deliver either. [Dougan & Fulgham, p. 48.] The military situation in the Republic was exacerbated by the collapse of the South Vietnamese economy and a massive influx of refugees into the cities. [Worldwide rises in fuel process, a result of the Arab oil embargo instituted in 1972 and poor rice harvests throughout Asia directly effected South Vietnam's military and economic situation.]
During the same period, the North Vietnamese were recovering from losses incurred during the Easter Offensive of 1972 by both replacing personnel and modernizing their equipment. Weapons improvement was due to a new influx of Soviet and Chinese military aid. During 1973, North Vietnam had received 2.8 million metric tons of goods (worth $700 million) from communist-bloc countries, a 50 percent increase over the previous year. In 1974 that total increased to 3.5 million metric tons ($1.7 billion). [Nguyen Duy Hinh, "Vietnamization and the Cease-Fire". Washington DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1980, p. 154. See also Allen E. Goodman, "The Lost Peace". Stanford CA: Hoover Institute Press, 1978, p. 175] As a result, the number of artillery tubes within South Vietnam increased to 430, including new 122mm and 130mm guns, while armored forces were estimated to have increased to 655 tanks and armored personnel carriers, including the new Soviet-built
BTR-152. By the end of 1974, the North Vietnamese General Staff had created two army corps headquarters, matching South Vietnam's command and control structure in the I and II Corps Tactical Zones. [Marc Leepson, ed. with Helen Hannaford, "Webster's New World Dictionary of the Vietnam War". New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999, pgs. 522-524.] Most independent North Vietnamese infantry regiments in the south were also combined into divisional structures. A U.S. Defense Attache Office (established in 1973 to replace MACV, the 50 officers and men of the DAO coordinated all military assistance to South Vietnam) report concluded that the North Vietnamese had increased their strategic reserve from two divisions to seven, making 70,000 additional troops available to augment the 200,000 combat and 100,000 support troops already in South Vietnam. [Willbanks, p. 232.]
The northern high command had also recognized the need for improvements to their logistical network to facilitate the transport of sufficient supplies of food, weapons, and ammunition necessary for continuous large-scale operations. By 1973 the 559th Transportation Group, which controlled the
Ho Chi Minh Trail(the Truong Son Strategic Transportation Route to the North Vietnamese) in southeastern Laos, was ordered to expand east of the Truong Son Mountains and directly into South Vietnam. The new logistical route, Corridor 613, ran inside South Vietnam from the DMZ to all the way to Loc Ninh. Besides creating the new extension, the 559th upgraded its entire network, constructing all-weather, hard-surfaced roads to accommodate the modern mechanized army that had been rebuilt since the Paris Accord. The work required two full years to complete, but the time required for the transport of personnel from North Vietnam to the southernmost seat of battle was reduced from four months to just three weeks. [John Prados, "The Blood Road". New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998, pgs. 371-373.]
One of the most threatening features of the new North Vietnamese build-up was the air defence network that had been established within South Vietnam, which by 1975 consisted of twenty-two regiments equipped with radar-controlled gun systems and formidable
SA-2 Guidelineand shoulder-launched SA-7 Grailanti-aircraft missiles. [William E. Momyer "The South Vietnamese Air Force". Maxwell Air Force Base AL: Air University Press, pgs. 70 & 71.] Such systems posed a major deterrent to the South Vietnamese Air Force, since its aircraft were not equipped to deal with such threats. As a result, South Vietnamese aerial interdiction of the communist logistical build-up became almost impossible and reconnaissance flights were held to a minimum. [Willbanks, pgs. 189 & 194. Ironically, the U.S. decision to provide the VNAF with relatively unsophisticated aircraft was motivated, in part, by the fear that better aircraft would tempt the South Vietnamese to initiate operations over North Vietnam. The less capable aircraft would keep the fighting at a relatively lower level, enhancing the possibility of negotiations. Momyer, p. 55.] This lack of active intelligence collection made estimation of North Vietnamese strength and intentions much more difficult.
Phuoc Long was the northernmost provincial capital in the III Corps Tactical Zone, approximately 75 air miles northeast of Saigon. At the end of December, the North Vietnamese CT-7 and 3rd Divisions, an independent infantry regiment, and armored, anti-aircraft, and heavy artillery support moved out of Cambodia to the attack. The province was defended by five Regional Force battalions, 48 Popular Force platoons, and four territorial artillery sections. From his headquarters at Bien Hoa, Lieutenant General Du Quoc Dong, the III Corps commander, augmented this force by sending in the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the 5th Division, two artillery sections, and three reconnaissance companies. [Vien, pgs. 59 & 60.] The battle for the province began on
13 Decemberwhen PAVN forces began to isolate Phuoc Long City's overland communications and eliminating static outposts. They then began to bombard Phuoc Luong accurately with heavy artillery and launched a concerted armor/infantry ground attack on the 27th. Any counterattack or relief effort contemplated by the South Vietnamese was doomed by the thousands of refugees that took to the roads in order to escape the fighting. Desertion among South Vietnamese units became commonplace, as soldiers began to disappear from the ranks in search of family members. [It was quite common for family members to accompany soldiers to their areas of operations. This policy served as a boost to troop morale, but it also tended to fix ARVN units to particular geographic areas, reducing the ability to move units to other threatened zones.] This pattern was to become all too common as the offensive continued, not just among the territorial forces, but among the regular troops as well. [Willbanks, p. 225.] On 2 Januaryan emergency meeting was held at the Independence Palace in Saigon between President Thieu, the Joint General Staff, and General Dong. At the meeting, Dong presented a plan for the relief of Phuoc Long that would have utilized either an infantry division or the Airborne Division. The plan was turned down for three reasons: first, there were simply no reserve forces of sufficient size available anywhere in the country for the task; second, with all overland routes in enemy hands, all movements and logistics would have to depend entirely on airlift, a capability that no longer existed; and third, despite adventageous defensive positions, the forces at Phuoc Long could not hold off two communist divisions long enough for any relief effort to succeed. [Vien, pgs. 63 & 64.] The decision was then reached. Phuoc Long City and province would be surrendered to North Vietnamese forces as a matter of expediency, since it was considered to be strategically less important than Tay Ninh, Pleiku, or Hue- economically, politically, and demographically. [Vien, p. 64.]
The fighting around Phuoc Long continued until
6 January 1975, after which the town became the first provincial capital permanently seized by PAVN. Of the more than 5,400 South Vietnamese troops originally committed to the battle, only 850 returned to government lines. [Le Gro, p. 137.] More important for the communists was the apparent total indifference with which the U.S. regarded this loss. The psychological blow for the government and people of South Vietnam was severe. According to the chief of the ARVN General Staff, General Cao Van Vien, "Almost gone was the hope that the United States would forcibly punish the North Vietnamese for their brazen violations of the cease-fire agreement...What more encouragement could the communists have asked for?" [Vien, p. 68.]
Word of the fall of Phuoc Long reached the North Vietnamese Politburo in the midst of its Twenty-third Plenum, and the body immediately ordered the General Staff to develop a follow-up plan. Le Duan declared that "Never have we had military and political conditions so perfect or a strategic advantage so great as we have now." [Military History Institute of Vietnam, "Victory in Vietnam". Lawrence KS: University of Kansas Press, 2002, p. 360.] The first target chosen was Duc Lap, a border outpost in II Corp's Darlac Province. [Tra, Chapter Four.] Once again, Tran Van Tra's influence drove some members to propose a bolder plan. Why not attack
Ban Me Thout, the provincial capital, instead? This time, Le Duan was reluctant to agree, that is until Le Duc Thothrew his weight behind a bolder strategy. [Dung, p.27.] General Dung was ordered south to take direct command of the new offensive, which had been named "Campaign 275".
General Dung had already worked out a plan for taking Ban Me Thout. Called the "blossoming lotus," the objective was to avoid outlying South Vietnamese positions and strike at the primary target first, "like a flower bud slowly opening its petals." [Vien, pgs 31 & 32.] The plan for the 75,000-80,000 PAVN troops participating in the campaign was first to isolate Ban Me Thuot by cutting Highways 14, 19, and 21, precluding any South Vietnamese reinforcement. The 320th Division was then to neutralize outposts to the north and seize the Phuong Duc Airfield. The Mission of the F-10 Division was to then conduct the main attack on the city along Route 14. ["Victory in Vietnam, p. 364.]
Commanding his forces from Pleiku, Major General Pham Van Phu, the III Corps commander, was given adequate warnings of the impending North Vietnamese attacks, but they were not given serious consideration. Phu was deceived by an elaborate North Vietnamese communications charade and his belief that PAVN movements toward Ban Me Thuot were diversionary operations designed to distract him from the true objective, Pleiku. [Vien, p. 69.] The defense of Ban Me Thuot, therefore, was entrusted to a single Ranger group and provincial Popular and Regional Force units (approximately 4,000 men). They were augmented at the beginning of March by 53rd Regiment of the 23rd ARVN Division.The battle for Ban Me Thuot began on
10 Marchand ended only eight days later. Preceded by an intense artillery bombardment, the F-10 Division quickly pushed into the city and seized the ammunition depot. That evening the 316th Division entered the fierce battle for the city center. On the 13th, the 44th ARVN Regiment of the 23rd Division and a battalion of the 21st Ranger Group were helelifted to Phuoc An, 20 miles east of Ban Me Thuot, to form a relief force for the beleaguered city. The column, advanceing into the path of thousands of refugees and military dependents fleeing the highlands, soon bumped into the 10th PAVN Division. The South Vietnamese attack disintegrated and the force then retreated, joining the civilian exodus. [Vien, p. 72.]
18 Marchthe communists overran Phuoc An, eliminating any further hope of reaching Ban Me Thuot. Darlac Province in its entirety then fell under North Vietnamese control. ARVN forces began to rapidly shift positions in an attempt to keep the North Vietnamese from quickly pushing eastward to the coastal lowlands. In the final analysis, the blame for the fall of the highlands lies with General Phu, who refused to act on sound intelligence and by the time he realized his error, it was too late to get reinforcements to the scene.
Realising the weakened state of his army, President Thieu had sent a delegation to Washington in early March to request an increase in economic and military aid. U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam
Graham Martin, who believed that additional aid would help the defense of the Republic, also made a trip to Washington to present the case to President Gerald R. Ford. The U.S. Congress, increasingly reluctant to divert money from economic recovery into what was already seen as a lost cause, slashed a proposed $1.45 billion military aid package for 1975 to $700 million. [Arnold R. Issacs, "Without Honor". Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983, p. 314.] The Ford administration, from the president on down, however, continued to encourage Thieu in what the historian Arnold Issacs called "the pipe dream that Congress would restore the funds it had cut." [Issacs, p. 320.]
President Thieu was feeling the increased pressure. He had become, in the words of one of his closest advisors, "suspicious...secretive...and ever watchful for a "coup d'etat" against him." [Willbanks, p. 229.] His increasing isolation had begun to deny him "the services of competent people, adequate staff work, consultation, and coordination." [Willbanks, p. 229.] Thieu's military decisions were followed faithfully by his officer corps, who generally agreed with General Vien, that "Thieu made all the decisions as to how the war should be conducted." [Vien, p. 78.]
11 March, the day after Ban Me Thuot was attacked, Thieu had come to the conclusion that there was no longer any hope of receiving a $300 million supplemental aid package that he had requested from the U.S. government. [Vien, p. 76.] On that basis he called a meeting attended by Lieutenant General Dang Van Quang and General Vien. After reviewing the military situation, Thieu pulled out a small-scale map of South Vietnam and discussed the possible redeployment of the armed forces to "hold and defend only those populous and flourishing areas which were really most important." [Vien, p. 77.] Thieu then sketched in on the map those areas which he considered most important - all of the III and IV Corps Tactical Zones. He also pointed out those areas that were currently under communist control which would have to be retaken. The key to the location of these operations were concentrations of natural resources - rice, rubber, industries, etc. Those areas that were to be held also included coastal areas where oil had been discovered on the continental shelf. These areas were to become, in Thieu's words: "Our untouchable heartland, the irreducible national stronghold." [Vien, p. 78.] As to the future of the I and II Corps Zones, he drew a series of phase lines on the map indicating that South Vietnamese forces should hold what they could, but that they could redeploy southward as circumstances dictated. Thieu declared this new strategy as "Light at the top, heavy on the bottom." [Vien informed Thieu that he believed that the redeployment was a necessary step, but refrained from mentioning that he believed that it was far too late. Vien considered that a redeployment on such a scale should have been carried out by mid-1974 or, at the latest, as soon as President Nixon had resigned from office. Vien also believed that, by the time Ban Me Thuot fell, the North Vietnamese enjoyed a distinct local numerical superiority at any point, and that "extended and pressed the way we were" there was "little chance we could disengage from any place without being pursued and pressed on further." By then it was also obvious to General Staff that any redeployment would be hampered by a massive flow of civilian refugees from the abandoned areas and additional confusion caused by soldier's concerns (and desertions) over the fate of their dependents. Vien, pgs. 80 & 81.]
The critical decision for the Saigon government was made two days later at Cam Ranh Bay during a meeting between Thieu and General Phu. Thieu had decided that Pleiku and
Kontumwere to be abandoned and that the forces defending them were to be redeployed to retake demographically more important Ban Me Thuot. [Alan Dawson, "55 Days". Englewood Cliffs NY: Prentice-Hall, 1977, p. 58. According to Dawson, a UPIreporter in Vietnam, Phu first thought that Thieu was joking, that is until the president told Phu to carry out the order or be replaced and jailed.] Phu informed the president that the only route possible for the redeployment, given PAVN blocking actions, was little-used Interprovincial Route 7B, a neglected, narrow, rough-surfaced track (actually a logging road) with several downed bridges along its course.
Meanwhile, General Dung advised Hanoi that he was turning his forces to capture Kontum and Pleiku. In Hanoi, Le Duan was pressuring the General Staff to take advantage of the foothold they had gained in the highlands. [Dougan & Fulgham, p. 52.] Two months remained before the onset of the monsoon season, when military operations would be forestalled. Further strategic gains appeared possible in light of Saigon's apparent weakness and the level of the U.S. response.
Conditions so perfect
Debacle in the Central Highlands
General Phu then faced the monumental task of moving a corp-sized column of troops, equipment, and vehicles over a largely unknown road some 160 miles through the mountains and jungles of the highlands to Nha Trang for the attempted counterattack. The force would consist of one battalion of the 44th ARVN Regiment, five Ranger groups, the 21st Tank Squadron, two 155mm artillery battalions, one 175mm battalion, and Popular and Regional Force units. Also in train would be the men and equipment of the 20th Combat Engineer Group and the 231st Direct Support Group. [Dougan & Fulgham, p. 54.] Phu's excessive preoccupation with secrecy, however, doomed the effort from the beginning. For such a movement Phu should have worked out a detailed plan with his staff and exercised direct control of the entire operation personally. He did neither. Operational planning was limited only to a few trusted subordinates who had either contributed to or knew about it. Staff work was non-existent. [Dougan & Fulgham, pgs. 54 & 55.] The chief of staff of II Corps, for example, admitted that he was completely in the dark about the planned abandonment of Pleiku and Kontum. [Vien, p. 94.] Command of the convoy itself was handed over to the commander of the II Corps Rangers. [Phu further muddied the command arrangements by appointing his assistant for operations to also oversee the withdrawal. Dougan & Fulgham, p. 55.]
During the first two days of the move (16 and
17 March) the effort went well, until, at Hau Bon, the column of refugees from the abandoned cities and the military convoys collided and became stuck. Making matters worse was that combat engineers had to complete a pontoon bridge across the Ea Pa River. That night communist local forces began to intercept and stall the mass of over 200,000 troops and refugees that was soon to be dubbed the "column of tears." Initially caught by surprise by the South Vietnamese withdrawal, General Dung ordered his 320th Division to strike the flank of the column while coastal forces raced to halt its forward progress. The 968th Division was ordered to force its way through Pleiku and strike the tail of the retreat. [Dung, p. 95.]
The following day the column had only proceeded 15 miles before it encountered a significant North Vietnamese roadblock. From that point onward the exodus kept moving forward only by fighting its way ahead. "They hit us with everything" said Ranger Private Nguyen Van Sau, describing an unrelenting shower of artillery shells, mortar rounds and rockets that flew from the jungle into the stream of refugees. [Dougan & Fulgham, p. 60.] Upon reaching the Song Ba River, only 20 kilometers from Tuy Hoa, a pontoon bridge had to be helilifted to the column. By
22 Marchthe bridge was completed, but the advance became more hazardous due to numerous communist blocking positions. During the entire movement, the South Vietnamese Air Force provided minimal support due to extremely bad weather. On 27 Marchthe final roadblock was overcome and, at 21:00, the first vehicles of the column entered Tuy Hoa. "How many people in the original column survived the tragic journey, no one knew exactly." [Vien, p. 93.] It was estimated by the ARVN that only 20,000 of the 60,000 troops that had started out from Pleiku finally reached the coast. [Stephen T. Hosmer, Konrad Kellen, and Brian M. Jenkins, "The Fall of South Vietnam". Santa Monica CA: RAND Corporation, 1978, p. 96.] Of the estimated 180,000 civilians that fled the highlands with the column, only about 60,000 got through. [James S. Olsen and Randy Roberts, "Where the Last Domino Fell". New York: St Martin's, 1991, p. 259.]
The retreat from the Central Highlands had become a rout of strategic proportions. At least "75 percent of II Corps combat strength, including the 23rd Infantry Division, as well as Ranger, armor, artillery, engineer, and signal units had been tragically expended within ten days." [Vien, p. 75.] The planned operation to retake Ban Me Thuot never materialized simply because II Corps no longer possessed the troops to attempt it. Buoyed by their easy triumph the North Vietnamese F-10, 316th, and 320th Divisions began to move toward the coast. The only coherent force left to oppose them was the 22nd ARVN Division, which was successfully defending the mountain passes to the coast. [The DAO's intelligence chief, William Le Gro stated that the 22nd not only "fought well, but valiantly" against the 3rd and 968th PAVN Divisions. Le Gro, pgs. 161 & 162.] .
30 Marchthe division was ordered to proceed to the coast at Qui Nhonfor evacuation. Unfortunately, North Vietnamese forces had beaten them there from the north and two of the division's regiments had to fight their way through to the beaches for pick-up. At 02:00 on 1 April, what was left of the division was extracted by sea. Two regimental colonels, after being ordered to evacuate, refused to leave, preferring suicide rather than disgrace or surrender. [Vien, p. 118.] The division's third regiment, the 47th, ran into an ambush at Phu Cat and was totally disrupted, losing about half of its troops and it's commander, who also chose suicide over surrender. [Vien, p. 118.] When it later regrouped at Vung Tao the 22nd numbered only slightly over 2,000 men.
Collapse in the north
The situation for the South Vietnamese in the I Corps Tactical Zone had regained some stablilty after the defeat of a three-division PAVN push during late 1974. By early the following year, I Corps fielded three infantry divisions (the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd), the elite Airborne and Marine Divisions, four Ranger Groups and the 1st Armored Brigade. The northern provinces were under the command of one of South Vietnam's finest and most aggressive generals,
Ngo Quang Truong. Until mid-March, the North Vietnamese had limited their offensive operations to attempts to cut Highway 1, the main north/south line of communication, between Hue and Da Nangand between Da Nang and Chu Lai. To confront the South Vietnamese, PAVN Brigadier General Le Tu Dong had amassed a force of five divisions and nine independent infantry regiments, three sapperregiments, three armored regiments, twelve anti-aircraft and eight artillery regiments. [These forces included the crack 2nd, 304th, 324B, 325C, and 711th PAVN Divisions.] At a meeting in Saigon on 13 MarchPresident Thieu was briefed on the military situation by Truong and the new III Corps commander, Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Toan. [After once again abandoning his troops at Nha Trang, General Phu committed suicide in Saigon on 30 April.] Thieu then laid out his plan for national consolidation. As Truong understood it, he was free to redeploy his forces to hold the Da Nang area. [South Vietnam's second largest city was to be held due to possible future exploitation of offshore oil deposits. Dougan & Fulgham, p. 68.] Truong was shocked to discover, however, that the Airborne Division was to be removed to III Corps (unknown to Truong at the time, the Marine Division was also already slated for redeployment with both units then forming a new national reserve). General Truong was recalled to Saigon on 19 Marchto brief Thieu on his withdrawal plan. The general had developed two contingency plans: The first was predicated on government control of Highway 1, which would be utilized for two simultaneous withdrawals from Hue and Chu Laito Da Nang; The second course presupposed PAVN interdiction of the highway and called for a withdrawal into three enclaves: Hue, Da Nang, and Chu Lai. This was to be only an interim measure, however, since the forces that withdrew to Hue and Chu Lai would then be sea-lifted to Da Nang by the navy. The president then stunned the general by announcing that he had misinterpreted his previous orders: [Dougan & Fulgham, pgs. 68 & 69.] The old imperial capital of Hue was not to be abandoned. Making matters worse, Truong discovered that his force was to be reduced by the removal of the Marine Division.
By the time of the second meeting it was obvious that the second plan was the only possible recourse, since any phased withdrawal along Highway 1 had become impossible. This was due to increasing North Vietnamese pressure that the ARVN was barely containing and the enormous and uncontrolled flow of refugees along the highway. Truong then requested permission for a withdrawal of his forces into the three enclaves as planned and for the retention of the Marines. Thieu's reply ordered him to "hold onto any territory he could with whatever forces he now had, including the Marine Division." [Vien, p. 102.]
Truong returned to Da Nang the same day and was greeted by bad news. The North Vietnamese had begun an all-out offensive in I Corps and had already breached Truong's northern defense line at the Tach Han River. President Thieu made a nationwide radio broadcast that afternoon proclaiming that Hue would be held "at all costs." [Dougan & Fulgham, p. 70.] That evening Truong ordered a retreat to a new defense line at the My Chanh River, thereby ceding all of Quang Tri Province to the North Vietnamese. He was confident that his forces could hold Hue, but he was then astounded by a late afternoon message from the president that now ordered "that because of inability to simultaneously defend all three enclaves, the I Corps commander was free...to redeploy his forces for the defense of Da Nang only." [Vien, p. 104.] Regardless of the president's reassurances, the people of Quang Tri and Hue began to leave their homes by the tens of thousands, joining an ever-growing exodus toward Da Nang.
Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese offensive was slowly rolling over ARVN opposition north and south of Da Nang. General Dong's plan called for attacks on the area from the west, north, and south that would drive South Vietnamese forces into Da Nang, where they could be destroyed. [Dougan & Fulgham, p. 70.] The highway between Hue and Da Nang was cut at Phu Loc after severe fighting on
22 March. South of Da Nang, the 2nd ARVN Division managed to contain a North Vietnamese drive toward Tam Kyand the coastal plain. On the morning of 24 March, however, the 711th Division, backed by armored elements, seized Tam Ky, driving the population north toward Da Nang by the thousands. PAVN forces then cut Highway 1 between Quang Ngai and Chu Lai, a move to which the 2nd ARVN Division was too battered to respond. With Corps approval, South Vietnamese troops from Quang Ngai fought their way northward, but only a few managed to reach Chu Lai. In a single day the situation in I Corps had deteriorated beyond control.
With the withdrawal to the three enclaves now complete, Truong issued the following orders: The 1st Division and other units in the Hue area were to withdraw overland toward Da Nang while the Marine elements were to be retrieved by ship from Hue; the 2nd Division, its dependents, and the remains of the Quang Ngai sector forces were to withdrawan by sea to Re Island, 20 miles offshore from Chu Lai. [This effort was undertaken in order for Troung to obey a Joint General Staff directive that he conduct the defense of Da Nang without the Marines, who were to be withdrawn to the south. The same lack of planning and hasty withdrawal along unprotected routes to meet the evacuation deadline cost the 2nd Division two-thirds of its men and most of its equipment. Only 7,000 troops and around 3,000 civilians were evacuated from Chu Lai. Dougan & Fulgham, pgs. 73 & 74.]
26 March, command and control collapsed and discipline in the 1st Division eroded after its commander told his men that "We've been betrayed...It is now "sauve qui peu" (every man for himself)...See you in Da Nang." [Hosmer, Kellen, & Jenkins, p. 109.] The overland march, pummelled by communist artillery the entire way, degenerated into chaos as it moved toward Da Nang. No sooner had the remains of the force reached the city than soldiers began to melt away, searching for their dependents. At Hue, only one regiment of the 1st Division, about 600 Marines, and 7,700 civilians were picked up by naval vessels. [Vien, p. 109. With escape impossible, five battalion commanders of the Marine Division said their farewells and then shot themselves rather than face capture by the communists. Dougan & Fulgham, p. 73.] From the north, two North Vietnamese divisions, along with armor and artillery elements, enveloped the western flank of Da Nang. To the south, two more divisions closed in and brought the center of the city into artillery range. Da Nang then collapsed into anarchy and chaos. "Hunger, looting, and crimes were widespread. Traffic was impossible...the mass stranded in the city was estimated at approximately one and one-half million." [Vien, p. 113.] At noon on 28 March, with a coherent defense of the city becoming impossible, Truong requested permission to evacuate by sea, but Thieu, baffled, refused to commit himself to a clear-cut decision. ["He did not tell General Truong whether to withdraw or to hold and fight" said General Vien, who was with Thieu. Vien, p. 108.] When his communications with Saigon were sundered, and on his own initiative, Truong ordered a naval withdrawal that was to begin the following morning.
Thousands of soldiers and civilians rushed for the sea, where hundreds drowned trying to reach the ships that could not dock due to the low tide. Thousands more died under the continuous communist artillery barrage. Of the government's four infantry divisions, four Ranger groups, armored brigade, air division, and thousands of Territorial, support, and staff personnel, only around 16,000 were pulled out. [Dougan & Fulgham, p. 83.] Of the almost two million civilians that packed Da Nang at the end of March, a little more than 50,000 were evacuated during the sea lift. [Dougan & Fulgham, p. 83.] Left behind were 70,000 South Vietnamese troops taken prisoner by northern forces. [Willbanks, p. 253.] Also abandoned were 33 undamaged Air Force A-37 jet fighters at Da Nang and nearly 60 more aircraft at Phu Cat Air Base. [William W. Momyer, "The Vietnamese Air Force". Maxwell Air Force Base AL: Air University Press, 1975, p. 76.] During the fall of Da Nang no pitched battles had been fought and not many of the South Vietnamese troops stationed in and around the city had even raised their rifles in its defense. [Willbanks, p. 251.] In quick succession the few remaining centers of resistance along the coastline "fell like a row of porcelain vases sliding off a shelf": Quang Ngai on
24 March; Qui Nhon and Nha Trang on 1 April; and Cam Ranh Bayon 3 April. [Issacs, p. 380.]
Ho Chi Minh Campaign
25 Marchthe North Vietnamese Politburo no longer felt it necessary to wait until 1976 for the initiation its final offensive against Saigon. General Dung was ordered to abandon the long-standing doctrine of meticulous planning and methodical preparation of the battlefield in order that the "puppet" regime could be crushed and the war ended once and for all. [Tra, Chapter 7.] The only obstacle to that goal was moving his northern forces 370 miles (the reserve divisions in North Vietnam would have to move 1,000 miles) south in order to participate in the attack on the capital Saigon. In one of the most complex logistical feats of the war, he proceeded to do just that. [Dung, pgs. 134-137.]
7 AprilLe Duc Tho arrived at Dung's heaquarters near Loc Ninh to oversee the final battles as the Politburo's representative. Dung and his staff had basically adapted Tra's original plan and prepared a three-pronged attack that would be led by the PAVN IV Corps, which would seize the vital highway intersection at Xuan Loc, the capital of Long Khanh Province and "the gateway to Saigon." The capture of the crossroads would open the way to Bien Hoa (where 60 percent of South Vietnam's remaining ammunition was stockpiled) and Saigon's strategic eastern approaches. [Snepp, p. 275. ] This effort was placed under the command of General Le Trung Tan, the "conqueror of Da Nang." To divert Saigon's attention and prevent the reinforcement of Xuan Loc, the recently activated 223rd Tactical Group would cut Route 4, severing Saigon from the Mekong Delta. Simultaneously, the North Vietnamese III Corps would conduct another diversionary operation around Tay Ninh.
To support the effort, other PAVN elements would close on the city from the west and south. Since no code name had been applied to the new offensive, Dung suggested that it be named the "Ho Chi Minh Campaign". [Dung, p. 160.] The Politburo concurred on
14 April.Le Duc Tho then passed on a message from Tong Duc Tong, president of North Vietnam to General Dung: "You must win. Otherwise, do not return." [Dougan & Fulgham, p. 113.] The defense of Xuan Loc had been entrusted to the 18th ARVN Division augmented by the 8th Regiment of the 5th Division, the 3rd Armored Brigade, two Ranger and two artillery battalions, and the 81st Airborne Ranger Group. The week-long fighting that erupted on 8 Aprilraged in and around Xuan Loc and became the most significant engagement of the entire offensive. The initial attack was conducted by the 341st and 3rd North Vietnamese Divisions, which attacked headlong into the southern army's defenses and suffered tremendous casualties. The attackers were then reinforced by the CT-7 Division.
After the interdiction of an ARVN armored task force sent to the relief of the town along Route 1, the 1st Airborne Brigade was helelifted into the city. The South Vietnamese eventually committed 25,000 troops to the battle, almost one-third of the remainder of their forces. For the first time since the onset of the North Vietnamese offensive, the South Vietnamese Air Force consistently provided effective close air support to the defenders. Even General Dung was impressed by "the stubbornness of the enemy" in what had become a "meat grinder." [Dung, p. 167. See also Le Gro, p. 173.]
14 AprilGeneral Dung received new instructions from Hanoi. "We must be in Saigon to celebrate Ho Chi Minh's birthday." [Dougan & Fulgham, p. 130.] That deadline, 19 May, was only one month away. At that point, Dung decided to bypass the defenders at Xuan Loc and commenced the shelling of Bien Hoa Air Base, effectively ending ARVN air support. [Dung, pgs. 167 & 168.] After conducting a valiant defense, the 18th Division and the 1st Airborne Brigade were overwhelmed by superior numbers and firepower. Threatened with encirclement, the units managed to conduct a well-executed retreat to the south along Route 2. After more than three weeks of intense fighting, the 18th Division suffered 30 percent casualties while killing over 5,000 North Vietnamese and destroying 37 tanks. [Vien, p. 132. Hosmer, Kellen, & Jenkins, p. 133.] With all of Long Khanh Province under PAVN control, General Dung was free to completely encircle Saigon with his forces.
Even after the loss of Da Nang, "the worst single disaster in the history of South Vietnam," the Ford administration continued to disbelieve that the Saigon regime was failing. [Willbanks, pgs. 255, 404-406.] On
10 AprilPresident Ford went to Congress to request a $722 million supplemental military aid package for South Vietnam plus $250 million in economic and refugee aid. [The president's rationale for the aid had changed. He stated before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he feared that "If we say 'no more money' Thieu...won't do something totally irrational." In other words, it was possible that if the aid was not delivered, the South Vietnamese might turn on the Americans still within South Vietnam and hold them for ransom. Issacs, p. 408.] Congress was not impressed, believing that the administration might simply be stalling the evacuation of remaining U.S. personnel and civilians in order to force the aid bill through. [Dougan & Fulgham, p. 127.] On 17 Aprilthe discussion was ended. There would be no more funds for Saigon.
The ARVN II Corps commander, General Toan, had organized five centers of resistance for the defense of the city. These fronts were so connected as to form an arc enveloping the entire area west, north, and east of the capital. The Cu Chi front, to the northwest, was defended by the 25th Division; the Binh Duong front, to the north, was the responsibility of the 5th Division; the Bien Hoa front, to the northeast, was defended by the 18th Division; the Vung Tao and QL-15 front, to the southeast, was held by the 1st Airborne Brigade and one battalion of the 3rd Division; and the Long An front, for which the Capital Military District Command was responsible, was defended by elements of the re-formed 22nd Division. South Vietnamese defensive forces around Saigon totaled approximately 60,000 troops. [Willbanks, p. 257.]
21 April 1975, Thieu, under intense political pressure, resigned as president when his closest domestic allies began to lose their confidence over his handling of the war. [Dougan & Fulgham, p. 100.] In his televised farewell speech, Thieu admitted, for the first time, having ordered the evacuation of the Central Highlands and the north that had led to debacle. He then stated that it had been the inevitable course of action in the situation - but he also insisted that it was the generals who had failed him. [Vien, p. 142.] He then went on to excoriate the U.S., attacking "our great ally...the leader of the free world...The United States has not respected its promises" he declared "It is inhumane. It is not trustworthy. It is irresponsible. [Dougan & Fulgham, p. 139.] Immediately following the speech, the presidency was handed over to Vice President Tran Van Huong.
At his new forward command post at Ben Cat, General Dung prepared plans for the final battle. He had encircled Saigon with four North Vietnamese corps and the hastily-assembled 232nd Tactical Force, a total of 19 divisions plus supporting artillery and armored units, approximately 130,000 men. [Willbanks, p. 271.] His plan was to avoid intensive street fighting within the city itself by first tying down outlying South Vietnamese forces in their defensive positions and then launching five spearheads through them into the city, each of which had a specific target: the Independence Palace, the Joint General Staff headquarters, the national Police headquarters,
Tan Son NhutAir Base, and the Special Capital Zone headquarters. [Dung, pgs. 184-187. See also Willbanks, p. 271.] The attacks on the periphery began on 26 Apriland the main attack on the city center began the following day.
South Vietnamese morale had reached a low point. On
12 Aprilthe Cambodian capital of Phnom Penhhad fallen to the Khmer Rougeand the Americans had done nothing but abandon their former ally. After Thieu's resignation, the South Vietnamese military situation increasingly declined. On the 26th, the North Vietnamese launched an all-out effort to take Bien Hoa and the sprawling logistical complex at Long Binh from the south and southeast. Three days later, the port city of Vung Tau was under assault and communist pressure against the Cu Chi front was intense. [Vien, pgs. 136 & 137.]
The same disorganization, loss of control, and anarchy that had befallen I and II Corps now took place in Saigon, where martial law was imposed to control the chaos and lawlessness. Although contemplation of a communist victory terrified the South Vietnamese at all levels of society, most did little or nothing to forestall it. [Willbanks, p. 257.] The fear of a repeat of the
Hue Massacre, albeit on a much larger scale, had been promoted by the government as a propaganda ploy since the beginning of the offensive in an effort to unify the population, but it provoked only an overreaction and caused almost complete paralysis when the time came to defend the city. [Willbanks, p. 258.]
As the main attack developed on the 27th, the South Vietnamese General Assembly handed over the presidency to General
Duong Van Minh, who was sworn in the following day. It was widely assumed that Minh, who had long-standing contacts with the communists, would be able to establish a cease-fire and re-open negotiations. [Issacs, pgs. 439 & 432-433. See also Dougan & Fulgham, pgs. 102 & 103.] Any such hope was totally unrealistic. The North Vietnamese held the upper hand on the battlefield and final victory was within reach, regardless of any political changes in Saigon. [Dougan & Fulgham, pgs. 142 & 143.]
28 AprilNorth Vietnamese forces fought their way into the outskirts of the city. At the Newport Bridge, about three miles (five kilometers) from the city center, South Vietnamese soldiers battled with PAVN troops attempting to control the span, cutting the city's last overland connection to the south and thereby gaining immediate access to downtown Saigon. Later that afternoon, as President Minh finished his acceptance speech, a formation of four A-37s, captured from South Vietnamese Air Force, bombed Tan Son Nhut airport. As Bien Hoa was falling, General Taon fled to Saigon, informing the government that most of the top ARVN leadership had virtually resigned themselves to defeat. [Willbanks, p. 275.]
The inauguration of Minh had served as a signal to South Vietnamese officers who would make no compromise with the communists. They began to pack up and try to find a way out of the country. [Vien, p. 146.] The aerial evacuation of U.S. personnel and civilians had been proceeding since
1 Aprilfrom Tan Son Nhut. [Thomas G. Tobin, Arthur E. Laehr, and John Hilgenberg, "Last Flight from Saigon". Maxwell Air Force Base AL: Air University Press, 1979, p. 22. It was during this evacuation that U.S. Marine Corps Lance Corporal Darwin Judge and Corporal Charles McMahon, Jr., who were manning a checkpoint at the base's main gate, were killed during a rocket attack. They were the last two American servicemen killed in Vietnam. Dougan & Fulgham, p. 158.] At 10:51 on 29 April Operation Frequent Wind, the U.S. helicopter evacuation of military and embassy personnel, U.S. civilians, and South Vietnamese citizens thought to be at risk of communist reprisal was put into implementaion as the city descended into pandemonium. [By the end of the evacuation, more than 40 ships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet had collected 1,373 Americans and 5,595 Vietnamese from U.S. helicopters and some 60,000 from boats and aircraft. Dougan & Fulgham, p. 172. Total evacuees included 57,507 removed by air and 73,000 by sea. Tobin, Laehr, & Hilgenberg, p. 122.]
PAVN columns advanced into the city center encountering very little resistance. The South Vietnamese military had virtually ceased to exist. Just after 17:00 on
30 April, U.S. Ambassador Martin boarded a helicopter and departed. At 10:24, President Minh ordered all South Vietnamese forces to cease fighting and later declared the unconditional surrender of the Republic. Around noon, a North Vietnamese tank, numbered 843, crashed through the gates of the Independence Palace. A crewman from a following vehicle jumped from it, ran up the steps, and began waving the flag of the Provisional Revolutionary Government. A Western reporter on the scene asked the soldier his name and the man replied, "Nguyen Van Thieu." [Dougan & Fulgham, p. 175.] On that ironic note the Vietnam War came to an end.
3 May 1975, North Vietnamese forces controlled all of South Vietnam, just 55 days after opening their attack on Ban Me Thuot. During that time period, an army of approximately three-quarters of a million men had been defeated by a force only one-fourth its size. Since the end of the war, there has been much historical recrimination and discussion as to how and why such a lopsided victory had occurred. Four main lines of thought have remained particularly viable, all of which possess some validity, but all of which are also open to argument. [Willbanks, p. 277.]
The first was that the Paris Accord that ended the American commitment was seriously flawed at the outset, in that it permitted the North Vietnamese to maintain their forces within territorial South Vietnam after the signing of the agreement, thereby dooming the cease-fire. The refusal of the United States government to take promised military action in the face of North Vietnamese violations of the cease-fire has also been examined as a key to the defeat. Adherents to this claim believed that South Vietnam could have been saved by another U.S. bombing campaign. The conflict between the executive and legislative branches of the American government, already severe even before the onset of the
Operation Linebacker IIin 1972, was only more exasperating during 1975, when a new campaign would probably only have provoked even more Congressional outrage. [Even if the American president had honored Nixon's pledge and such a campaign had been launched, a whole series of new quandaries would then have arisen: How much bombing and where? For how long and with what losses? How many new POWs would have been generated and how would the U.S. government get them back?]
The third (and most often exemplified) possible source of the defeat was that the U.S. Congress had simply written off and abandoned the Saigon government. [Richard Nixon later stated that the collapse should be laid solely at the door of a "Congress [which] refused to fulfill our obligations [and that this] tragic and irresponsible action" was entirely to blame for the loss of the war. Quoted in Issacs, p. 500. General Vien also believed that "it was the cutback in U.S. military aid that accelerated the whole process and made defeat inevitable." Vien, p. 7.] Materiel shortages were indeed severe, but they were not as crippling as they have been later portrayed. They might explain, for example, why the Central Highlands had to be abandoned, but they do not explain the flight of senior South Vietnamese generals that led to complete collapse. Historian Arnold Issacs, who was on the scene in South Vietnam at the time, believed that "The psychological damage of the aid cuts was almost certainly greater than the real...Even with the full amounts requested by the executive, South Vietnam could not have done any more than preserve the battlefield deadlock for another year, after which the whole exhausting debate would have to be replayed yet again - and in a presidential election year." [Issacs, p. 502.]
Other plausible reasons for the rapidity of the defeat were the internal contradictions within the South Vietnamese military. The American policy of Vietnamization had ended as a prescription for defeat. The rapid and accelerating withdrawal of U.S forces that had begun in 1969 caught the South Vietnamese unprepared. The withdrawals were simply conducted faster than the South Vietnamese could or would improve. [Willbanks, p. 278.] General Hinh believed that Vietnamization did not "provide the ARVN with enough time...While the troop increases could be achieved fairly rapidly, it was almost impossible to improve the quality and technical capabilities ...within the span of a few years. [Hinh, p. 190. The results of a survey of U.S. Army general officers who had served in Vietnam, conducted by General Douglas Kinnard in 1974, found them agreeing with this assessment. When questioned as to the timing of Vietnamization, 73 percent of the respondents replied that the program "should have been emphasized years before." Douglas Kinnard, "The War Managers", Wayne NJ: Avery Publishing Group, 1985, p. 145.] For seven years, the American military had molded South Vietnamese forces into a facsimile of itself, yet it ended up with a system that had all of the liabilities of American military technology and few of its assets. [Gabriel Kolko, "Anatomy of A War", New York: Pantheon, 1985, p. 380.]
The South Vietnamese military had far greater problems than a lack of American aid. President Thieu was a disaster as commander-in-chief. During the two years prior to the offensive (when aid cuts were already occurring), neither he nor the General Staff made any adjustments in strategy, doctrine, organization, or training to compensate for the inevitability of further aid reductions. Thieu also deprived local commanders of any strategic or tactical flexibility in decision-making, which flowed downward from the presidential palace. And those decisions contributed heavily to the defeat. Added to these problems were the long-standing corruption and incompetence within the officer corps itself. Early defeats during the final campaign were compounded not by a lack of will or ability on the part of the enlisted men, but by the cowardice and failing morale the officers. According to Issacs, "The army did not collapse in its foxholes or for lack of supplies. It disintigrated when its senior officers...deserted it." [Issacs, p. 502.]
The real key to the defeat of South Vietnam (which Western historians tend to lend only secondary significance at best) was the ability of the officers and men of the People's Army of Vietnam. The highly-motivated and modernized PAVN was, for the first time, freed from the restraints of previous combat doctrine. What had begun as an essentially conservative strategy, devised in Hanoi, was outrun by its local successes. Battlefield commanders were then given a new flexibility, which increased the tempo of operations and allowed them to quickly apply concentrated power at strategic points. These combat successes were made possible due to improved all-arms tactical coordination, modern communications, and increased transport and logistical capability. The result was that North Vietnamese commanders achieved the ultimate goal of military leadership, the quick application of massive force leading to the utter defeat of the enemy at little cost in manpower. During the entire campaign, the North Vietnamese suffered relatively few casualties. According to General Dung: "The numbers killed and wounded was very small in proportion to the victories won, and the expenditure in terms of weapons and ammunition was negligible. [Dung, p. 62.]
Published government documents
* Cao Van Vien, General, "The Final Collapse". Washington DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1983.
* Dong Van Khuyen, General, "The RVNAF". Washington DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1979.
* Le Gro, Colonel William E. "From Cease-Fire to Capitulation". Washington DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1981.
* Military History Institute of Vietnam, "Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the People's Army of Vietnam, 1954-1975". Trans. by Merle L. Pribbenow. Lawrence KS: University of Kansas Press, 2002.
* Momyer, General William W. "The Vietnamese Air Force, 1951-1975: An Analysis of its Role in Combat". Maxwell Air Force Base AL: Air University Press, 1975.
* Nguyen Duy Hinh, Major General, "Vietnamization and the Cease-Fire". Washington DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1980.
* Tobin, Thomas G., Arthur E. Laehr, and John F. Hilgenberg, "Last Flight from Saigon". Maxwell Air Force Base AL: Air University Press, 1979.
* Tran Van Tra, "Vietnam: History of the Bulwark B2 Theater", vol. 5, "Concluding the 30-Year War". Ho Chi Minh City: Van Nghe Publishing, 1982. [https://www-cgsc.army.mil/carl/resources/csi/tra/tra.asp On-line edition]
* Van Tien Dung, "Our Great Spring Victory: An Account of the Liberation of South Vietnam". Trans. by John Spragens, Jr. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977.
* Dawson, Alan, "55 Days: The Fall of South Vietnam". Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1977.
* Dougan, Clark, Edward Doyle, Samuel Lipsman., Thomas Maitland, Stephen Weiss, et al. "The False Peace". Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1983.
* Dougan, Clark, David Fulgham, et al. "The Fall of the South". Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1985.
* Goodman, Allen E. "The Lost Peace: America's Search for a Negotiated Settlement of the Vietnam War". Stanford CA: Hoover Institute Press, 1978.
* Hosmer, Stephen T., Konrad Kellen, and Brian M. Jenkins, "The Fall of South Vietnam: Statements by Vietnamese Civilian Leaders". Sant Monica CA: RAND Corporation, 1978.
* Issacs, Arnold R. "Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia". Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.
* Joes, Anthony J. "The War for South Vietnam, 1954-1975". New York: Praeger, 1989.
* Kinnard, Douglas, "The War Managers". Wayne NJ: Avery Publishing Group, 1985.
* Kolko, Gabriel, "Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience". New York: Pantheon, 1985.
* Leepson Marced. with Helen Hannaford, "Webster's New World Dictionary of the Vietnam War". New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
* Olsen, James S. and Randy Roberts, "Where the Last Domino Fell: America and Vietnam, 1945-1990". New York: St. Martin's 1991.
* Prados, John, "The Blood Road:The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Vietnam War". New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998.
* Snepp, Frank, "Decent Interval: An Insider's Account of Saigon's Indecent End Told by the CIA's Chief Strategy Analyst in Vietnam". New York: Random House, 1977.
* Willbanks, James H. "Abandoning Vietnam: How America Left and South Vietnam Lost Its War". Lawrence KS: University of Kansas Press, 2004.
* [http://www.afa.org/magazine/april2000/0400saigon.asp The Fall Of Saigon]
* [http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/vietnam/bw-index-1969.html The Bitter End]
* [http://www.riciok.com/Cease_Fire/landgrab_73.htm Land Grab 1973]
* [http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,917318-4,00.html The Communists Tighten the Noose]
* [http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,913008-2,00.html Preparing to Deal for Peace]
* [http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,917363,00.html NEXT, THE STRUGGLE FOR SAIGON]
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