1972 Easter Offensive
Ominous warnings began to filter into South Vietnam's II Corps intelligence organizations in the fall of 1971. The NVA were preparing another "Winter-Spring" campaign for the approaching dry season. NVA B-3 Front Headquarters in the Triborder Zone began moving advance detachments forward as allied generals worried about another enemy threat to cut South Vietnam in two.
The intelligence reports identified what was to become a familiar pattern of communist offensives in II Corps. A main communist force would drive through north-western Kontum, annihilating allied border camps, as it struck for the cities of Pleiku and Kontum. In the ARVN rear the NVA division in Binh Dinh would attack toward the enemy main force. The intelligence reports claimed that the NVA offensive would begin in late January or early February of 1972, and would unfold in several phases.
Attacking from the border area the NVA B-3 Front would send forward the 320th and 2nd NVA Divisions along with the 203rd NVA Armored Regiment. Attacking from "behind" the ARVN front would be the 3rd NVA Division (also known as NT-3 and "Gold Star Division") moving westward out of Binh Dinh Province.
Captured documents and agent reports secured all over South Vietnam began to form a pointed mosaic during the last six months of 1971. The NVA were planning a major offensive throughout all of South Vietnam which they called the Nguyen Hue Campaign.
The Nguyen Hue Campaign's Strategic Design
The Nguyen Hue Campaign was to be the last major NVA offensive led by the communist warlord General Vo Nguyen Giap. He meant to take all of South Vietnam in a multi-pronged offensive calculated to draw ARVN forces in all directions, dissipate American air cover and defeat the South Vietnamese Army in detail.
By the beginning of 1972, most of the allied forces who had been fighting the NVA during the seven previous years were gone. Only two US brigades and one Korean division remained in South Vietnam. General Giap knew that the allied units would either leave South Vietnam or remain motionless in their fortified bases when the NVA struck. Only American air power worried Giap.
Giap planned to launch a four-pronged offensive which would secure more real estate and population for North Vietnam while spreading ARVN forces into dissipated fragments. Without massed troops, the South Vietnamese could hardly stand up to the hard-fighting North Vietnamese.
General Giap conceived of his Easter Offensive as being composed of a series of phases. Each sequential phase was interdependent with the others in the scheme.
Giap's Nguyen Hue Offensive Phases
Huge levies of North Vietnamese teenagers were drafted into the inflated NVA ground force. Hundreds of Soviet ships disgorged mountains of military equipment. Hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces were moved with tens of thousands of troops along the Ho Chi Minh Trail southward. Yet the allies, bereft of loyal, rational and competent intelligence resources, were still nonetheless surprised.
Whilst the NVA committed their entire army outside of their home country, the allies struck at neither their ground supply lines, nor invaded North Vietnam. Only Linebacker II, a short but effective demonstration of the power of American aerial bombardment, accomplished much.
Sure the ARVN fought back and the traitors in I and II Corps were cashiered, but the South Vietnamese never adopted a total war footing. There was too much corruption and weakness in the higher echelons of the South Vietnamese hierarchy.
T'he NVA had continuously increased the size of their army. From 149 combat battalions at the end of 1969, the NVA had doubled the number of its troop units.
General Giap planned to commit the entire North Vietnamese Army to what the allies called the Easter Offensive: fourteen infantry divisions, twenty-six separate infantry regiments and three armored regiments. Only two units were not committed, the 316th Division fighting in Laos, and a small corps-size reserve retained in North Vietnam. In spite of the losses incurred during the Easter Offensive, the NVA expanded to 285 battalions by the end of 1972.
Most NVA troops were retrained in the conventional offensive methods to be used in the Easter Offensive. Many North Vietnamese tank crews had graduated from the Soviet Armor School in Odessa in late 1971. They would be fighting in units made up of T-54 and T-55 tanks fitted with 100mm guns. Those 100mm guns had more penetrating power than the most powerful American model in Vietnam, the M48, with its 90mm gun. Reinforced artillery and flak units were also upgraded by Soviet advisers within North Vietnam.
The first prong of the communist assault would be a four division invasion across the DMZ into I Corps. It would be complemented by a flanking attack by two additional divisions out of the A Shau Valley War Zone, from whence came two divisions during the Tet offensives.
In the II Corps zone, an NVA corps would strike eastward out of the Triborder zone to seize Kontum and drive on to the South China Sea coast. It would be reinforced by another NVA division striking out of coastal Binh Dinh War Zone.
Giap's prong number three was to be a reinforced three division attack on III Corps' An Loc. From there the assault would continue on to Saigon.
In the IV Corps area, communist troops planned to do more maneuvering than fighting. They would tie down ARVN forces in the area while seizing as much real estate as possible.
The Easter Offensive in I Corps
T'he NVA stacked its forces in several echelons for the conquest of I Corps. The NVA B-5 Front would control the battle.
The first communist asset in the battle consisted of ARVN traitors in command positions at the South Vietnamese I Corps, 3rd ARVN Infantry Division and regimental levels. Those traitors could be counted upon to sabotage the South Vietnamese effort by both overt and covert action, in the short and long term.
For the first strike in March 1972 the NVA would invade I Corps with three divisions and eleven independent regiments. Striking across the DMZ would be a powerful communist assault corps practicing forward detachment tactics. It was composed of:
A flanking corps would debouch from the A Shau Valley, striking the ARVN deep left flank. It was composed of:
The 304th NVA Infantry Division, along with B-5 Front independent regiments, would drive due south in the main attack. Attacking from the NVA right flank would be the 308th NVA Division enveloping Quang Tri City, about ten kilometers south of the Cua Viet River.
The 324B NVA Division and two independent regiments were attacking Hue further south. Their deep flank assault threatened to cut off the 3rd ARVN Infantry Division.
Available in April through May 1972 would be the 320th NVA Division with its 48B and 64B Infantry Regiments fighting in Quang Tri Province. In late April, elements of the 325th NVA Division would join the offensive and by July, 1972, all three of 320th's regiments (18th, 95th and 10lst Infantry Regiments) would be committed against Quang Tri City.
The ARVN in I Corps: 1972
Most of this sizeable force would initially fall upon the corps-sized 3rd ARVN Infantry Division. The 3rd was a huge division commanded by the mediocre General Vu Van Giai, who may have been a deep cover communist agent. The 3rd Infantry Division was initially composed of the 2nd, 56th and 57th Infantry Regiments, an armored cavalry battalion and an artillery regiment.
The 2nd Infantry Regiment, taken from the 1st ARVN Infantry Division, was a good veteran regiment. Two other infantry battalions and the armored cavalry squadron were also composed of veterans, as was the division staff.
The 3rd Infantry Division, dubiously called 'the Ring of Steel' Division, was deployed in a ruinous pattern of eighteen fire support bases and five larger "combat bases" in I Corps northern Quang Tri Province - a defensive configuration that seriously dissipated the division's power.
In his book "The Easter Offensive" USMC Colonel G.H. Turley commented on what could only be considered a traitorous act by the commander of the ARVN 3rd Infantry Division, General Giai:
The NVA struck while the South Vietnamese were in the midst of their rotation and immediately routed the ARVN Regiments. Two of the 3rd Division's infantry regiments were in the process of exchanging positions and moving towards FSB Carroll and Charlie 2, when thousands of artillery rounds struck the exposed troops causing instant death and chaos.
As Marine Colonel G. H. Turley explained it:
In front of their advance detachments the NVA had infiltrated artillery forward observer (FO) teams. By the morning of the 31st, the NVA artillery forward observer teams had infiltrated between the ARVN fire bases into positions on the north side of the Cam Lo-Cua Viet River. From these hidden locations, they began to direct accurate artillery fire on to vehicle traffic moving east and west along Route 9.
Periodic barrages of fire from 122mm and 130mm artillery began to impact in the ARVN rear areas. In the meantime, General Giai had panicked, suddenly evacuating his command post at Ai Tu and running south toward Quang Tri City.
Files and office equipment were abandoned as ARVN officers scrambled for safety. The 3rd Division's American Advisory Team 155 also panicked and began to "haul ass," abandoning some twenty-two machine guns, three 8lmm mortars, eleven AN/PRC-77 radios, a telephone switchboard and numerous other items. Later, American B-52s bombed the abandoned ARVN firebases.
NVA artillery had a devastating effect upon the ARVN defenders. The NVA followed the Soviet practice of emplacing artillery just outside the range of US 105mm and 155mm howitzers. With careful planning, the attackers had located their guns just outside the 10,500 meter maximum range of the 105mm howitzers and the 14,800 meter range of the 155mm howitzers. Then by exploiting the 27,500 meter range of the Soviet 130mm guns, the North Vietnamese were able to attack the fire bases with little threat from ARVN counterbattery fire. Only the US made 175mm gun had sufficient range to counter the NVA's massive artillery attacks. However, the four 175mm guns at Camp Carroll and the four located at Dong Ha, failed to respond effectively. Each time the 175mm batteries would fire, the NVA would counter with a heavier barrage. ARVN cannoneers, frightened by the incoming rounds, abandoned their guns to seek safety, permitting the NVA to win the artillery duel.
On April 2, 1972 another act of officer treachery rocked the 3rd ARVN Division. Lieutenant Colonel Pham Van Dinh, commander of the ARVN 56th Infantry Regiment and a deep cover communist agent, surrendered his command without a fight. According to an American adviser on the scene:
Lieutenant Colonel Dinh then surrendered over 2,000 ARVN troops of the 56th Infantry Regiment, five batteries of artillery (including important 175mm guns) and several huge supply dumps to the NVA. The following day, April 3, 1972 Dinh identified himself as a communist agent as he broadcast propaganda on communist Radio Hanoi:
When the 308th NVA Division and three leading regiments struck the 3rd Infantry Division's spread out defenders the ARVN defensive array folded like a house of cards. By April 2, 1972 the NVA had reached the Cua Viet-Cam Lo River line having seized thirteen fire bases, a combat base, and fifteen artillery pieces.
Suddenly the NVA had compressed the 3rd ARVN Division into a breast-shaped salient with its nipple end twenty-five miles from the coast. The breast itself was fifteen miles deep from Dong Ha to Fire Base Nancy, located ten miles south of Quang Tri City.
Bearing down on the strategic Dong Ha bridge was the mass of NVA troops, preceded by an armored regiment. Defending the bridge was a single ARVN armored battalion which soon panicked and fled, leaving behind a brave ARVN marine battalion to defend the bridge (see Barrie Lovell's "Incoming!" Scenario - The Fight for National Route 1). That battalion held long enough for an American adviser to blow the bridge in the face of NVA T-54, T-55 and PT-76 tank companies. In the meantime, the 57th ARVN Regiment broke and streamed south in panic.
General Lam, commander of all ARVN troops in I Corps, was both incompetent and a suspected NVA deep agent. Lam's sabotage of the ARVN effort began to become strongly apparent during the Lam Son 719 Campaign of 1971. His "errors" were just subtle enough to be viewed as either mistakes or misguided thinking - a frequent refuge of traitors.
General Lam was a prototypical American-style general. He was heavy on administration and the good life, and very light on military arts. When given an order by Saigon, he simply passed it on, verbatim, to his subordinates. If his troops "got in a jam," he depended upon the Americans, and the expending of greater resources, to solve the problem. Lam preferred defending bases with his artillery fragmented into two-gun batteries and scattered in numerous locations. He also tended to reinforce failure the same way American generals did. Lam didn't hesitate to commit his troops piecemeal to reinforce defense lines either.
Even as the evidence of General Giai's incompetence began to mushroom, General Lam reinforced the 3rd ARVN Division. By April 2, 1972 the 3rd had the 147th Marine Brigade and the 1st Armored Brigade attached. By April 10, 1972 the 258th Marine Brigade and four multi-battalion ranger groups had also been added to General Giai's command. His span of control became unmanageable, with ten major regimental formations and an M48 tank battalion under his command.
On April 9, after the ARVN line had been driven in another fifteen kilometers, General Lam was quite optimistic. He decided to counterattack, naming his counteroffensive Operation 'Quang Trung 729'. ARVN commanders at regimental and brigade level began arguing among themselves and the counterattack fell apart. Then another ARVN officer's operational sabotage occurred:
By April 23, 3rd ARVN Division was defending a pocket around Quang Tri City.
Attacks by the 324B NVA Division out of the A Shua Valley cut Route 1 and isolated the 3rd ARVN Infantry Division in Quang Tri Province. General Giai sent an armored cavalry battalion south which failed to break through.
On April 28, the 1st ARVN Armor Brigade broke and streamed south.
Now as the NVA closed in around the pocket of ARVN troops south of Quang Tri City, the corps commander, General Lam, added to the confusion. He issued a string of hyperactive, contradictory orders which served to immobilize the remaining ARVN troops. On April 29, an inventory of South Vietnamese army troops available for the defense of Quang Tri was logged as follows:
On April 30, the ARVN 147th Marine Brigade fled south out of the Quang Tri City area as the ARVN defense lines collapsed. American helicopters rescued the 3rd Division commander who was fleeing south in an armored personnel carrier.
By the evening of April 30, 1972 the NVA controlled all of Quang Tri Province and sent several spearheads into neighboring Thua Thien Province. They were seeking a linkup with NVA forces which had already cut Route 1. Hue City was the next target as two NVA corps groupings converged upon it.
ARVN Defense of II Corps
In 1971 General Ngo Dzu, ARVN II Corps commander, began reconnoitering the area east of NVA Sanctuary Base 609 and the Triborder War Zone. Infiltration corridors leading from the Triborder and the Plei Trap Valley, fifty-five kilometers west of Kontum City, were scouted by area reconnaissance troops. Signs of an enemy offensive buildup were soon detected. Enemy tank units, along with 122mm and 130mm artillery, were discovered in the border area. The 320th NVA Infantry Division was also found there.
General Dzu, who was not a traitor to his country, ordered Colonel Le Duc Dat to reinforce his 22nd ARVN Infantry Division in the Tan Cahn-Dak To area. The 47th ARVN Regiment and the 19th ARVN Armored Cavalry Battalion moved in, joining the 42nd ARVN Regiment already dug in near the junction of Routes 1 and 512. As B-52 bombers bombed suspected enemy buildup areas, the 2nd ARVN Airborne Brigade occupied a string of fire support bases on Rocket Ridge.
By February 8, 1972 the preparations for the NVA offensive were completed.
T'he ARVN high command expected the NVA to make their main effort in the Central Highlands, perhaps limiting their offensive to the II Corps area.
Across the border in Cambodia, the NVA B-3 Front lined up its forces for an enveloping attack north and south of Dak To. On the northern flank the 320th NVA Infantry Division, with the 64th and 48th Infantry Regiments and the 203rd Tank Regiment, deployed. To the south of the 320th Division, the B-3 Front deployed the following units:
In mid-March, 1972 the B-3 Front struck the South Vietnamese along Rocket Ridge and near Ben Het where most of the available ARVN armored units were dug in as mobile pillboxes.
From the 10th to 19th of April, the 2nd ARVN Airborne Brigade fought desperately to hold Rocket Ridge. By April 23, Tan Canh and Dak To were surrounded by North Vietnamese forces with Soviet Sagger antitank missiles added to their infantry antitank weaponry. Those Saggers destroyed most of the ARVN M41 tanks dug in around Tan Canh.
On April 24, a column of NVA T-54 tanks bypassed Dak To and hit Tan Canh as part of a combined arms assault. The ARVN troops panicked and fled. Then Dak To, five kilometers to the west, was hit by an NVA combined arms assault spearheaded by tanks. By that evening, the 22nd ARVN Infantry Division was routed. Its scattered fragments fled through the jungle, leaving Dak To and Tan Canh to the NVA victors. The NVA then spent a few days inventorying their captured loot which included twenty three 105mm howitzers, seven 155mm howitzers, a number of M41 tanks and about 15,000 rounds of artillery ammunition.
On April 25, ARVN forces abandoned Rocket Ridge and retreated toward Kontum City, now defended by the 23rd ARVN Division commanded by the capable Colonel Ly Tong Ba. Colonel Ba set about training his troops in antitank warfare since the South Vietnamese now knew that the 203rd NVA Tank Regiment was spearheading the NVA offensive. The US 1st Combat Aerial TOW Team (antitank) arrived by mid-May to help fight the enemy armor.
On May 14, the NVA hit Kontum with four infantry regiments and part of their armored regiment. The first NVA assault was repulsed with the aid of American airpower.
On the 26th of May, the 320th NVA Division attacked along Route 14 due south toward the west side of Kontum. Its forces included the 48th and 64th Regiments and the 28th Regiment from the B-3 Front, as well as armored units. The ARVN 44th and 45th Infantry Regiments defended against the 320th NVA Division.
The 2nd NVA Division outflanked Kontum, striking it from due north with the 1st Regiment, and from due south with the 141st Regiment which had crossed the Dak Bla River. 2nd NVA Division troops seized two bridgeheads in Kontum. In the north they drove the 53rd ARVN Regiment back. In the south, they defeated a scratch ARVN regiment defending Kontum's southern outskirts.
At that point American airpower, including B-52s, intervened on a massive scale. The ARVN 8th Armored Cavalry Squadron reinforced Kontum's defenders, forcing the NVA to begin to withdraw on May 31, 1972. However, violent skirmishing continued with NVA advance detachments who had cut the roads around Kontum. That stranglehold wasn't broken until June 19. Then fresh ARVN armored cavalry units began to drive the enemy westward.
T'he 3rd NVA Division in Binh Dinh remained dormant during the offensive. With its 2nd, 12th and 31st Infantry Regiments, it moved northward to a location contiguous to the border with I Corps, near coastal Route 1.
ARVN Defense of III Corps
ARVN III Corps' intelligence assets detected NVA troop movements in February and March, 1972. The 9th NVA Infantry Division moved into the Fishhook (Base Area 708) in March with its 272nd Regiment. Then the 9th Division's 95C Regiment disappeared.
Rumors circulated that the 7th and 9th NVA Divisions, currently training their troops in urban warfare, might cooperate in a future offensive action. Captured communist recon troops revealed an NVA plan to attack through Tay Ninh City toward Binh Long. To protect that area, ARVN III Corps Headquarters activated Task Force 52 composed of two infantry battalions of the 52d Regiment, 18 Division and two artillery sections (105mm and 155mm) and deployed it at a fire support base on Interprovincial Route LTL-17, two kilometers west of QL-13 and 15 kilometers north of An Loc.
Transfixed with the assault on I Corps, ARVN headquarters in Saigon was surprised when a new NVA offensive was opened in III Corps. NVA troops began driving south-eastward on April 2, 1972. The 24th NVA Regiment (Separate), reinforced with tanks, hit the Lac Long FSB thirty-five kilometers north-west of Tay Ninh City. Lac Long was defended by one ARVN battalion. The NVA overran the base by mid-day. Following closely behind the 24th NVA was the 271st NVA Infantry Regiment. Suddenly two NVA regiments were poised along Route 22.
As the South Vietnamese looked worriedly to the west, an NVA corps continued to maneuver into assault positions in the north. In Cambodian Sanctuary Base 712, a few miles north of Loc Ninh, an NVA north assault force assembled. It was composed of.:
The 5th NVA Division's mission was to drive down Route 13 to seize Loc Ninh. Then, after flanking attacks were launched by the 7th and 9th NVA divisions, to move off Route 13 to the east enveloping An Loc. On the west flank of Route 13, due west of An Loc, lay Sanctuary Border Base 708, where another NVA assault force was assembling. It was deployed as follows:
The mission of the 9th NVA Division was to move west, hitting An Loc from the west and north, while the 5th Division struck it from the east. Simultaneously the 7th NVA Division was to cut Route 13 south of An Loc, at Binh Long.
Now the South Vietnamese were threatened from two directions. Two northern NVA offensive prongs were made more dangerous by two NVA regiments which threatened the ARVN right flank along Route 22. South of Saigon, the NVA deployed a divisional size force with no apparent mission. The 33rd and 274th NVA Infantry Regiments, along with the 74th NVA Artillery Regiment, were probably poised to attack Saigon from the south once the NVA divisions attacking north of An Loc reached the outskirts of Saigon. Also available to the southwest of Saigon, were the 86th NVA and the DTI Viet Cong Regiments.
On April 4th and 5th, the 5th NVA Division penetrated Loc Ninh, spearheaded by a tank battalion. As Loc Ninh was overrun, retreating ARVN defenders were ambushed south of the town. On April 7th, 5th NVA Division troops took Quan Loi airfield north of An Loc as red spearheads neared the outskirts of An Loc. Both the 5th and 9th NVA Divisions then stalled outside of An Loc. They were experiencing severe logistics problems, having consumed all of their area supply caches, and they were reeling from B-52 aerial bombardment.
The NVA's week-long pause outside of An Loc enabled the South Vietnamese to bring in the 21st Infantry Division, which began to attack northward toward An Loc. In the meantime, the 7th NVA Division and elements of the 9th NVA Division were battling ARVN troops along Route 13 south of An Loc.
In late April, the 21st ARVN Division engaged the 10lst Regiment of the 9th NVA Division and the 165th and 209th Regiments of the 7th NVA Division. Five kilometers north of Tau O the ARVN 32d Regiment was stalled in front of a huge NVA blocking position, as explained by Ngo Q. Truong in 'The Easter Offensive of 1972':
Armed mostly with B-40 and B-41 rocket launchers, enemy troops from their seemingly indestructible positions stopped the 21st Division's advance for 38 consecutive days. Despite extensive use of B-52s, tactical air, and artillery, the 32d was unable to dislodge the enemy from this area. This stalemate continued until the enemy pulled out the 209th Regiment for his second attempt to capture An Loc.
The ARVN 21st Division set up a FSB for artillery support at Tan Khai, ten kilometers south of An Loc on Route 13. The 141st Regiment of the 7th NVA Division began attacking that base on May 20 and was continually repulsed throughout June.
Finally, massive B-52 strikes all over the NVA units and their rear areas began to tell. By May 14, 1972 the siege of An Loc was broken and the communist enemy reeled back toward Cambodia in defeat.
ARVN Defense of IV Corps
In early March 1972, the 1st NVA Infantry Division with its E44 Sapper Regiment and 52nd and 101D Infantry Regiments, were deployed in Kampot Province, Cambodia. It was poised to invade South Vietnam's IV Corps. To its right flank was the 211th NVA Armored Regiment and the Z15 NVA Infantry Regiment, north of Kien Tuong Province. Inside IV Corps, communist troops were deployed as follows:
In mid-march communist units began moving throughout IV Corps. By April 1, 1972 they were deployed as follows:
The two remaining ARVN divisions in IV Corps, the 7th and 9th Infantry Divisions, were panicked by the NVA maneuvers. Massive air strikes began to hit the 1st NVA Division as any hope of a major NVA offensive in IV Corps bombed into stagnation.
The Situation as of December 1972
American airpower saved South Vietnam from total defeat, yet NVA conventional units were not driven back into Laos and Cambodia. They now garrisoned huge tracts of land in every one of South Vietnam's corps areas. The South Vietnamese military did try to strike back at the communists in their newly secured South Vietnamese real estate. Two South Vietnamese marine brigades assaulted the coast of Quang Tri Province in December, 1972. They were opposed by elements of the NVA 325th Division, principally the 101st Regiment and the 48th Regiment of the 320th Division, both regiments supported by the 164th Artillery Regiment of the B-5 Front. The 164th was equipped with Soviet 130mm field guns.
Between the 101st Regiment operating along the coast, and Quang Tri City, the NVA employed the 27th and 31st Regiments of the B-5 Front, as well as the 18th Regiment, 325th Division. The practice of assigning the same
What Really Defeated the NVA During the Easter Offensive
According to military expert Sir Robert Thompson, if the Americans had not ceased bombing they would have won the war:
Are these statements merely exaggerations? Were the NVA really hurt by the bombing? Enough to cave in? Is that possible? The following is taken from U.S.G. Sharp, 'Strategy for Defeat':
Historians are still arguing as to whether America ground forces could have beaten North Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 if the US Generals had known how to fight a maneuver war. By 1972 however, the NVA had such powerful ground forces of it's own that the remaining US forces and the South Vietnamese combined would have had a hard time beating them on the ground. The only hope for victory was a weapon that had never properly been used before, strategic airpower. If American air attacks had been continued, hitting every dam, port, road and enemy military installation, the NVA would have streamed home, starving. Then their divisions could have been obliterated on the roadways.