The Communist assault on Quang Tri, Easter Offensive 1972

Lieutenant Colonel Tran Van Hien

US President Richard Nixon, in a speech televised nationwide on January 25th 1972, proposed a peace plan with eight points aiming to end the Vietnam War. Among the proposals was the withdrawal of US and Allied troops, six months after the peace pact was to be signed. Before the week ended, Hanoi insisted that the Americans and Allied forces should immediately withdraw out of Indochina and stop all forms of aid to the Republic of Vietnam. South Vietnam president Nguyen Van Thieu, who was re-elected in August of 1971, strongly objected to the American Peace plan, in which President Nixon had omitted the demand for the North Vietnamese communists to withdraw along with the Americans.

To force North Vietnam to attend the peace talks, the US had to apply international diplomatic pressure on one hand, and increase bombardments in North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh trail on the other. The first official visit by President Nixon to communist China took place in February 21st 1972, when he conferred with Mao Tse Tung and Premier Chou En Lai. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger flew to the USSR to meet Bresnev and Kosygin in April of 1972.

US Air Force and Navy Aircraft sorties coming from Da Nang, Thailand and the 7th Fleet carried on with heavy bombardments. As a result, Hanoi agreed to reopen peace talks. Henry Kissinger met Le Duc Tho in Paris, May 1972.

To support their negotiations, Hanoi applied their tactic of "Fighting during negotiation." By the end of March 1972, the NVA and the Communist National Front for the Liberation of the South launched a conventional large-scale attack, dubbed the Nguyen Hue Offensive (the Americans called it the Easter Offensive). It was composed of three battle fronts.

The first front started on March 30th 1972, in I Corps. Six NVA divisions, the 304th, 308th, 312th, 324th, 325th, B5 Front (of four regiments), and two independent regiments, crossed the Ben Hai river to assault the 3rd Infantry Division and two marine brigades stationed at the border of North and South Vietnam.

The second front began on the 5th of April. Three NVA divisions, the 5th, 7th, and 9th, crossed the Cambodian border, attacked Binh Long Province in III Corps, and invaded Loc Ninh and An Loc, 96 km from Saigon.

The 3rd front commenced on the 6th of April. The main force which was composed of three NVA division i.e the 2nd Division of Front B3, the 320th Division, the Gold Star Division and several independent battalions assaulted Kontum, Dakto, Tan Canh, and the Mang Yang pass, aiming to cut the National Route 1 at the borders of Quang Ngai and Binh Dinh Provinces. Their goal was to separate I Corps tactical zone from South Vietnam, to provide the National Liberation of the South with land and civilians as a standpoint for negotiations.

A. Comparison of powers:

The ARVN forces stationed in I Corps, north of Hai Van Pass, was composed of:

  • the 1st Infantry Division, the TAOR of which was Thua Thien province and Hue City.
  • the 3rd Infantry Division
  • the 1st Armour Brigade and the 20th M48 tank battalion
  • regional and popular forces.
  • the 147th and the 258th Marine Brigades.

The Marine Brigades were put under the command of the 3rd Infantry Division, which was a large newly formed unit, that had just finished training six months ago. It was inexperienced as such, in manoeuvering regiments and larger bodies, and in coordinating fire support involving other corps.

These units were deployed as follows:

  • the 57th regiment/3rd Infantry Division were sent to bases A1, A2, A3 and C1 (Gio Linh).
  • the 2nd Regiment/3rd Infantry Division to A4 (Con Thien), Fuller, C2 and C3.
  • the 56th Regiment/3rd Infantry Division to Cam Lo, Khe Gio and Carroll (Tan Lam).
  • the 147th Marine Brigade to four bases; Mt Ba Ho, Sarge, Holcomb and Mai Loc.
  • the 258th Marine Brigade serving as a reserve at bases Pedro (Phuong Hoang), Anne, Jane, Barbara and Nancy.
  • the Regional and Popular Forces at stationary posts and bridges, under the operational control of the Chief of Sub-district Quang Tri.
  • the three Ranger groups, 1, 4 and 5, had reinforced many positions of the 3rd infantry Division and Marines in Dong Ha and Quang Tri province after the latter was lost.

To prepare for the large scale attack, the Communists horded an enormous supply of sophisticated weapons from the USSR and China. In a period of two years ('70 and '71), Russian MIG 19 and MIG21 fighters, SA-2 Ground-to-air missiles, T-54 and T-55 tanks, amphibious PT-76 tanks, 130 mm and 152mm artillery, 122mm rockets, 160mm mortars, 23mm and 57mm antiaircraft guns, SA-7 heat-seeking anti-aircraft rockets, AT-3 anti-tank rockets, and modern personal weapons were systematically transported into North Vietnam.

NVA General Vo Nguyen Giap utilized fourteen NVA regular divisions, twenty six Independent Regiments and other supporting units in the campaign. In I Corps, the NVA attacked with Divisions 304, 308, and 324, the Front B-5 (of four regiments), one rocket regiment, four artillery regiments, three tank regiments, and two independent regional regiments. In April and May of '72, the 320th and 325th Divisions coming from the north , and the 312th Division returning from Laos attacked Cam Lo, La Vang, Hai Lang and Quang Tri city. The ratio of ARVN troops to that of the NVA was one to four.

B. Progress of attack

At 11.00 am on the 30th of March 1972, the 4th Marine Battalion at Sarge and Mt Ba Ho detected NVA advance at the western defensive line. Artillery was requested to destroy and block them. At the same time, the 8th Marine Battalion at Holcomb was pounded by artillery and attacked by the NVA infantry. At 12.00 noon, the main forces of NVA exceeding 45,000 in number, crossed the Ben Hai river and the DMZ. The force consisted of three regular infantry divisions, Front B5's four regiments, two T-54 and PT-76 tank regiments, supporting 130mm artillery, 122mm rockets, and SA-2 ground-to-air missiles. From the north west of Quang Tri, the NVA advanced in three prongs to attack the defensive line of the 3rd Infantry Division and the 147th Marine Brigade.

At 8.00 am that morning, Brigadier-General Giai, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, had ordered Regiments 2 and 56 to swap their tactical zones. Despite the fact that the Brigadier-General had been fore-warned of an impending attack by his American advisor and I Corps G2, the switch coincided with the initiation of the NVA's attack. In his book "The Easter Offensive" Colonel G.H. Turley found Brigadier General Giai's decisions baffling - he found it "incomprehensible that a military leader, in daily contact with an enemy growing stronger daily, and who has been alerted of an impending attack, would attempt to execute an intra-division relief of lines, and then plan a holiday of his own in the middle of it."

Thus, when the NVA began their attack and shelling, 60% of forces of the two regiments were on the move, and could not react. The defensive line was wide open in several places. The enemy artillery shelling led to many casualties amongst the civilians living in the the districts, forcing more than 50,000 inhabitants to flee along national Routes 1 and 9, towards Quang Tri.

T54 tanks and amphibious PT-76 tanks crossed the Ben Hai, stunning the ARVN soldiers stationed at the front lines. In the first 24hrs, more than 5,000 artillery rounds, rockets and mortars fell on twelve fire support bases. The two big fire support bases belonging to the 3rd Infantry Division and the 147th Marine Brigade were Camp Carroll and Mai Loc respectively. These bases were so heavily pounded that they were unable to provide fire support to friendly forces. The weather in the first few days of the offensive were completely unfavourable to the ARVN. The cloud was low and it rained, making it difficult for US and Vietnamese tactical aircrafts, reconnaissance planes and helicopters. It was hard to receive supplies, reinforcements and med-evacuation.

The two positions of the 4th Marine Battalion at Mt Ba Ho and Sarge, were racked with more than 600 artillery rounds and all sorts of rockets to 6.00 in the evening of March the 3rd. Seventy per cent of fortified bunkers were destroyed, and many Marines were wounded or killed in action. At 10.45 pm, on the 31st, the enemy overran Sarge. At 4.00 am of April 1st, the Brigade Headquarters lost radio contact with the 4th Marine Battalion at Mt Ba Ho. These were the first two marine positions lost to the NVA in the 48 hour offensive.

On the 30th of March, I Corps Headquarters sent the 7th Marine Battalion from Da Nang to reinforce the 147th Brigade at Mai Loc. At the same time, the 3rd Marine Battalion of the 258th Brigade moved from fire base Nancy north of My Chanh to Dong Ha to protect the stretch of National Route 9 from Dong Ha to Cam Lo. On the 31st of March, the 258th Marine Brigade headquarters moved to Ai Tu, the combat base where the 3rd Infantry Division had been. On arrival it was shelled more by more than eight hundred rounds of 130mm artillery and 122mm rockets. The 6th Marine Battalion left fire support base Barbara to protect Ai Tu. At night, Brigadier General Vu Van Giai and a number of his staff officers retreated to Quang Tri Citadel and had no further direct contact with his own units and reinforcements. The co-ordination of all manoeuvres was left to the 258th Marine Brigade Staff and the Advisory team led by Lieutenant Colonel Gerry. H. Turley. He was inadvertantly caught up in the battle of Ai Tu during his first orientation visit to I Corps.

On April 1st 1972, the battle escalated. Under heavy NVA pressure, A4 (Con Thien fire base) was lost at 10.45am. At 2.50 pm, Fuller (base of the 2nd Infantry regiment) fell, and the 57th Infantry regiment and the 8th Marine Battalion withdrew from Khe Gio and Holcomb respectively. Fleeing civilians, deserting soldiers, and vehicles of all shapes and sizes jammed the national routes 1 and 9, hampering military movements greatly. Enemy forward observers infiltrated the refugees, directing shelling at the ARVN positions. They took over the radios at the captured bases, and gave false orders, causing chaos amongst our troops. On the 2nd of April, the 3rd Infantry Division tried to gather its troops and organized a new defensive line along Cua Viet, Dong Ha, Cam Lo, Carroll, Mai Loc and Pedro. Bases Carroll and Mai Loc were under continuous enemy artillery. NVA tanks directly participated in attacks. At 9.00am a T54 tank column numbering twenty in total, advanced onto the National Route 1, heading to Dong Ha. To the east, another column of PT-76 amphibious tanks moved along the sea towards Cua Viet. The situation was extremely precarious for the ARVN. The 3rd Marine Battalion received orders to hold Dong Ha "at all costs". The anti-tank groups of the 6th Marine Battalion, equipped with 106mm cannons, were sent to reinforce Dong Ha. For the first time in the Vietnam War, the NVA T54 and PT-76 tanks came face to face with the 106mm and M-72 anti-tank weapons. Naval guns from the American 7th Fleet also targeted the enemy tanks. A number of NVA tanks were directly hit.

Fortunately, the weather cleared enabling the VNAF (Vietnamese Air Force) to send A1 and A-37 aircrafts out on bombing sorties. Eleven tanks were accurately destroyed from the air. One A1 aircraft was shot down by a ground-to-air SA-2 missile, but the pilot ejected. To the dismay of friendly troops, he landed north of Dong Ha bridge.

Under the protection of Marine fire, the combat engineers bravely placed explosives beneath Dong Ha bridge and the nearby railway bridge, to prevent the NVA tanks from crossing the river. At 4.30pm, that same day, the two bridges were destroyed, thwarting enemy plans to move southwards.

On the 2nd of April, an event occurred that greatly shook the moral of the troops. Camp Carrol, which was 13km south of the DMZ fell after three days of being besieged by shelling. The American adviser was airlifted away. A white flag was raised at 2.30pm. Lieutenant Colonel Pham Van Dinh, the commander of the 56th Infantry Regiment had previously contacted the enemy to arrange the surrender of 1,500 ARVN soldiers, and 22 artillery guns - among which were four 175mm and ten 105mm guns from a Marine Artillery Company. Also surrendered were the 155mm and 105mm guns of the Artillery Company of the 3rd Infantry Division. The following day, Lieutenant-Colonel Dinh was heard on Hanoi radio with the National Front for the Liberation of the South, urging ARVN soldiers to surrender.

The 4th Marine Battalion suffered heavy casualties while retreating out of Mt Ba Ho and Sarge on the night of the 30th of March. At 6.00pm, on April 2nd, it regained radio contact with the 147th Marine Brigade Headquarters, and finally reached Mai Loc. Major Walter Boomer, the adviser to the battalion was amongst them. (He later became Lieutenant-General, commandant of two US Marine Divisions in the Gulf War in 1991).

After Carroll surrendered, Mai Loc where the 147th Marine Brigade Headquarters was positioned, became the frontline. Out of ammunition, the Marine Artillery Company there had to blow up their 105mm guns with explosives. At 10.00pm, the 147th Marine Brigade Staff and the 4th Marine Battalion abandoned Mai Loc to retreat to Dong Ha. The next morning, the 147th Brigade was ordered to move to the rear for restoration.

After four days of NVA attacks, 53 big guns were lost, 7,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing. Of the bases, only Pedro Ai Tu and Dong Ha remained ours.

On the American side, the airpower of Stratofortress B52 and tactical aircrafts were intensely bombing the NVA troops gathered at the North and South Vietnamese border. On the 3rd of May, aircraft carriers Kitty Hawk and Coral Sea sailed into Vietnamese waters to join carriers Hancock and Constellation, which were already there. The number of naval bombers increased to 275 aircrafts. In addition to another 250 from the Da Nang and Thai air force bases, this constituted the strongest collection of Airpower since the bombardment of North Vietnam in 1968.

From the 3rd to the 8th of April, friendly Infantry units regrouped around Ai Tu Combat base and Quang Tri City, whilst the 3rd Marine Battalion defended the northern line of defense. They managed to repel several assaults and destroyed three NVA PT-76 tanks which were attempting to cross the Cua Viet and Dong Ha rivers. On April 3rd, the Joint General Staff airlifted the Marine Division Headquarters, the 369th Marine Brigade and the Ranger Group Headquarters to I Corps.

Marine Headquarters stationed inside the Hue citadel. The 369th Battalion served as a reserve for the defence of bases Nancy, Jane, and Evan as well as for the My Chanh defensive line and the border between Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces.

Although the whole Marine Division was at I Corps, two of its three brigades were still under operational control of the 3rd Infantry Division. It was a grave tactical mistake to station an entire National Reserve Division in I Corps - a problem which was only rectified when Lieutenant General Ngo Quang Truong replaced Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam as I Corps Commander. In many instances, where the Marines and Rangers asked permission from their Marine Division Headquarters before carrying out orders given by the 3rd Infantry Division.

The NVA Divisions continued directing their prongs towards Quang Tri. Because the bridges spanning the Dong Ha river had been destroyed, their infantry and armour crossed the Cam Lo bridge to the river west. From there, a column invaded Dong Ha, Cua Viet and the national Route 1 to advance south. A second column followed Route 558 and 557 passing by the newly occupied bases (Camp Carrol, Mai Loc, Holcomb) to reach Pedro and Quang Tri.

In the morning, of the 9th of April, NVA T-54 tanks accompanied by two Infantry battalions attacked the 6th Marine Battalion at fire base Pedro. Thanks to the effectiveness of the Marine Artillery at Ai Tu Combat Base, the 6th Marine Battalion was able to stop several waves of enemy charges. A magnificent battle ensued at Pedro between the "Sea Tigers" armed with M-72 anti-tank weapons, and the NVA's Armour Infantry, just 10 km south west of Quang Tri. The 258th Marine brigade sent two companies of the 1st Marine Battalion, the 20th M-48 Tank Battalion, and the APC M-113 to reinforce the 6th Marine Battalion. The counter-attack progressed fiercely with the ARVN effectively coordinating the Marines, Armor, Artillery and Air Force to gain the upper hand. Vietnamese Sky Raider aircraft were in the sky on time to destroy many tanks. The morale lifted as several T-54 were destroyed with M-72 rockets and 106mm recoilless rifles.

After two hours of savage fighting, thirteen of the sixteen T-54's were burning. The last three fled towards Ba Long valley with marine artillery shelling raining down at them. Terrified, the gunners and drivers abandonded their tanks, leaving two perfectly intact tanks. The Marines drove these to Ai Tu, and later, they were transported to Saigon to join an exhibition of seized NVA weapons.

On the 10th and eleventh of April, the NVA pushed more waves of troops upon Pedro, but were repelled by the Marines and the Artillery. They left 211 bodies and numerous weapons behind. Seized documents revealed that two regiments of the 304th Division had been assigned to invade Pedro and Ai Tu. This battle demonstrated that the Marine anti-tank weapons were capable of destroying the weapons and tanks which the USSR and China had equipped for the NVA. The effective use of the M-72 by the 6th Battalion led the Joint General Staff to provide details of the tactics for other units fighting at other fronts. Using the triad of "Artillery-Infantry-Armour" the ARVN no longer considered the NVA tanks invincible.

On the 23rd of April, after a short period of R & R, the 147th Marine Brigade with the 4th and the 8th Battalions, the 2nd Marine Artillery Battalion, replaced the 258th Marine Brigade from its TAOR west of Ai Tu. The 3rd and 7th battalions of the 258th Marine Brigade went back to Hue for R & R.

The 1st Marine Battalion, which was busy defending Pedro, was added to the 147th Brigade. Meanwhile, the 57th Infantry Regiment, the 1st Armour Brigade, the 4th and the 5th Ranger Groups defended Dong Ha to the north, and also the area east of Ai Tu. The 2nd Infantry Regiment was responsible for the area south of Ai Tu to the northern bank of the Thach Han River. The 1st Ranger Group build the defensive line at the southern bank of the Thach Han and defended Quang Tri City.

On the night of the 26th of April, the NVA's 304th Division and Armour threw a multi-pronged attack on the 147th Marine Brigade having first dampened the Brigade's morale with several salvos of artillery. The 1st and the 8th marine battalions repulsed many assaults, and hit twelve T-54 tanks. However, the defensive line had to be retracted to about 2-3km from Ai tu the following day.

On the night of the 27th, the enemy fired upon the ammunition store in Ai Tu, destroying the entire lot. The next day, they increased pressure on the Ranger group at Dong Ha, forcing them to retreat to Ai Tu to defend the east side near the 8th Marine Battalion's position. The 57th Infantry Regiment had withdraw to Quang Tri City.

The NVA continued their shelling and attacks on the 2nd Infantry Regiment at the defensive line, and in the west and southwest areas around Ai Tu throughout the 29th of April. The next morning, the M-48 tanks which had been reinforcing the Rangers were moved to the western front of the Marines. Due to lack of co-ordination, the Rangers mistook the move to mean that the tanks had withdrawn, thus they retreated to Quang Tri. The only force left defending Ai Tu was the 147th Marine Brigade. The north and east was totally unprotected.

At noon of the 30th, the 147th Marine Brigade received orders to abandon Ai Tu in order to defend Quang Tri instead. The plan of retreat was a well-kept secret which should have been smoothly executed, but again, poor co-ordination saw the combat engineers of the 3rd Infantry Division blowing up the Quang Tri bridge on national Route 1 and the railway bridge across the Thach Han, before the 2nd Artillery battalion had hauled their twelve 105mm Howitzers across. All trucks and guns were stranded on the north bank and had to be destroyed.

Three Marine battalions, the 1st, 4th, and 8th, crossed the Thach han river safely, to take up defensive positions at Quang Tri. In the morning of May 1st, the 3rd Infantry Division warned all stationed units to expect more than 10,000 enemy artillery rounds at 5.00pm. The order to avoid the shelling caused a great deal of confusion, which saw the battalions breaking up into disarray. Caught up in the vortex were tens of thousands of civilians, trying to flee to Hue via Route 1. Sixteen US marine advisers remained with the VNMC units, but at noon, the 3rd Infantry Division Staff and its eight American advisors were airlifted by three CH-54 helicopters from Quang Tri Citadel. Subordinates were left to fend the city "as they saw fit". That act marked a day of tragedy and misery for civilians and units still positioned in Quang Tri City.

Security was poor in the segment of the national Route 1 near Hai Lang district, 10km south of Quang Tri, thus civilians and troops running in disarray were ambushed by the Communists, and horrific casualties were inflicted. Vehicles of all sizes, from tanks, military trucks, private buses, vans, and cars were targeted and shot. Soldiers, civilians, children, babies and the elderly dropped like flies along the route. A foreign correspondent reporting the tragedy dubbed the route "Avenue of Horror". ARVN soldiers separated from their units found it impossible to rejoin the brothers in arms - the terrified civilians hampered military manoeuvres greatly.

Marine units fought throughout that night against an NVA regiment at Hai Lang. Several ARVN soldiers and civilians accompanying the Marines died during the confrontation. Thanks to the strong firepower from the Armour division, the enemy finally withdrew at noon the following day.

The 147th Marine Brigade followed by tanks and refugees managed to reach the My Chanh river where the 369th Marine Brigade was defending. That very night, the enemy artillery rained down on them. The morning of the May 3rd saw the enemy attacking Dap Da bridge, which was guarded by the 9th Marine Battalion. The confrontation left 17 NVA tanks burning and more than 500 NVA bodies littering the fields. The enemy then turned to the My Chanh defensive line, and blocked all roads that would have allowed the fleeing civilians to move south.

C. Summary

Two marine brigades, the 147th and the 258th, suffered heavy casualties during Phase I, especially on the western front. In spite of this, they maintained their position and organization, delaying the enemy long enough for the Joint General Staff in Saigon and I Corps in Da Nang to regroup ARVN forces for the counter-offensive. The 369th Marine Brigade had fulfilled its role in defending the My Chanh river, preventing the enemy from taking Hue, and allowing stray ARVN soldiers and civilians to reach relative safety. The My Chanh line, kept by Marines since May 2nd, became the ARVN's front line following the Communists's illegal invasion initiated back in March. It was from this line, that the fierce, elite units of the ARVN would later depart to recover the lost areas of Quang Tri and the Citadel.

From that critical situation, President Nguyen Van Thieu concluded that Lieutenant General Lam and and his I Corps Staff were inadequate in coordinating large units, and as the situation in IV Corps was relatively peaceful, he appointed Lieutenant General Ngo Quang Truong to replace Lieutenant-General Lam as I Corps Commander. The staff chosen to accompany him to I Corps was composed of senior officers who were highly experienced in staffing and tactics.

On the 4th of May 1972, Colonel Bui The Lan, Assistant Commandant of the Marine Division, an experienced staffing officer was appointed by President Thieu as Commandant of the Marine Division. He replaced Lieutenant-General Le Nguyen Khang, who was promoted to Operation Assistant to the Chief of Joint General Staff. For the first time since the Marine Corps was organized into Division in 1968, its headquarters had the opportunity to command and give orders directly to its own subordinate units within the assigned tactical area of responsibility.

On the 4th of May 1972, while President Nguyen Van Thieu was visiting the battle front, the American daily "Pacific Stars and Stripes" published a letter written in English from Brigadier General Giai which read along the lines of: "Before History and the Law, I take full responsibility for the retreat from Quang Tri. Quang Tri City was reduced to, ammunition and fuel were running low, and the fighting units were exhausted, so I found no reason to stay to protect the ruins. I ordered all subordinate units to make an orderly retreat to restore and organize a new defensive line and front for a counter-offensive should the NVA continue the battle."

On May 5th, President Thieu appointed Brigadier General Nguyen Duy Hinh to replace Brigadier General Giai as head of the 3rd Infantry Division - which at that stage was reduce to only a quarter of its original manpower (2,700 men). About 1,000 of them had been used to restructure the 56th Infantry Regiment (the regiment that had surrendered en mass at Camp Carroll on the 2nd of April). The 3rd Infantry Division was ordered to cease all operations until the end of 1972, in order to concentrate on restructuring and retraining.


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