Operation Snoul

Background.

Since taking over the 5th Division in August 1969, General Hieu rapidly reinvented the 5th Division from being passive to being active, from adopting a defensive posture to adopting an offensive posture: in no time, the enemy could no more operate with impunity in the operational areas of the 5th Division, and had to withdraw to the other side of the Vietnamese-Cambodia borders. In 1970, from March to June, the 5th Division joined elements of the 3rd Corps, the 4th Corps and the Divisions of the US Army in chasing the enemy into Cambodia, as ordered by President Nixon. From May to July of 1970, the 5th Division in coordination with the 3rd and 4th Corps, pursued the enemy in the Fish Hook area north of Loc Ninh in Operation Total Victory 46, resulting in 79 enemy KIA. From 23 October to 10 November, the 5th Division attacked the enemy with 3 Task Forces - TF1, TF9 and TF333 - in the vicinity of Snoul in Operation Total Victory 8/B/5, resulting in 189 enemy KIA. In all these huge operations, the enemy constantly eluded contacts and retreated deeper and deeper into Cambodia, out of friendly units reach. Consequently our combat units were only able to destroy numerous caches of weapons, ammunition, food, as well as rear service bases and relay stations, training centers and hospitals, but were not able to inflict damages to enemy human assets.

Concept of Strategy.

General Hieu suggested to General Tri that a change in strategy was in order: instead of searching the enemy, we should lure the enemy into a trap then destroy him. In the operational areas of the 5th Division, the enemy operated at division level with NVA 5th Division's two Regiments, the 174th and the 275th. In order to succeed, we must lure the enemy with the size of one Regiment. If the enemy fell into the trap by attacking this Regiment with the force of a Regiment, we would react by sending in a Division. If the enemy dared to commit a Division, we would launch a general attack with the force of three Divisions.

Execution

In order to execute this luring plan, it was essential to be able to obtain accurate intelligence data which would pinpoint exactly when the enemy took the bait. Therefore, General Hieu secretly inserted into Operation Total Victory 8/B/5 two small Sensors Implanting Operations in the vicinity surrounding Snoul, where the trap would be positioned. There were 11 sensors implanted locations along Highway QL 13 north and south of Snoul. The monitoring equipment was established in Loc Ninh and operated round the clock by elements of the ARVN 5th Division.

These sensor devices detected intrusion activities of a NVA Regiment in the area southeast Loc Ninh: on 22 December at XU.83723; on 23 December at XU.793110; on 24 December at XU.792113; on 25 December at XU.762076.

On 4 January 1971, the luring operation began with the launching of Task Force 9 into the Fish Hook area northwest Loc Ninh. Task Force 9 was composed of 9th Regiment reinforced by the following units: 74th Ranger Battalion, 1st Armored Cavalry Regiment, 5th Engineer Company. During the whole two months that followed, the enemy constantly avoid heavy contacts with elements of Task Force 9. Not until the middle of March 1971 did the enemy showed some signs which indicated the enemy was walking into the trap.

On 26 February, General Tri was killed in a helicopter accident, replaced by General Nguyen Van Minh. General Hieu briefed General Minh on the luring plan and advised him that this operation might eventually require the involvement of the 18th Division and the 25th Division. General Minh agreed to carry out the operation, however without much enthusiasm, partly because this plan was not conceived by him, and partly because he did not possess the stature and the military knowledge of General Tri, and thus was not able to grasp and apply the intricate strategic details of this big operation.

On 8 March 1971, the Command Post of Task Force 9 at 1 km southwest Snoul received heavy mortar fires at 1745 hours, resulting in 1 KIA, 3 WIA, 2 jeeps destroyed and a large amount of ammunition exploded when the bunker in which the ammunition was stored got a direct hit.

On 17 March 1971, two Battalions of 9th Regiment was helilifted into area XU.488459 northeast Snoul. This airlift operation was supported by 4 tubes 155mm located in a fire power base south of Snoul. Because of inclement weather, the AFVN was only able to execute 4 out of the 10 sorties originally planned for tactical preparation of the landing zone. One of the 4 helicopters UH-1 piloted by AFVN units was downed by enemy fire. The first wave of helicopters was able to unload 190 soldiers without incident. But then the enemy fire power, coming from north and southeast of the landing zone, downed 2 helicopters and damaged 8 others, the airlift operation had to be called off. The one and a half Battalion already in place was ordered to withdraw out of the contact area because it was not yet the location where the trap would be positioned and the operation mission was designed only to test enemy force and intention. The American Advisors Team at the 3rd Corps, not knowing the whole story, accused the 9th Regiment Commander of being a coward for refusing to fight the two enemy Battalions he had discovered: Lieutenant Colonel William L. Golden, G3 Advisor so reported to Brigadier General Arthur S. Hyman, Deputy Senior Advisor who then so reported to Lieutenant General Michael Davison, Senior Advisor who then so complained to General Nguyen Van Minh, Commanding General of 3rd Corps! Meanwhile, the Vietnamese side ignored all this commotion that occurred in the American side.

Applying troops' rotation tactic, Task Force 9 was withdrawn out of Cambodia, replaced by Task Force 8 (composed of 8th Regiment, 74th Ranger Battalion and 1st Armored Cavalry Regiment). This Task Force was designated to be the bait.

General Hieu assessed the situation and determined that the enemy was about to enter the trap. On 23 March 1971, he wrote to his wife:

Today I am going to Loc Ninh to command an operation in Cambodia. Although this operation will last an indefinite period of time, I will certainly have the opportunity to return to Lai Khe. As of returning to Saigon, it will depend on the situation over there.

When he wrote: "this operation will last an indefinite period of time", General Hieu implied that our troops were readying to escalate the level of fighting in response to the number of units the enemy would commit into the arena, according to the formula "enemy force 1, friendly force 3" which dictates the decisive end result of a combat; therefore, the operation was not limited to 6 days, 10 days or 15 days like in other normal operations.

On 5 April 1971, the enemy increased mortar fires on elements of Task Force 8 and Task Force 8 came into contacts with the enemy twice in areas ZU.153330 southwest Snoul. The enemy also implanted mines on highway QL13 to disrupt the supply conduit from Loc Ninh to Snoul. General Hieu gave orders to Task Force 8 to stay alert and to secure defensive lines by reinforcing all artillery bases, by solidifying defensive bunkers, by making maximum use of mines to prevent night attacks and enemy ambushes, by using starlight scopes to detect and destroy enemy mortar positions and to interdict enemy movements into the area west and northwest Snoul so that to channel them into the path leading to the trap. (Operation Order code # 1135 on 052200H/4/71)

On 13 April 1971, General Hieu notified Task Force 8 Headquarters that last 3 April 1971, NVA E6 Regiment, stationed at 10km northeast Snoul had moved to area 16km northeast Snoul, and last 13 April 1971 had moved again to area squared by XU.480350-665350-665460-580460. This area was created as the base and rear service support of NVA E6 Regiment. General Hieu ordered Task Force 8 to use 1st Armored Calvary Regiment and 2 Infantry Battalions to launch a search and destroy the enemy into that squared area with the intention of luring the enemy out. (Operation Order # 1310/B/HQ/M on 131700H/05/71).

On 15 April 1971, Task Force 8 launched an attack into NVA E6 Regiment bases, with artillery and tactical helicopter supports. Again the enemy avoided contact and friendly elements inflicted only damages to the enemy rear service facilities and destroyed caches of NVA E6 Regiment.

On 21 April 1971, General Hieu wrote to his wife: "I remained in Loc Ninh on Monday and just returned to Lai Khe Thursday evening and depending on the situation will stay here until next Monday." It appeared that the beast reverted back to hiding and retreat deep into the jungle, which allowed the hunter to stand up and stretch his legs before returning to his look out position.

On 4 May 1971, General Hieu communicated, through Operation Order # 3685/BCH/HQ/S5/P3/M with his Commander of Task Force 8 and his Commander of 1st Armored Cavalry Regiment:

(1) although suffering heavy damages, the enemy is still capable of initiating ambush at company level to attack or launch mortar fire attack to bog down our units;
(2) although the main enemy force has retreated out of our units reach, the enemy is still capable of assembling troops at regiment level supported by an artillery battalion within 48 hours to attack us;
(3) our two reserved main forces for this operation - 18th and 25th Divisions - are on the ready position, lurking not far away in the area southeast of Chup Plantation;
(4) to frequently remind units to take proper action in defending bases and camps, to dig defensive and combat fox holes in order to resist and sustain enemy attack until the arrival of reinforcement units.

On 6 May 1971, the trap was positioned as following:

Recon Co: 2 elements operated in area XU.5255 - 5335 -5230 - 5303, the remaining elements were committed for Snoul.
1/8th Battalion :one company operated in area XU.557385 - 557387 - 550384 - 536350; one company operated in area XU.55735 - 568370 - 532358; the rest of the Battalion protected Task Force 8 Commanding Post.
2/8th Battalion: in reserve for TF8; 2 elements operated in area XU.535343 - 535305 - 564307 - 550345 - 537348.
3/8th Battalion: in reserve for TF8; 2 companies escorted convoy.
2/7th Battalion: operated in area XU.595297 - 633327 - 568358 - 555355.
3/9th Battalion: operated in area XU.645248 - 694258 - 627328 - 596296.
74th Ranger Battalion: operated in area XU.680200 - 730200 -694358 - 675248.
1st ACR: 3/1st Sqd + 1 3/8th Company provided movement protection and guidance to convoy going from Snoul to XU.603313; 2/1st Sqd, TQV + 1 3/8th Company provided movement protection and guidance to convoy going from XU.603313 to XU.660250; 1st ACR(-) in reserve at HQ/TF8.
(Operation Order # 1652 on 062330H/05/71)

On 11 May 1971, General Hieu launched a Task Force of about 5,000 fighters, assisted by American air support, to sweep a 25-mile stretch from the Cambodian town of Kandol Chrum on Route 7 southward to Kompon Trach, an area ranging 75-100 miles northwest of Saigon. Operating up to 12 miles inside Cambodia, two Task Forces were moving southward from Kandol Chrum to meet a Task Force heading northward from Kompong Trach. Again the enemy avoided contact and casualties were listed as 14 enemy soldiers.

On 15 May 1971, General Hieu tried to lure the enemy into the trap by initiating another drive which was concentrated in the Parrot's Beak of eastern Cambodia to the south of the first operation. More than 1,000 troops were participating. In support of both operations, the U.S. flew 320 helicopter gunship missions and 32 bombing missions. The South Vietnamese Air Force flew 124 helicopter sorties and 32 bombing missions in the same sectors.

On 25 May 1971, General Hieu did not think the enemy was about to walk into the trap because the rainy season was here soon and the enemy had not made his move yet. He wrote to his wife: "This operation will ease up a little bit because the rainy season is here soon."

But on 26 May 1971, about 1,000 NVA troops struck at Snoul and forced their way into the town the following day, but were thrown back by the defenders with the aid of American air strikes. They also defeated four other NVA assaults in the vicinity of Snoul.

On 27 May 1971, NVA units launched a heavy attack about a quarter of a mile west of the town, but were stopped by the defenders. Ninety nine enemy soldiers were killed in the three-hour battle.

On 29 May 1971 the enemy started to attack with the force of a Regiment into Snoul city, directly at the command post of Task Force 8 located at XU.545337, causing damage to the Monitoring Station and destroyed some equipments (5 recording devices # 449-183-197-126-243; 1 relay box # 121; 2 complete antennas). General Hieu requested General Minh to begin sending reinforcement units as previously planned. The American Advisors Team at 3rd Corps recommended General Minh not to listen to General Hieu and that he let the enemy commit more units into the battle and then rain B-52 bombs onto their heads. General Hieu cautioned General Minh that such a large operation could not be at the mercy of sudden moody changes and he should stick to the mechanism of the planned operation. Furthermore, if B-52 bombs were used too early, the enemy would dispersed before sustaining heavy lost, and if one waited until the enemy swarmed in, one would have to resort to kill enemy and friendly units indiscriminately. General Hieu adamantly stated that he could not condone such a careless action and advised General Minh if did not want to stick to the original plan, he should withdraw Task Force 8 immediately before it would be too late. General Minh was paralyzed by the debate swirling inside his head, of either to listen to General Hieu or to obey his American Advisors Team. When distress dispatches reached the 3rd Corps headquarters, stressing the enemy was about to overrun defensive lines, General Minh acted Pontius Pilate like and dismissed General Hieu by saying:"Do whatever you wish to do"!

That was 30 May 1971. General Hieu hurried to retrieve withdrawal planning maps among the pile of Snoul luring enemy Operation maps, hopped onto his helicopter and headed straight out to Snoul. Usually on board of C&C helicopter, the Field Commander was accompanied by his general staff comprising heads of G2, G3 and G4. However, because enemy firepower at Snoul battlefield was too fierce, - each time a helicopter appeared above the sky, enemy anti-aircraft firepower poured out like rain, often times General Hieu's helicopter attempted from 8:00 am to 3:00 pm to land down without success - this time General Hieu left behind his general staff and ventured to fly in alone. The Vietnamese pilots courageously flew the helicopters on top tree level. On his way, General Hieu requested General Minh to order B-52 bombing along the withdrawal route to destroy readied enemy ambush sites in preparation for the retreat which was about to take place. The request was ignored by the American Advisors Team as an under-the-belt type of blow directed at General Hieu.

Because the enemy encircled tightly Task Force 8 units, signal communications could no more be safely used, General Hieu had to resort to deliver his withdrawal instructions orally by landing down directly in the heart of TF8 Command Post under heavy enemy small and big fire powers of all sorts. The Commander of TF8, the Commander of 1st ACR, the Commanders of 1/8th, 2/8th, 3/8th, 2/7th, 3/9th Battalions and the Commander of 74th Ranger Battalion, all hurdled around General Hieu and followed attentively his finger moving around on the tactical map while explaining to them his units withdrawal scenario. Everybody's morale was high, without flinching, with full confidence in the leadership of their Commanding General, even in such a dangerous situation. When the Commanders rejoined their combat units positions, their confidence spread rapidly to each and everyone under their command.

General Hieu's helicopter suddenly shot straight up into the sky, signaling withdrawal order. Military vehicles started rolling. The retreat through enemy encirclement progressed with extreme order, with units taking turn to spear-head and to shield back, with all combatants taking turn to cover each other, despite enemy blocking fire-powers and enemy pursuit shooting fire -powers.

Fortunately, General Hieu was able to get Brigadier General Tran Quang Khoi to bring in the 3rd Corps Assault Task Force which was at that time 5th Division's OPCON into rescuing Task Force 8 on time, spearheading from Loc Ninh up along Highway QL 13 toward Snoul, and thus succeeding in deflating heavy enemy pressure. The result was that two third of Task Force 8 was able to reach Loc Ninh. However, the Deputy Commander of the 8th Regiment was mortally wounded when his armored vehicle received a direct B-42 rocket's hit and died when he reached Loc Ninh. (Because General Khoi responded to General Hieu's request without General Minh's permission, later General Minh - with the dark intention of eliminating Generals Hieu and Khoi - reported to President Thieu (who dreaded coups d'etat) that Generals Hieu and Khoi used the pretext of Snoul to amass tanks in Loc Ninh with a coup in mind!)

General Hieu stood at the cross sectioned road leading into Loc Ninh to welcome back the retreating convoy. Suddenly his eyes dilated with surprise when he saw that a few vehicles had the luxury of hauling back herds of Cambodian cows among the returning convoy (is this a picnic excursion?!)

Captain Tran Luong Tin, 2/8th Battalion Commander wrote, "Tran Van Thuong, 1/8th Battalion Commander and Le Si Hung, 4/9th Battalion Commander, Hai, 2/8th Executive Officer were those who rode in my and Minh's M113 on our way to the base camp of 174th Ranger Battalion to meet with General Hieu along with Colonel Dzan, 8th Task Force Commander."

Colonel Dzan, 8th Task Force Commander wrote, "Upon returning back to the border, I was so upset that I intended to enter the III Corps HQ to blow up, fortunately General Hieu was there; he had to physically restrain me from entering the III Corps HQ and push me back onto the helicopter to return to Lai Khe."

Conclusion.

The battle of Snoul should have been a glorious victory to be added to the ARVN annals, but because General Tri was not there anymore, replaced by General Minh, who ascended military ranking through administrative channel, spoiled the whole thing, causing the phenomenon of "starting with an elephant's head and ending with a mouse's tail" to happen. On 2 June 1971, when General Hieu, at the invitation of Madame 4-star General Tri, attended the 100 days commemoration of General Tri's death (see letter dated 25 May 1971), instead of happily reported to General Tri: "Dear Brother Tri, we both have hit big!", perhaps General Hieu could have only lamented to General Tri:"Why did you left us so early allowing this painful situation to happen!"

Before being relieved of the 5th Division Command, General Hieu did not forget to demonstrate his appreciation toward the servicemen of the US 3rd Squadron, 17th Cavalry for the courageous air combat supports they had provided to the ARVN 8th Regiment in the Snoul battle from 5/25 to 6/1/1971; and General Hieu "regret not having the authority to honor all my fellow combatants of the Snoul battle".


Nguyen Van Tin
20 September 1998

Updated on 07/22/2005

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