II Corps Coping with VC's Attacks in Phu Bon, Pleiku and Kontum

[...] The VC unleashed their newly infiltrated NVA regiments in a series of attacks on the isolated district towns, outposts, and Special Forces camps. In conjunction with these attacks the enemy also laid large-scale ambushes in an attempt to eliminate ARVN mobile reaction forces going out on relief missions and to take over the control of entire districts within the provinces of Kontum, Pleiku and Phu Bon.

The first significant series of enemy attacks on government troops started on 26 May along Highway 7 in southeastern Phu Bon Province (see map). Evidently it aimed at seizing control of Phu Tuc District. This engagement started when a VC unit attacked the village of Boun Mroc and drove out the local Popular Force troops. When word of this attack reached the Phu Tuc district chief, he sent one of his Regional Force companies to assist the Popular Force platoons in regaining the village. As the Regional Force company reached Boun Mroc it came under heavy VC fire and radioed for reinforcements. A Special Forces patrol (CIDG) in the vicinity, from the Phu Tuc Special Forces (CIDG) camp, moved to assist the RF company and also came under heavy fire.

The patrol then called back to the camp for assistance and a CIDG relief force was dispatched. En route to the village of Boun Mroc, the CIDG unit was ambushed and fell back to the Special Forces camp. The ambush site effectively cut the road between the friendly forces on the outskirts of Boun Mroc and the government forces at Phu Tuc. The Regional Force unit commander again called district by radio and requested assistance, saying that the confidence of his unit was shaken to such an extent that he could not get them to move.

At this time the CIDG camp commander and the district chief both called the province chief of Phu Bon for additional assistance. He in turn requested help from the 24th Special Tactical Zone headquarters at Kontum. Fighter aircraft were immediately dispatched to strike the enemy at the ambush site while the corps Eagle Flight - a highly trained 36-man Montagnard platoon led by a Special Forces captain and three Special Forces non-commissioned officers - were dispatched by helicopter from Pleiku to reinforce the friendly troops cut off in the vicinity of Boun Mroc. During the interim, an attack plan called for a coordinated assault to be launched by the reinforced Regional Force company at Boun Mroc toward Phu Tuc supported by fighter strikes, while the CIDG troops in Phu Tuc launched a limited attack supported by mortar fire against the VC position blocking the road. The plan was executed without a hitch. The VC troops pulled out in face of the air strikes and the two-pronged attack ground attack. The government forces linked up near the ambush site and then pulled back into the defensive positions at Phu Tuc.

Security in Phu Bon Province continued to deteriorate rapidly during the next few days. Reports of the sighting of VC units of company and battalion size poured in from all over the province. These VC units stopped all traffic, completely isolating the provincial capital of Cheo Reo from its district towns. To stem the rapidly declining civilian and paramilitary morale, the II Corps commander ordered the deployment of a battalion of the 40th Regiment by air to Cheo Reo to reinforce the local Regional and Popular Force garrison.

The VC next struck two simultaneous blows in widely separated areas in northern Kontum and southern Phu Bon Province as they attacked two key bridges on the roads between provincial capitals and outlying district towns (see map). In Kontum Province at 2300 hours on 28 May, the garrison of the key bridge at Pokaha reported it was under attack by an estimated battalion. Soon contact with the outpost was lost and it was presumed overrun. Half an hour later the corps tactical operations center received a report from Phu Bon Province that a VC attack had been launched against the Regional Force unit guarding Le Bac bridge. The garrison guarding the bridge next reported that while they were pinned down by mortar and 75 mm recoiless rifle fire, a VC demolition party set off a charge on the bridge.

The loss of these two bridges was a heavy blow. With the Pokaha bridge outpost in Kontum overrun and the surrounding area seized by the VC, the government garrisons supplied by Highway 14 throughout northwestern Kontum including the Dak Pok Special Forces camp, the district town of Dak Sut and its Special Forces training camp were cut off from the provincial capital and had to be added to the growing list of areas to be resupplied by air. In Phu Bon Province the damage to the Le Bac bridge on Highway 7 and the VC activity southeast of Cheo Reo isolated this area, forcing the Special Forces camp and the district garrison at Phu Tuc also to be supplied by air.

The VC next increased their activity in Phu Tuc District, driving in the patrols and outposts of surrounding villages. The district chief sent another appeal for reinforcements to the province chief, stressing that he was completely surrounded and was in a precarious position because of the falling morale of the Regional and Popular Forces. On 31 May, in response to this pleas for reinforcements, the province chief further dispatched by air to Phu Tuc the battalion which had been sent from Kontum to Cheo Reo, in hope that it would help stabilize the situation there. On arrival at the district headquarters, the battalion was immediately moved north to Boun Mroc village when it began clearing the VC from the surrounding area.

The third VC blow in four days fell on 1 June, this time in western Pleiku Province (see map). Early that morning, with a party of province officials and a group of civilian officials from Saigon the province chief visited Le Thanh District headquarters in western Pleiku and its surrounding land development centers. These land development centers, established by the government in an effort to expand its control and to improve the economy of the high plateau, were high on the government's agenda for increased support.

The province chief organized a convoy protected by elements from his provincial Regional Forces strong enough to protect it against snipers or the small guerrilla forces which normally operated in the area. The convoy departed early on the first of June for Le Thanh District headquarters, 63 kilometers west of Pleiku. Shortly after this party left, Pleiku Sector headquarters, which had been unable to raise Le Thanh District for the routine morning radio check, became concerned and dispatched a reconnaissance plane to try to establish radio contact with the district headquarters. Unable to contact the district headquarters, the pilot flew over Le Thanh and discovered that it had been overrun by the VC and that the district headquarters and surrounding buildings were in ruins. He immediately radioed Pleiku Sector headquarters which tried in turn to relay this information by radio to the province chief. Unfortunately, the message did not get through in time and the province chief's party was ambushed by a large force. The strong initial resistance by the Regional Forces security troops who were with the column and the heroism of individual soldiers checked the initial VC attack and bought time which allowed a series of air strikes against the enemy at the ambush site. (In this action Major Bernard Dibbert, newly assigned sector adviser, was killed in the assault of a machine-gun position). These air strikes inflicted heavy losses on the enemy and prevented him from overrunning the survivors of the ambush. The enemy fires having been temporarily suppressed by the air strikes, some survivors of the convoy under the province chief turned around and attempted to return to Pleiku.

On hearing of the ambush, the Corps Eagle Flight was immediately alerted and dispatched by helicopter. They landed on the road, rescuing wounded survivors. Sector also dispatched a reaction force to link up with the portion of the convoy returning to Pleiku. Unfortunately, these two elements met in the middle of a pass where the VC had prepared another large ambush. This second ambush closed, trapping both elements in its killing zone. Soon 57 mm recoiless rifle and rocket launcher fire from enemy positions in the hills left the trucks burning and the survivors scattered. The helicopter gunships of the 52d Aviation Battalion, which attempted to suppress these fires on the convoy, also came under heavy antiaircraft fire and had two choppers shot down.

The Eagle Flight, and survivors they rescued, reported that the enemy troops were regular NVA forces armed with Chinese copies of the new Soviet family of 7.62 mm weapons. Faced in western Pleiku with these new NVA forces, estimated as at least a regiment, the corps commander ordered the airborne task force to immediately launch an operation to retake Le Thanh District and regroup the Regional and Popular Forces units which had garrisoned the district headquarters and surrounding land development centers and which were now scattered in the jungle by the VC attack. This operation went off smoothly as the NVA troops withdrew, refusing combat with the airborne task force. Le Thanh District headquarters was retaken. The dispersed Regional and Popular forces returned - most of them with their weapons - from the jungles where they had been hiding from the NVA troops, and joined the airborne task force.

This new evidence of stepped-up NVA infiltration that added another regiment in western Pleiku to those of the 325th Division already in the highlands, caused the corps commander to reevaluate his strength in light of the rapidly growing enemy numbers displayed during the opening phases of the summer offensive. General Vinh Loc decided that he would have to regroup his forces, give up the old Le Thanh District and re-establish a new district headquarters in an area which could be reinforced more easily from Pleiku. At this time it was also decided to hold the Duc Co Special Forces camp because of its strategic position blocking the approach along Route 19 from the Cambodian border to Pleiku. Some of the Regional Forces troops formerly stationed at Le Thanh District were ordered to reinforce Duc Co; the rest were withdrawn to Pleiku for reorganization and retraining. The airborne task force at Le Thanh was then ordered back into mobile reserve in Pleiku in order to be ready to counter the next VC attack.

The scene of action shifted back to southern Phu Bon Province where the battalion of the 40th Regiment was operating in the vicinity of Buon Mroc (see map). On 3 June this battalion launched an operation to the northwest along Highway 7 designed to clear the road to Le Bac bridge in an effort to re-establish a ground line of communications with the provincial capital. Halfway to Le Bac bridge, the battalion was trapped and suffered very heavy losses in an ambush which stretched for several kilometers along the road. The survivors of the decimated battalion were finally regrouped at Phu Tuc and were later evacuated to Cheo Reo by air and integrated into the static defensive positions in the provincial capital. The survivors estimated the enemy strength as a NVA regiment also equipped with Chinese copies of the new Soviet family of infantry weapons.

This enemy ambush broke the back of government resistance in the district, and the remaining paramilitary forces withdrew into Phu Tuc. Completely surrounded, the district chief and the CIDG camp organized defensive positions within the district town, including the district administrative buildings, CIDG camp, and the airfield. Even supply by air became difficult during the next few weeks as the VC forces tightened their hold on Phu Tuc and established positions near the airfield from which they fired on resupply aircraft.

For the next couple of weeks frequent small-scale harassment continued as the enemy regrouped for the next series of attacks. The next to be affected was the isolated district town of Toumorong in the mountains northwest of Kontum (see map). The attack was launched at night with such strength that the Regional Forces unit defending Toumorong was rapidly overrun and the defenders scattered. Unfortunately, the weather at this time was extremely bad and hampered aerial reconnaissance. As the province headquarters was desperately trying to get more details of the attack, the survivors came drifting back to Dak To District and nearby Tan Canh, the station of the 42d ARVN Regiment. The survivors indicated that the attack had been well planned and executed by a strong force. Refugees also reported that strong NVA forces, estimated at two battalions, were positioned along the road to Toumorong waiting to ambush the expected relief column.

Since this was one of the districts which had been analyzed as of marginal importance during the strategy meeting held earlier in the spring, the corps commander decided not to launch a reaction force at this time. He felt it more important to conserve his troops to meet the next enemy attack under more favorable conditions of weather and terrain, where he could utilize his helicopter mobility and superior firepower to better advantage. However, troops were maneuvered as if they were going to attempt a relief operation. This ruse was designed to cause the NVA troops to stay in their ambush positions along the road. Heavy air strikes were then scheduled not only against the abandoned district town and the platoon of 105s which had been overrun, but also against the reported NVA ambush sites along the road from Dak To to Toumorong.

During this same period, in western Phu Bon, security was also rapidly deteriorating (see map). The VC increased their pressure on the district town of Thuan Man, driving in its outposts. Patrols completely isolated the garrison from Cheo Reo. During late June the district chief reported to province he was running out of food and ammunition and he felt his garrison would soon fall if it were not relieved. Lacking troops, the province chief again called on 24th Special Zone for assistance. Since 24th Special Zone was already completely committed in Kontum and Pleiku, they in turn called on II Corps for additional resources. As a result of this request, in the latter part of June corps dispatched a multi-battalion airborne task force reinforced by an infantry battalion to Cheo Reo. Due to the gravity of the situation in Thuan Man, the task force commander was ordered to launch an operation that would relieve the Regional Forces cut off in the Thuan Man District town as soon as practicable after he arrived in Cheo Reo.

The relief operation was launched by the airborne task force early on 29 June. The task force progressed rapidly the first day, advancing on the high ground of both sides of the road leading to Thuan Man District headquarters. Late in the afternoon the battalions of the task force manned defensive positions for the night and moved off again on the morning of the 30th. The infantry battalion leading the task force soon ran into heavy resistance from enemy positions dug in across a ridge dominating the road to Thuan Man District. At the same time the airborne battalions came under fire from heavy mortars, recoiless rifles and small arms. This was followed by strong VC attacks from the hills to the north and northwest which hit the flank of the friendly forces. A portion of the attack hit the infantry battalion of the 40th Regiment and penetrated between it and the airborne task force. This attack drove remnants of the infantry battalion to the southeast. Another assault came from the north and pushed back the troops protecting the artillery and supply trucks. By this time the artillery was throwing direct fire into the attacking VC. Stopped by this point-blank fire, the VC next brought mortars onto the artillery, setting the ammunition trucks afire. Renewing the attack, they overran the artillery and supply trucks and cut the road to Cheo Reo. The clash rapidly turned into a close quarters cat-and-dog affair as the task force's airborne battalions fought to link up and establish a defensive perimeter. Fortunately, the weather was clear and the Air Force close support fighters turned in a magnificent performance. They bombed and strafed the attacking VC regiment so heavily that the assault slackened and the ARVN forces were finally able to link up and form a defensive perimeter. During the rest of the afternoon the situation continued to worsen. The task force reported that it faced an estimated reinforced regiment which had surrounded the two airborne battalions and elements of the infantry battalion and had cut them off from Cheo Reo. After the airborne task force set up its defensive perimeter and reorganized, they radioed that they were running short on ammunition and needed immediate medical evacuation. The attempts to resupply the task force and evacuate the wounded by helicopter failed when the enemy opened with several sections of 12.7 mm antiaircraft machine guns from positions on the hills overlooking the encircled task force. By now it was dusk and the heavy fighting subsided.

The situation the corps commander faced was grim. In addition to the VC regiment met during the day's battle, intelligence sources indicated that a second enemy regiment was located south of Cheo Reo within reinforcing distance of the current engagement. The corps had committed its mobile reserve and could make available only a two-battalion ARVN Marine Corps task force to reinforce the troops engaged west of Cheo Reo. In view of the potential enemy strength, this was not enough. Under these circumstances, the corps commander, General Vinh Loc, called on the Joint General Staff (JGS) for additional reinforcements from the General Reserve in Saigon.

Now the contingency planning which had been done paid off. The two-battalion Marine task force was immediately flown into Cheo Reo followed by the ARVN General Reserve airborne brigade headquarters and another airborne task force from Saigon. Spurred by the word that a Vietnamese task force was encircled and in danger of being overrun, the movement of the units by the U.S. Air Force troop-carriers during this period was superb. They flew troops and supplies into the Cheo Reo airfield in a steady stream, around the clock. The pilots of the planes being unloaded took over traffic control until their ships were emptied. When the unloaded planes taxied off the mission would be picked up by succeeding pilots. This continued throughout the night. As a result, while the airborne troops were still closing, the Marine task force, the first reinforcement to arrive, was able to launch an attack on 1 July to relieve the surrounded airborne task force. The link-up was completed by that afternoon and the troops redisposed for further commitment next day.

Late that afternoon, the Thuan Man District chief reported by radio that his troops would be unable to hold out another night. Since it was estimated that it would take at least two more days for the relief column to reach Thuan Man, it was decided to attempt to evacuate the troops by helicopter that afternoon. The attempt proved unsuccessful. As soon as the lead helicopters touched down in a landing zone near the district defensive positions, the VC placed heavy mortar fire on the landing zone which the fighter cover was unable to suppress. Luckily, the lead choppers were able to lift off without casualties. The rest of the choppers had to abort the mission and returned to Cheo Reo.

When notified that he could not be evacuated by air, the district chief requested permission to attempt to break out to the west. This operation was coordinated through the 23d Division with the CIDG camp at Boun Brieng. Boun Brieng camp was ordered to send troops east to Highway 14 to furnish security for the arrival of the Thuan Man District garrison. In an attempt to deceive the VC, orders were sent in the clear on the radio for the garrison to hold on until the relief column reached them next day. In addition, a series of fighter strikes pounded the VC positions during the early part of the evening. Plans also provided for gunship and fighter cover at first light along the garrison's escape route to the security screen of the Boun Brieng CIDG troops. They then moved back to the CIDG camp at Boun Brieng and then were evacuated by Caribou back to Cheo Reo.

In retrospect, this was the decisive engagement in Phu Bon. Intelligence reports later indicated that the VC regiment had suffered such severe losses during this battle that they were out of action for the rest of the rainy season. While Cheo Reo itself was saved, the VC had made many gains in Phu Bon Province during their month-long drive to take over the province. The government forces had lost not only the entire district of Thuan Man, but the majority of the villages scattered throughout the province. By the end of June, in Phu Bon ARVN held only the area immediately surrounding the provincial capital and its two remaining district towns.

On 7 July, the VC shifted once again back north to Kontum Province where the district town of Dak To became the target (see map). The attack against Dak To district headquarters, only a few kilometers from the 42d Regiment's garrison at Tan Canh was also launched in the middle of the night. It began with a sudden assault on the bunkers and the perimeter positions protecting the district headquarters administrative buildings. Soon after the attack was launched, the Regional Forces garrison, whose morale had become shaky from the loss of Toumorong and from other recent VC successes in northern Kontum, abandoned the perimeter defenses and fled to the protection of the 42d Regiment's garrison at Tan Canh.

The 42d Regiment was immediately alerted and its commander, Lt. Col. Lai Van Chu, one of the outstanding regimental commanders of the Vietnamese Army, prepared to retake the district town early next morning. As the regiment moved out it ran into a VC roadblock only two kilometers from its camp and was simultaneously attacked from the flank. Although the 42d Regiment suffered only a few casualties during this action, the cumulative effect was serious. Colonel Chu was seriously wounded, as was his senior advisor, Major John R. Black. As the word passed through the companies that the regimental commander had been wounded, the regiment started withdrawing back to Tanh Canh. The death of Colonel Chu that afternoon caused the morale of the regiment, which had been built around his charismatic leadership, to sink appreciably.

When the corps commander flew to the area to evaluate the situation, he saw that drastic action was required to stop the rapid decline in morale caused by this series of defeats. He decided that these troops needed an experienced and dynamic commander to take charge. He immediately ordered Colonel Dam Van Qui, ex-commander of Binh Lam Special Zone, to northern Kontum to take charge. Colonel Qui's former senior advisor, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Perkins, was also ordered to Kontum to rejoin him. It was hoped that this team which had worked so well in the Binh Lam Special Zone could re-establish the situation in Kontum. He also reinforce Tanh Canh with a Ranger battalion and the two-battalion Marine task force. Colonel Qui immediately drew up a plan to take back Dak To and launched the attack during the early morning hours. In face of this strong attack, the VC withdrew and the district town of Dak To was recovered.

Colonel Theodore Mataxis
Excerpt from VC Summer Monsoon Offensive [May 1966]
(Vietnam Center Archive)

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