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The Art of Troop Withdrawal

On the battlefields, to command an assault is relatively an easy task; on the contrary, to command a withdrawal is quite a difficult task. In an attack posture, one is in a proactive mode: everything has been anticipated, determined in advance, all coordinated movements among units have been well studied, assault targets have been well mapped out, all support firepowers have been well calibrated, all timings have been well measured, attack direction normally lies ahead, enemies are within one’s vision, troops’ morale is high and aggressive… In a retreat posture, one is in a reactive mode: everything is uncertain, undetermined, coordinated movements among units are dictated by ever changing factors, firepower supports become unusable because the enemy is too close, timings become constrained, frontlines expand to all directions, the hidden enemy becomes invisible, troops’ moral is low and dejected… Only an exceptional Commander can overcome all these negative elements in order to maintain the morale and the fighting resolve of his troops.

In analyzing the two military withdrawals realized by General Hieu (1) at Thuan Man in 6/1965 in the Highlands and (2) at Snoul in 5/1971 in Kampuchea, one can sort out the elements that render a troop withdrawal successful.

Diversionary Tactic: Fake Hold and Run

When besieged by the enemy, you must know his intention is to destroy you or it is only a diversionary tactic of attack an outpost and destroy the rescue column. As a counter-measure, you must apply the diversionary tactic of hold or escape in order to use the elements of surprise and speed when you need to withdraw.

In the battle of Thuan Man, after the attempt of rescuing the defensive troops by helicopters failed, the district chief of Thuan Man was ordered to break through the siege on his own. But

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 the battle of Snoul, after a visit to the outpost and on his way to board the helicopter, General Hieu instructed the 1/8th Battalion Commander:

Don't believe in the Americans' promise about B52; you must rely on your own resources to survive at this outpost position that ought to be held at all costs if you don't receive the order to withdraw. You must take initiatives in the matter of securing the lives of your battalion and of the armored company which is attached to your unit. If I give the order to withdraw, you must give a make-believe order to hold at all costs on the radio, because the Viet Cong certainly will hear clearly on the radio, and ask Colonel Dzan to have B52 bomb the route along which you plan to withdraw your troops. Afterwards, withdraw swiftly!

Upon receiving a coded message to withdraw, the 1/8th Battalion Commander Tran Van Thuong executed General Hieu’s diversionary tactic. He recounted:

At around 08:00H on 5/28/71, the battalion received a coded message from the 8th Task Force CP ordering to abandon the base camp and retreat to link with 2/7th Battalion at Snoul market the next morning 5/29/71.

At around 17:00H, 1/8th Battalion Commander requested to talk to Major Hung, 8th Regiment G3 Chief to converse openly by radio. He said, "I have received the order to hold position at all costs and the good news that we will get B52 air support."

Enemy subjectivity also caused them to be duped by diversionary tactic of the defensive troops. From 5/25/71 to 5/28/71, companies were constantly complaining back to 8th Task Force CP that lack of drinking water had caused many soldiers to become sick and depressed. And companies clamored in unison for immediate drinking water supply, or to be allowed to attack right away the stream to obtain drinking water. The enemy completely believed intercepted defensive troop’s radio conversations, because they knew that US Air Cavalry helicopters had been prevented from providing medevac and re-supply operations in support of 1/8th Battalion due to heavy enemy anti-aircraft and artillery firepower. Therefore the enemy subjectively believed that by encircling and by heavily pounding the defensive troops with heavy shelling to interdict medevac and re-supply by helicopters, it would be sufficient to force the defensive troops into surrendering due to lack of drinking water. In reality, the enemy was duped by the defensive troops in a "Delaying Tactic" to await rescue force, in the "Luring the Tiger down the Mountain" tactic of 3rd Corps Commanding General and general Hieu.

Furthermore, the defensive troops were ordered not to reveal the intention of withdrawal by leaving tents and hammocks untouched as if they were resolved to hold at all costs. The 1/8th Battalion Commander gave the order:

Units must apply total secretive tactic by leaving behind all tents and hammocks, and by maintaining radio silence until receiving the order to withdraw.

When came the turn of 8th Task Force to withdraw, the same diversionary tactic was utilized; however, this time the enemy had learned the lesson and was no more duped. The 1/8th Battalion Commander recounted:

This was almost a suicidal troop withdrawal, because 8th Task Force must withdraw unassisted under repeated encirclements and attacks of two Divisions VC, 5th and 7th, from 5/25/71 to 5/31/71. Diversionary tactic using radio was no more effective because the enemy was able to figure out radio manipulation of our troops!

Diversionary Tactic: Fake North Go South

When the enemy puts up a siege, he always anticipates the withdrawal route and the route used by the rescue column. Therefore, efforts should be made to confuse the enemy in making the enemy to believe that one is about to escape north-bound while in reality one is to escape south-bound, and vice versa.

In the battle of Snoul, 1/8th Battalion made believe to attack southwest toward the stream to obtain drinking water, while in reality it would escape south in direction of Snoul market. The 1/8th Battalion Commander recounted:

At around 17:00H, 1/8th Battalion Commander requested to talk to Major Hung, 8th Regiment G3 Chief to converse openly by radio. He said, "I have received the order to hold position at all costs and the good news that we will get B52 air support, however at the present time many soldiers felt sick for lack of water after five days of fighting, without re-supply and medevac. I am afraid they would surrender within 24 hours, if they do not receive immediately drinking water re-supply. Therefore I ask you to transmit my request to Eagle allowing us to attack and occupy the stream next morning to obtain drinking water. I dread the two enemy battalions will attack us from the rear and flank, from the battalion position to Snoul market along route QL7, if we deployed troops tomorrow. Therefore, I ask you to request Eagle to concentrate B52 strikes in boxes along route QL7 to flatten a one kilometer wide band the two sides of this route. This would allow us to gain the upper hand with the enemy at this stream." Major Hung intelligently responded, "I understand exactly your request, I will pass it to Eagle immediately." About half an hour later, Colonel Dzan radioed back the 1/8th Battalion Commander, "Your request is approved, however you must wait for B52 strikes in "Box" from your position to the market to cover your flank and rear before you attack the stream." 1/8th Battalion Commander answered, "Roger, Sir."

1/8th Battalion’s withdrawal was conducted as following:

At around 05:00 H on 5/29/71, lookout teams secretively crawled back to perimeter C, meanwhile the recon platoon left 8th Battalion CP to recon the path and QL7 South of the base camp. All actions of the defensive troops were conducted under the wrap of radio silence.

At around 06:30 H, 8th Battalion CP received a three "Click" signal in the radio. According to pre-agreed code, 8th Battalion CP understood that the enemy had moved out of individual fox holes situated between the battalion position and Snoul market along route QL7 and the path.

At around 09:00 H, 1/8th Battalion CP heard clearly a four "Click" signal sent by the recon platoon’s radio which indicated enemy forces had completely left positions along the withdrawal route of the battalion. The Battalion Commander issued order by radio to continue to dig fox holes to hold position at all costs. Within less than ten minutes, the last units of 3rd Company departed the base camp to run after the armored platoon. Captain Bao heard clearly in the enemy radio, "We have been duped by the sons of the bitch. All units must revert back quickly to their positions to encircle and kill them all."

At around 09:20H, 2nd Company and tanks saw clearly the enemy in file on the right flank from the rubber forest, running and firing at our troops. Meanwhile 1st Company and 1/8th Battalion CP were also under direct enemy gun fires coming out from dense bamboo forest on the left flank. Enemy artillery started to shell in salvo on the withdrawal axe of the battalion, meanwhile 3rd Company reported the enemy was following at its heels, and requested the lead troops to advance more quickly. Despite heavy enemy fire powers, infantry as well as armored troops kept on running and shooting at the enemy. Artillery firepower from 8th Task Force CP also started to pound at enemy advance axes, forcing the enemy to delay assaulting the right flank of 2nd Company, allowing companies respite to drag along their wounded soldiers.

At around 09:30H, four helicopters of US Air Cavalry flew low above the head of the Battalion to lend support in this epic battle between the enemy and us. Fortunately enemy anti-aircraft firepower remained in total silence. The reason is that the enemy was fearful of B52, and had moved out all these infantry troops as well as anti-aircraft positions the night before. And so gunships dominated the air to destroy enemy positions at the right and left flanks and the rear of 3rd Company. Meanwhile powerful weapon fires of tanks and infantry troops combined to destroy hundreds of powerless enemy troops in the rubber forests, on the right flank of 2nd Company, in their effort to desperately launch assaults against the lightning speed advance of the entire battalion and armored company. General Hieu, 5th Division Commander, also bravely flew C&C helicopter atop rubber trees and ordered the battalion to keep on advancing more quickly to avoid enemy effort of encirclement in this epic battle. The sudden appearance of general Hieu above the withdrawing force also boosted up the combat resolve of the combatants and made them run faster through enemy artillery firepower.

At around 10:30H, the entire 1/8th Battalion and tanks linked with 2/7th Battalion at Snoul market. All tanks were safe and 1/8th Battalion only suffered relatively minor losses and succeeded in bringing back all wounded soldiers to 8th Task Force CP at Snoul.

When it came the time for the 8th Task Force to withdraw, General Hieu forced the enemy into guessing the 8th Task Force was about to withdraw northwest toward Kratie or southeast toward Loc Ninh. The 1/8th Battalion Commander recounted:

In particular he made the right choice of planning to withdraw 8th Task Force on 5/30 and 5/31/71, after he abandoned the plan to attack toward Kratie, because Lieutenant Colonel Ninh, 5th Division G2 Chief let he know that 5th Division did not have any reserved force left in the withdrawal day of 5/29/71.

The 1/8th Battalion Commander continued his account:

The night of 5/30/71, 1/8th Battalion heard clearly many airplanes constantly bombarding North West and North East of Snoul. That meant general Hieu was applying diversionary tactic to support the withdrawal planning of 8th Task Force on 5/30/71, These bombardment had also the purpose of destroying and interdicting enemy movements from North West and North East of Snoul to South East of the withdrawal route on 5/30/71.

The enemy was duped by diversionary tactic of general Hieu and Colonel Dzan in the night of 5/29/71, and consequently believed that 8th Task Force would launched an operation to attack them at North West or North East on 5/30/71. Therefore the enemy made the mistake of not maneuvering two anti-aircraft battalions and not committing additional infantry units from North West or North East to South East to participate directly in the battlefield on 5/30/71 at about one kilometer on QL13 South East of Snoul.

In particular on the night of 5/30/71, general Hieu used an excellent diversionary tactic. He gave order to VNAF and 8th Task Force artillery to pound incessantly through the night in the direction of North and North West Snoul, and at the same time, he ordered Colonel to use 1/8th Battalion to position troops toward the direction of North East of Snoul, in order to dupe the enemy in believing that 8th Task Force would launch an attack against the enemy at this two directions the next morning, on 5/30/71. This diversionary tactic proved to be effective when Major Hung, 8th Regiment G3 Chief eavesdropped enemy radio, "They do not attack us, they are withdrawing to the East. All units must leave their defensive positions to encircle and destroy them fast."

Support: Air and Artillery Supports

In the battle of Thuan Man, the defensive troops benefited intense air support. Colonel Mataxis recounted:

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.

In the battle of Snoul, when 1/8th Battalion withdrew from the outpost position up in the north to Snoul market, the withdrawing units received artillery support from batteries belonging to 8th Task Force and air support from US 317 Air Cavalry. The 1/8th Battalion Commander recounted:

Artillery firepower from 8th Task Force CP also started to pound at enemy advance axes, forcing the enemy to delay assaulting the right flank of 2nd Company, allowing companies respite to drag along their wounded soldiers.

At around 09:30H, four helicopters of US Air Cavalry flew low above the head of the Battalion to lend support in this epic battle between the enemy and us. Fortunately enemy anti-aircraft firepower remained in total silence. The reason is that the enemy was fearful of B52, and had moved out all these infantry troops as well as anti-aircraft positions the night before. And so gunships dominated the air to destroy enemy positions at the right and left flanks and the rear of 3rd Company.

Combined actions in the entire troop deployment, firepower between armor-infantry, artillery units and air firepower of US Air Cavalry neutralized the effort of encirclement and assault of two enemy regiments.

When it came the time for 8th Task Force to withdraw, withdrawing units received air support from US 317 Air Cavalry and artillery support from 8th Task Force. The 1/8th Battalion Commander recounted:

At around 08:00H on 5/30/71, air force bombarded targets along the withdrawal route of 8th Task Force, as well as tactical targets to interdict enemy encirclement maneuvers.

At around 08:30H, 8th Task Force artillery shelled in salvo on the advance axe of 1/8th Battalion to link with 3/8th Battalion which was encircled by the enemy.

At around 09:40H, the enemy used artillery strikes along the entire advance axe of 8th Task Force, while 2/8th Battalion’s right flank perimeter was pierced through by the enemy and had to run toward the side of 1/8th Battalion. Fortunately six helicopter gun ships of US Air Cavalry flying atop rubber trees fired at the enemy assaulting 2/8th Battalion, and succeeded in stopping the first enemy assault aimed at 2/8th Battalion. Meanwhile 1/8th Battalion heard clearly in the radio that 2/7th Battalion was pressured by artillery pounding and assaults in the rear.

Finally, Task Force CP, 1st Armored Squadron and 2/8th Battalion heroically vanquished the enemy on the right flank to open up the route allowing 2/7th Battalion to follow through, under the pressure of atrocious enemy attacks and artillery strikes. Fortunately the enemy did not have time to move anti-aircraft units from North West and North East of Snoul to South East to fire at supporting helicopters of US Air Cavalry. Therefore the heroic allied forces were able to destroy unimpeded enemy units on maneuvers to encircle 8th Task Force, under the instructions of general Hieu.

On the night of 5/30/71, 8th Task Force set up defense at the outskirt of 3/9th Battalion’s defensive area, while artillery and air force pounded all night long along QL13 to destroy and prevent enemy troops movements to South East of QL13.

In the second phase of the withdrawal, withdrawing units received additional artillery support from III Corps Assault Task Force. The 1/8th Battalion Commander recounted:

From 07:30H to 09:30H on 5/30/71, artillery of III Corps Assault Task Force constantly pounded on targets on withdrawal route, before 8th Task Force crossed the departing line to link with III Corps Assault Task Force, recently attached to 5th Division on this day of 5/31/71.

Firepower of helicopters of US Air Cavalry also started striking at targets along QL13 to cover the flanks of infantry units.

8th Task Force CP and 1st Armored Squadron CP heroically launched an assault against the ambush pocket to destroy the enemy, under the supports of III Corps Assault Task Force and of US Air Cavalry.

Triangular Formation

For a withdrawal to be successful, units must proceed in order and maintain their respective positions, alternately holding the role of a forward spear head and the role of a rear shield. If not, the reaction of a troop in withdrawal posture would be that everybody would veer to the left when sounds of shots come from the right; to the right, when sounds of shots come from the left; to the back, when sounds of shots come from the front; and to the front, when sounds of shots come from the back. When withdrawing, if a troop does not trust its leader, it will react like a bunch of duckweed floating on the water surface at the mercy of the pendulum movements of waves.

For a withdrawal to be successful, the triangular formation must be scrupulously applied, not only for a small unit – squad, platoon and company – but equally for a big unit – battalion, regiment, division and corps, although a big unit is rather cumbersome, and required exceptional skills in order not to step on each other foot. To perform the triangular formation in the case of a squad of three solders is fairly easy. It becomes more difficult in the case of a platoon comprising three squads. It becomes more complex in the case of a company comprising three platoons. But then look: General Hieu executed this triangular formation in the case of a force equivalent to a division comprising three task forces in operation Toan Thang 8/B/5:

On 9 November at 0750 hours TF333 departed Snoul and withdrew from Cambodia to standdown at their base camps. At 1400 hours TF9 departed Cambodia to covering positions vic area 901. TF1 provided security for the withdrawal of TF333 and TF9, and then departed at 1430 hours, passing thru TF9 and returning to Lai Khe. Division Forward CP returned to Lai Khe beginning 0730 hours 10 November. Upon clearing of Division CP group TF9 withdrew to base areas.

In the battle of Snoul, the triangular formation was deftly applied between phase one and phase two of the withdrawal on May 30 and May 31, 1971. The order of units had been rearranged as following:

1/8th Bn - 2/8th Bn – 1st ACR – CP – 2/7th Bn;
2/7th Bn - 1st ACR – CP – 2/8th Bn – 1/8th Bn.

Head became tail, tail became head.

This fact proves eloquently 8th Task Force had withdrawn in an orderly fashion, despite being harassed by the enemy, and did not flee in disorder as described by US media and VC documents.

Support: Opposite Assault Force

In order for a withdrawal to be successful, it is imperative that a force opposite to the withdrawal direction be exerted. The purpose of this force is to alleviate enemy’s pressure, to lend moral support to the weakening combat resolve of the withdrawing troops. The ideal is that this force, not the withdrawing force, should be the one that faces and destroys the ambushes set up by the enemy or mobile ambushes along the retreat route, because this force is in an attack posture (strong) while the withdrawing force is in a defensive posture (weak).

In the battle of Thuan Man, the opposite force was provided by a CDIG unit originated from Buon Brieng camp:

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 the battle of Snoul, when 1/8th Battalion withdrew from the outpost to Snoul market, the opposite force was 2/7th Battalion:

At around 08:30 H, 2/7th Battalion took control of the situation at Snoul market.

When 8th Task Force withdrew from Snoul to the location secured by 3/8th Battalion at a distance of about 3 kms, the opposite force was provided by 3/8th et 3/9th Battalions. And when 8th Task Force withdrew from that location to the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, the opposite force was the III Corps Assault Task Force. The 1/8th Battalion Commander recounted:

At around 09:30H, the task force started the withdrawal heading down South East of QL13 as planned, while III Corps Assault Task Force also attacked from the border up North West along QL13, in an anvil-hammer tactic to subdue the enemy. Firepower of helicopters of US Air Cavalry also started striking at targets along QL13 to cover the flanks of infantry units.

At around 11:30H, 3/8th Battalion and 3/9th Battalion linked with III Corps Assault Task Force, while 8th Task Force CP fell into a mobile ambush set up by the enemy, and 1/8th Battalion was also assaulted at the rear, and III Corps Assault Task Force was also fighting heavily along the two sides of QL13, about 500 meters from the position of 8th Task Force CP. Colonel Khoi requested Colonel Dzan to stop advancing and await for III Corps Assault Task Force to finish up the enemy before advancing, however Colonel Dzan decided to fight without delay using "Anvil-Hammer" tactic to defeat enemy encirclement efforts. 8th Task Force CP and 1st Armored Squadron CP heroically launched an assault against the ambush pocket to destroy the enemy, under the supports of III Corps Assault Task Force and of US Air Cavalry.

Dan Sutherland also mentioned the role of III Corps Assault Task Force as opposite force in A Trip Through the Gates of Hell. In an e-mail dated July 31, 2005, Dan Sutherland added:

My helicopter was the first to enter Cambodian airspace the day of the Battle on the Highway going to Snoul. I met Nguyen Van Hieu once beside a jeep in the Chup Rubber Plantation just after the tanks were destroyed on the highway to Snoul.

What I saw on that field of battle was horror. I don't believe it could ever be fully explained. What I could share with your readers is, Number 1. We tried like hell to save them, and Number 2, It was on that highway that I met the Lord Jesus Christ. It was truly my Damascus road.

I have some pictures of that column which I will try to send you. The photos I have were taken just prior to the move across the Viet/Cambodian border. It would be the column that was enroute to try and support the brave ARVNs who were under siege there. I don't know what your records record, but, within two to three hours of the initial start of that fight, many fighting men were dead and many of the rest doomed to die or be wounded. If the NVA took prisoners, it would have been a miracle.

I was the aerial recon flying the ARVN Commanders and I saw firsthand the first tank blow as it was hit. I was looking dead at the tank when I saw the first flash of the explosion and the gray smoke blow out the side. We were about 80 feet above the tanks and it was almost surreal when I saw it, and when I suddenly realized what was happening, I saw infantry men flying spread eagle as the tanks ammo blew out. There were about 20 to 30 infantry men riding on the tanks and tracks. When they were hit, many were killed or blown to the sides of the road. Their only protection was the ditches that lined the highway. Sir, I saw so much fighting that my mind can't comprehend it all. But I can tell you this, if on earth there was ever a fight with fierce hand to hand combat, that infantry that was assigned to this mission partook of it. It was like a clash when the NVA ran head on into them. During the battle, as it raged fiercly, we moved out your wounded time and time again.

Can you imagine what damage the ennemi would have inflicted to the troops of Colonel Dzan in retreat, if the opposite force of the III Corps Assault Task Force had not encountered and dealt with the ambushed site in the first place?

Presence of the Field Commander on the Battlefield

Nothing is more encouraging to the withdrawing troops to see the presence of the field commander right at the battlefield, not necessarily on the ground next to them – because then the commander would be in the helpless posture as them – but preferably on the air above their heads – because then he is in the position to rally all supports – air, artillery, armor, infantry – to rescue them.

In the battle of Thuan Man, although the account written by Colonel Mataxis regarding this battle did not mention Colonel Hieu flying above the withdrawing troops, it is however certain that he did so, because according to Captain Nguyen Minh Am, Colonel Hieu used to ride on L19 airplane to inspect outposts, and oftentimes surprised the montagnard soldiers when they heard the voice of the Commander beaming down from above their head. Colonel Mataxis did mention the fact Colonel Hieu flew over the battlefield in the battle of An Khe Valley prior to the battle of Thuan Man:

At this time the Corps chief of staff (Colonel Hieu) and the Corps senior advisor reconnoitered the area to clarify the situation for the Corps commander.

In the battle of Snoul, General Hieu flew constantly above the withdrawing troops from day one to the last day of the retreat. The 1/8th Battalion Commander recounted:

Especially on 5/16/71, general Hieu visited the battalion and ordered the 5th Division CP to provide more water containers and munitions.

General Hieu visited 1/8th Battalion at Snoul a lot of times.

General Hieu, 5th Division Commander, also bravely flew C&C helicopter atop rubber trees and ordered the battalion to keep on advancing more quickly to avoid enemy effort of encirclement in this epic battle. The sudden appearance of general Hieu above the withdrawing force also boosted up the combat resolve of the combatants and made them run faster through enemy artillery firepower.

General Hieu demonstrated bravery when he showed up amidst the combatants in full action and had boosted up the combat resolve and confidence of the entire withdrawing combatants facing the firepower and attacks of two enemy regiments.

General Hieu flew above 1/8th Battalion and ordered the battalion that it must cut through enemy defensive perimeter immediately at all costs, to foray a bloody path for the task force that was encircled by the enemy at the rear.

The combat resolve of 8th Task Force combatants received a boost by the permanent presence of general Hieu when, in spite of enemy artillery and infantry firepower, bravely flew close to enemy troops in order to observe and adjust US Air Cavalry firepower to hit enemy forces with precision.

He ordered 8th Task Force to continue to take control of the battlefield by frequently launch limited operations to search and daily recon operations to collect intelligence on the enemy, besides establishing an electronic fence to detect enemy movements around the areas of Snoul. These actions kept the morale of the combatants of 8th Regiment and its attached units high during the more than two month operation at Snoul.

Beginning 4/71, general Hieu was permanently present at 5th Division Forward Command Post at Loc Ninh, in order to monitor closely the battlefield situation in Cambodia, and to use C&C helicopter for daily visits.

Contrary to General Minh, general Hieu was frequently present above 8th Task Force units fighting with the enemy from 5/24/71 to 5/31/71. In particular from 5/24/71 to 5/30/71, he witnessed enemy atrocious anti-aircraft and artillery firepower which prevented medevac and re-supply helicopters from landing. However, not fearing for his life, he continued to fly over the units fighting with the enemy on the ground in order to command and reassure the soldiers. By witnessing the real situation on the battlefield with his own eyes, he believed what Colonel Dzan had reported on the ground.

In particular from 5/29/71 to 5/31/75, General Hieu demonstrated traits of a battlefield Commander, by braving intense enemy anti-aircraft firepower to fly close to the withdrawing troops on the ground in order to maneuver and reassure the soldiers, despite Colonel Dzan’s advice not to allow the helicopter to land down, still gave order to the pilot to scoop down to witness the Recon company capturing an enemy anti-aircraft weapon placed close to the outskirt of the base camp. Furthermore, he assumed the role of an Air Control Officer in order to request US Air Cavalry to hit targets through Colonel Kampe. This action caused the enemy to delay troop’s movements to encircle and destroy our combatants on the ground. In particular US Air Cavalry never mistakenly shot at our troops on the ground during those days. Therefore general Hieu also assumed the role of an outstanding Air Control Officer!

Intelligence

For a withdrawal to succeed, it is essential to know the enemy’s intention and the amount of enemy troops committed in the battle. To assess the enemy’s intention, General Hieu always instructed his G2 intelligence bureau to, not only to identify enemy’s units, but also to obtain the psychological profile of its commanders: which is the favorite tactic of a particular commander, does he prefer to enjoy a good siesta or does he prefer to attack at nighttime. One should know the enemy force engaged in the battle in order to determine when to hold the outpost and how big a rescue column should be and when it would be wiser to escape and what size the opposite force should be.

In the battle of Thuan Man, II Corps Commander relied on intelligence report to assess enemy’s force in order to decide when to hold and when to escape:

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.

In his narration of the battle of Snoul, the 1/8th Battalion Commander analysed meticously the intelligence aspect of this battle. Here I would only wish to add that, based on previous battles that he had designed and executed, General Hieu always assessed accurately the amount of troops the enemy engaged in the battlefield. Especially in the battle of Snoul, since he used one regiment to lure at least one enemy division, and since he had at his disposition only up to three divisions, he was very careful in assessing enemy’s force to make sure he had the upper hand. For sure he was very discreet in not letting the enemy knew what he knew of them and would make believe he knew nothing about them or knew the wrong thing about them so too make them careless. Besides, he was well aware that enemy spies had infiltrated all layers in the army and thus would not reveal what amount of intelligence he was able to ascertain, even to his closest associates at the divisional general staff as well as at the field command post.

Tactical/Strategic Retreat

Since in order for a withdrawal to be successful it must meet all the above-mentioned requirements - namely diversionary tactic: hold or escape; diversionary tactic: north or south-bound escape; support: air and artillery supports; triangular formation; support: opposite assault force; presence of the field commander on the battlefield; intelligence – a tactical retreat at the level of a battalion and higher ought to be enveloped by an encompassing strategy; which means that all the elements, all the details have been combed through by the general staff and the field commanders have received in advance all the tactical moves that will be unfolded when the withdrawal order is issued; and all supports are ready to intervene at the appropriate times. The skill of a commander who knows how to withdraw consists in having only to press only one button to activate the withdrawal mechanism which functions as pre-planned, and all the commander has to do is to simply monitor, to supervise and to make minor adjustments. On the contrary, a commander who is bad in withdrawal would panic, runs up and down, barks out non sense orders; or would remain paralysed watching in bewilderment the destruction of his troops.

In the battle of Thuan Man, the withdrawal was anticipated in the overall strategy of II Corps:

To determine the strategy to be used in meeting this anticipated VC offensive, a meeting was held at II Corps headquarters in Pleiku by representatives of General William C. Westmoreland's staff headed by Brigadier General William E. DePuy, then MACV J-3, and the ARVN Joint General Staff (JGS) headed by General Nguyen Huu Co, former II Corps commander who had been appointed head of the ARVN military forces. It was agreed that due to the increased build-up of enemy troops, II Corps during the rainy season would adopt essentially a defensive posture in the highlands. The new II Corps commander, Major General Vinh Loc, in line with the defensive posture to be taken by his corps, analyzed the "military worth" of all key outposts and districts towns. He decided that those posts in exposed positions would be held as long as possible in order to cause highest casualties to the attacking communist forces. If after an attack it was determined that it would be to our military disadvantage to reinforce at that time, due to lack of troops or air support, the posts would be ordered to withdraw, using escape and evasion tactics if necessary. Those earmarked as keys to the defense of vital areas within each province were to be held at all costs. Contingency plans were drawn up and ARVN general reserve troops and U.S. and ARVN Air Force airlift and fighter planes were earmarked as the nucleus of a "fire brigade" which could be rushed to critical areas in the highlands. It was hoped that our superior mobility would allow the rapid concentration of troops by air from all over the corps area so as to meet the VC threat and then to return these troops to their normal defensive assignments before the VC were able to react. With these contingency plans prepared, the highland garrisons strengthened their defenses, launched limited attacks designed to locate the VC and harass their build-up, and awaited the rains.

In the battle of Snoul, General Hieu had studied thoroughly all possible withdrawal scenarios – to attack up north toward Chup Plantation in order to link with 8 task forces belonging to 18th and 25th Division; or to attack down south toward Loc Ninh to link with III Corps Assault Task Force – in the eventuality the luring tactic did not work. Consequently, even though General Minh detracted the plan of the Snoul operation and left General Hieu to act on his own, General Hieu nevertheless succeeded in the withdrawal and brought the entire 8th Task Force back to Lai Khe with relatively light damages:

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 o Snoul.

Lessons Learned in Troop Withdrawal

In applying lessons learned from the successful withdrawals of Thuan Man and Snoul performed by General Hieu to the two withdrawals of II Corps and I Corps, one can easily determine the reasons for their failures. General Phu and General Truong should be spared of any incrimination; General Thieu who had tied those two generals’ hands should be only the one to be blamed; he acted with a military knowledge and competence of a platoon leader in giving out order in the withdrawal of a corps.

Nguyen Van Tin
April 12, 2005
Updated on 08.21.2005

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