Colonel Hoang Thich Thong
The National Front For the Liberation of the South (NFL), and the
North Vietnamese Army (NVA), launched several attacks on various
South Vietnamese cities, including Hue and the national capital
Saigon. At the beginning of the Tet Offensive, they managed to
infiltrate and occupy a few regions. The ARVN had underestimated the
strength of the enemy, its drawback being an inefficient
intelligence agency, and a naive expectation that the Communists
would honor the 36 hour cease-fire scheduled at midnight on New
Year's Eve (Tet).
the ARVN several days to successfully push the VC and the NVA back.
In regaining ground, ARVN inflicted heavy casualties to the
victory sent the Communists staggering, and the situation in South
Vietnam became calmer from the 17th Parallel downwards. From the
highlands to Ca Mau, there was remarkably little fighting.
military operations in all four Corps gradually pushed the enemy's
main force including the NVA out of South Vietnam, forcing them to
withdraw across the borders to Cambodia and Laos into hiding.
Vietcong regional units and guerillas losing support from the Main
Force became inefficient over time.
the pro-communist Cambodian government of Prince Sihanouk was
overthrown by General Lon Nol. The III and II Corps of the ARVN,
already gaining victory in all battlefields, had permission of the
new and friendly Cambodian Government to cross the border to destroy
enemy hideouts and supply bases. These operations caused heavy
casualties and logistic losses to the enemy. They had to retreat
Northwards close to the Laotian-Cambodian border. As a result, the
security of South Vietnam was consolidated. The morale of the ARVN
troops soared, and all men in arms firmly believed in their
“Vietnamization” of the war, the ARVN was well-equipped with
sophisticated weapons from the US. North Vietnam on the other hand
was fully supplied by the USSR and Red China.
continued to thrust into Laotian territories supposedly occupied by
Pathet Lao, but in reality was where the NVA had their strongholds
and logistical bases. It was via this region that their troops and
supplies were sent to South Vietnam. If the ARVN could attack and
occupy these targets the strategic Ho Chi Minh Trail would be
disrupted, effectively cutting off regional VC forces south of
Parallel 17 from supports and supplies.
area in which operation of Lamson 719 was carried out
of operation extended from Khe Sanh, (the Coroc highlands) situated
eight miles east of the Laotian border, to the city of Tchepone, 42
km inside Laos. The axial centre of the operation was Route 9,
starting from Dong Ha north of Quang Tri province to Tchepone.
Parallel to Route 9 was a small river. Thick jungles of thorny giant
bamboos, flanked both sides of the Route which was 150-500m above
sea level. Mt Coroc blocked longitudinally from the North to the
South, leaving only a pass for Route 9 to pierce - the site of the
of troops were very difficult and limited in such topography.
Everything depended on Route 9. The high mountains on each side were
ideal places in which to launch ambushes. Troops had to move over
undulating terrain, covered with thick bamboo forests that greatly
blocked observation and hindered maneuvers. It was very difficult
for the offensive force to assault in such terrain even if it were
fully supported by armor, air force and artillery. Another
disadvantage was that the NVA knew the area like the back of their
hands, whereas the ARVN was unfamiliar with the region. It was a
psychological disadvantage for ARVN troops to have to fight outside
their country in completely unknown jungle and mountain terrain.
Lam Son 719 started in March 1971, when the weather was excellent in
both Laos and Vietnam. Our advancement was made easier by the fact
that the freezing unremitting drizzle that usually plaques the Lunar
New Year had come to an end. There was no mud or slippery surfaces
that might have made transportation difficult. Air support and
supplies were not hampered in the least by the weather.
population of mountain aborigines (the Thuong people) was small. As
soon as the Operation started, they moved further inland, to avoid
the dangers. Thus fire, artillery and air support did not face
limitations. In the area of operation, there were only two forces
and odds, and they were the ARVN and the NVA.
The condition of the enemy in the area of operation
Operation Lamson 719, intelligence sources had reported the
permanent presence of NVA logistical units, teaming with activity
along Ho Chi Minh Trail, especially around the Ban Dong district.
This area was situated in the vicinity of Route 9. Apart from these,
a division of regular NVA patrolled the area. Another division was
camped north of it, nearer to the North Vietnam border. It was
always on standby ready for deployment. In the area of Tchepone, no
evidence of enemy deployment or defensive preparation had been
detected. The city of Tchepone had been severely destroyed during
the war between The National Laos and Pathet Laos, and was further
reduced to rumbles by American bombardments aimed at reducing enemy
activities on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Their tactics were flexible,
changing as necessary to suit the environment, rather than conform
to set positions. However, the information gathered was still very
Conditions in the first tactical zone and I corps
month preceding Operation Lam Son 719, the situation in the First
Tactical Zone and all over South Vietnam was relatively calm. ARVN
units had been either in rest or retraining.
decided by President Nguyen Van Thieu and the Joint General Staff to
allocate the Operation in Laos to I Corps, which was in range of the
chosen targets. Apart from I Corps units, National General Reserve
Forces were sent by the Joint General Staff to the First Tactical
was a big Army unit composed of 1st and 2nd Divisions which were
experienced in warfare and were well supported by the Rangers,
Cavalry, Artillery, Air force and Signalmen. It was re-known for
defeating the enemy in the past. The 1st Infantry Division
Headquarters located at Mang Ca (inside the Imperial Citadel) was
charged with all military activities south of the 17th parallel to
north of the Hai Van Pass. From its headquarters located in Chu Lai
(Quang Tín Province) the 2nd ARVN Infantry Division looked after the
security from south of the Hai Van Pass to Binh De Pass, in the
district of Duc Pho (Quang Ngai Province).
Operation had been prepared one to two months, before the Lunar New
Year. The plan of preparation was divided into two phases.
Preparation 1st Phase
Operation's Command (I Corps) was to move from Da Nang to Dong Ha
base, where American units with their supporting groups had
previously occupied. It's job was to build up logistics to receive
reinforcement units coming from Saigon. Also, it was to fool Ha Noi
with false operations...and finally it had to set up I Corps
Headquarters in Khe Sanh.
Lunar New Year in February of 1971, the 147th Marine Brigade
commanded by Colonel Hoang Tich Thong was sent from Saigon to
reinforce I Corps. It was composed of the 2nd, 4th, and 5th Marine
Battalion, the reconnaissance Company A and an 105mm Artillery
battalion. The 2nd Battalion was commanded by Major Phuc, the 4th by
Major Kinh, the 5th by Lieutenant Colonel Nha, the Artillery
Battalion by Major Dat, and the Reconnaissance Company A by Captain
Brigade was airlifted by C-130 Hercules aircrafts from Tan Son Nhut
airport to Dong Ha airfield in two consecutive days. On arrival, the
Brigade temporarily camped to the southeast of the Dong Ha base to
await orders for the attack. At that time, the weather was still
cold and drizzling. The sky was heavily overcast - limiting
atmosphere of preparing for war was an animated one. Busy traffic
dominated the scene day and night. Aircrafts landed and took off
continuously. It was probably the busiest preparation period ever
since the war in the South broke out. To deceive the NVA
intelligence agents, the 147th Marine Brigade was ordered to
exercise amphibious maneuvers across Dong Ha river with M2 landing
Boats. Later on, one marine Battalion moved to Cua Viet as if they
were going to board ships and sail northwards pass the 17th Parallel
to assault North Vietnam. The next few days we would see whether the
NVA had fallen for the ruse or not. Shortly after the offensive
began, they confronted us violently, as if they weren't in the least
A few days
before the Operation began, the 147th Marine Brigade and other ARVN
units were transported by military trucks to Khe Sanh after having
stayed overnight at Ba Long Valley. The climate and weather in Khe
Sanh and around the Laotian border was relatively good. The scene of
amassing troops was very vibrant. The situation in the environs was
quiet. There were no enemy reactions - not a single shell fell on
our positions. the site had been a battleground between the NVA and
a US Marine Regiment aided by an ARVN Ranger Battalion. Ha Noi had
boasted that it was a second Dien Bien Phu, but they were finally
routed thanks to the high morale and strong firepower of the
before the fixed date, a meeting presided by Lieutenant General
Hoang Xuan Lam and his american advisor was organized at Ham Nghi
base, where I Corps Headquarters was situated. Commanders present
Brigadier General Pham Van Phu, commander of the 1st ARVN Infantry
Division with his regiments' commanding officers.
Lieutenant General Du Quoc Dong, commander of the ARVN Airborne
Division with the commanders of his three brigades: Colonel Le Quang
Luong of the 1st Airborne Brigade, Colonel Nguyen Quoc Lich of the
2nd Airborne Brigade, and Colonel Nguyen Van Tho, of the 3rd
Hiep commander of the 1st Ranger Group
Nguyen Trong Luat commander of the 1st ARVN Armor Brigade.
American advisers were also present, as was an officer representing
the American Air Force. The Operation was allowed to gave US air
support e.g. in firepower and for transportation. Soon after
“Vietnamization” came into effect in 1970, the Americans started to
withdraw out of South Vietnam, and no longer took part in direct
warfare. They only contributed Airpower to strike important targets
such as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or to support the ARVN. Because of
that reason, US ground combat troops were barred from entering
Cambodia and Laos during the South Vietnamese incursions. Only air
support persisted. American advisers to the campaign units were
ordered not to accompany them into battle.
this meeting, and as in other pre-operation conferences, the
Military Intelligence of I Corps gave the final briefing. It was
highly suspicious that aerial photographs and other intelligence
sources had not yielded evidence of any enemy activities. It was as
if the enemy were playing possum. No one was underestimating the
enemy at all, as the media of the day had suggested. Everybody
recognized the importance of the operation - its success was vital
in paralyzing all enemy activities in the South. Thus it was
unlikely that the enemy would take this lying down. They would
resist for sure. However, the outcome of the battle really depended
on the quality of their defensive line and military capacity. The
positive point was that the ARVN units had all been well prepared
for the battle spiritually and physically. Yet no other operation
had caused so much mulling and anxiety. It was very different from
the incursions into Cambodia, during which everybody - from the
highest officers to the common soldier was fired up and un-anxious.
The troops in that campaign had advanced like a flood.
Progress of the operation
to plan President Thieu went on radio on the 8th of February, 1971
to broadcast the goals of the operation. As Commander in Chief, he
gave the order to attack. The Operation was named Lam Son 719
because in took place in the year '71, around the region of Route 9,
which connected Khe Sanh (VN) to Tchepone City (South Laos).
1. The I
Corps task were...
invade and occupy the part of the Laotian land around Route 9,
stretching from the Laotian border to Tchepone.
annihilate enemy forces stationed in the area.
c) To destroy all fuel and logistical dumps
d) To control all infiltration along the Ho Chi Minh Trail from the
North to the South.
concept of operation...
was to deploy its own units, reinforcement units, and logistical
units into the area, either by foot or airlifts. The plan was
composed of two phases.
were to be lifted by helicopters to higher terrains along
a) up to
b) midway between the Laotian border,
c) at Tchepone.
sites, they were to:
establish fire support bases (FSB)
b) Seek and destroy the enemy.
c) Station Armor, Logistical units, Combat Engineers, and the 1st
d) Fully use airpower, firepower, including B52's to bombard
troops and ground troops were to take over Tchepone...
establish fire support bases
b) to seek and destroy the enemy
c) to provide tight security to Route 9, the main supply arterial
for all participating units.
dependant on the situation.
plan of execution
1. The 1st
ARVN Infantry Division was to send a regiment by helicopter to
vantage point No. 150, 5km south of Route 9. Here they were to:
establish fire support bases
b) Extend activities westwards providing mutual support for the
column on Route 9.
c) airlift another regiment to other vantage points south east of
Vantage Point 150, to establish FSB and block enemy advances from
Airborne Division's Headquarters was to be west of Ham Nghi Base, on
Route 9, 5km from the Laotian border. Their task was:
a) To send
an Armor brigade to occupy the T junction at Ban Dong on Route 9,
and then establish FSB.
b) To search the area and assist other ARVN units.
c) To be prepared for orders to advance.
airborne battalion and the Brigade Headquarters was to be airlifted
to a high spot 10 km north of Ban Dong. Another airborne battalion
was to operate from a FSB in the southeast area to protect the north
flank of the 1st Airborne Brigade and 1st Armor Brigade along Route
units constituted the main task force of the assaulting axis.
3. The 3rd
Airborne Brigade and the 1st Ranger Group was to operate in the
Ranger Group was to move to high spots situated along the Laotian
border (Phu Loc), north of Route 9. They were to:
two Ranger battalions to two high spots north east of the 3rd
b) search the occupied area
c) move when ordered.
4. The 1st
Armor Brigade was to cross the Laotian Border (which was the line of
departure) with the 1st Airborne Brigade to occupy Ban Dong. The two
brigades were to co-operate in defending FSB A Luoi. Besides
operating in their designated area, they were to assist the units in
the North, and be ready to move if necessary.
Artillery Staff Officers of I Corps were to:
Co-ordinate and direct artillery units to establish a net of
supporting artillery power to cover the operation area.
b) Re-supply artillery ammunitions efficiently.
6. I Corps
Marine Brigade, the 2nd Airborne Division and the 2nd Regiment/1st
Infantry Division were to await orders to deploy. The 147th Brigade
also had the task of patrolling I Corps headquarters.
erecting FSB's and achieving total control of the operation area,
the 2nd phase involved seizing control of Tchepone. A tactical plan
was to remain unchanged:
Airborne Brigade and 1st Armor brigade were to continue down Route
9, whilst two Airborne battalions were to protect the north flank of
the main prong.
Airborne Brigade was to move by helicopter to assault Tchepone (A
Regiment/1st Infantry Division was to move in a southwesterly
direction from Route 9.
Ranger Group was to continue operating in the area to protect the
north flank, and the area northeast to Route 9.
Reserves consisting of the 147th Marine Battalion, the 2nd Regiment/
1st Infantry Division were to still remain on standby.
Fire was to come from:
a) the US
Air Force, including B52's based in Northern Thailand
b) the VNAF
c) I Corps' own Artillery
d) the Divisions' owns Artillery
e) the Brigade's own Artillery.
previously planned, at 8.00 am Feb 8 1971, the President gave the
order to attack on TV and via Saigon radio. The 1st Airborne Brigade
and the 1st Armor Brigade invaded Ban Dong (target A Luoi of Phase
1) close to Route 9. The 3rd Airborne Brigade was rapidly moved to
Base 30 and 31 by helicopter.
Regiment/1st Infantry Division were airlifted to vantage points
south of Route 9.
Regiment/1st Infantry Division was airlifted to vantages points to
the north of Route 9.
movements were accomplished without meeting any resistance. The
units promptly established fire bases with the help of Combat
Engineers. Aerial reconnaissance and intelligence activities noticed
enemy movements north of the operation area. Aircraft sorties
started bombarding suspected targets. Some days later, the two
Ranger positions received continuous shelling from long range 130mm
artillery shelling. The vanguard units of the NVA had approached the
defense lines of the 39th Rangers Battalion and skirmishes broke
out. The Ranger Artillery stationed at the Laotian border (Phu Loc)
provided supporting fire day and night. Days later, under enemy
artillery barrage. the NVA regulars assaulted the 39th Ranger
Battalion. The 21st Ranger Battalion positioned in the south was
also harassed, making it impossible to receive reinforcements.
thrust was assisted by tanks. The fighting became fiercer and
fiercer, and both side suffered heavy casualties. The 39th Ranger
Battalion bravely battled on, despite being low on ammunition. They
resisted for one day and one night, before the position was lost.
The unit had to retreat toward the 21st Ranger Battalion's position
in the south. Having successfully occupied the hill, the NVA moved
west and south-west to threaten the 21st Ranger Battalion and the
3rd Airborne Brigade. The 3rd Airborne Brigade was well-supported by
Airpower (including B52's). Despite heavy losses, the NVA continued
to storm FBS 31 in the face of long and short range heavy artillery.
Although forewarned of enemy intentions, the 3rd Airborne Division
failed to establish an effective defense, and shared the same fate
of the 39th Ranger Battalion. It had fought with courage and
bravado, but succumbed to the massive suicidal onslaught of the NVA.
The Brigade Staff, including Colonel Tho was captured. Some evaded
and ran southwards toward FSB 30, which was occupied by the 2nd
Airborne Battalion. Even as they assaulted the 3rd Airborne Brigade
Headquarters, the NVA pounded away at FSB 30 and A Luoi Base where
the 1st Airborne Brigade and the 1st Armor Brigade were positioned.
These two units were unable to give assistance to the 3rd Airborne
Brigade at FSB 31, although help was sought of them.
terrain also made it extremely difficult for track vehicles to be
sent to help. Whilst the NVA utilized heavy T54 tanks, the 1st Armor
Brigade only had a squadron of M41 tanks, the other vehicles being
APC (Armored Personnel Carriers). Compounding the problem was the
fact that the ARVN did not know the terrain well, and had misjudged
the tactics of the enemy tanks. After this fiasco, I Corps hurriedly
sent another tank squadron to reinforce the area around Route 9.
anti-aircraft activities were very intense, making life very
difficult to provide air supplies, air support and medevac. Wounded
soldiers were stranded at the base for days. Helicopters could not
land, so ammunitions had to be dropped by parachutes. As a result
the morale of the ARVN plummeted. While supporting ground troops, an
American aircraft was gunned down. All air supports immediately
ceased in order to rescue the landed aircraft. The NVA benefited
from this, and their attacks met with more success.
31 fell to the enemy, they drove on towards FSB 30. This position
was quite high and the terrain was very different to that at FSB 31.
Only the northeast side was suitable for an assault. The other three
sides had near vertical drops. Thanks to the formidable topography,
and to good defenses, the 2nd Airborne Battalion was able to repulse
the enemy. Faced with such resistance and high morale., the NVA
abandoned the kamikaze-like tactics, and chose instead to pound the
position with mortar rounds, whilst they awaited for an opportunity.
Towards the end of the week, supplies were running low, bunkers were
nearly all flattened, and practically all artillery guns were
destroyed. The 2nd Airborne Battalion had to abandon the base in the
dead of night to retreat to the 1st Airborne Brigade's area of
responsibility at FSB A Luoi.
arterial route from Ban Dong (A Luoi) to the Laotian Border (Lao Bao),
once so busy, was approached by the enemy, who erected posts to
block supplies and evacuation of the wounded.
having invaded two important northern bases on the Ho Chi Minh
Trail, the enemy temporarily stooped to regroup. Though they had the
upper hand, they had also suffered a huge number of casualties. They
only delivered shelling and sent forth small units to limit the ARVN
from expanding into the surroundings. They also concentrated on the
shelling in the attempt to destroy the ARVN's Armor unit before
resuming their assault.
pressured by the Ranger and Airborne units in the north, the NVA
decided to harass the 3rd Infantry Regiment at FSB Delta (Vantage
Point 150) in the southeast. Although assisted by US Air-support and
friendly artillery, the 3rd Infantry Regiment struggled, and was
forced to retreat to a safer place, from which they were eventually
airlifted back to Khe Sanh. Casualties and loss of weapons were as
heavy as the numbers suffered by units in the northern front.
with their tactics of using human waves, regardless of the toll on
their numbers, the enemy also suffered terribly. Many were lost
during the assaults, and many more were killed by ARVN guns, and
fierce fighting conditions, our embattled units were unable to
provide assistance to each other, though the Airborne Division did
send a battalion to reinforce FSB 31. The helicopters carrying
paratroopers met with intensive anti-aircraft fires and could not
land. Several were shot down, causing the toll to rise even higher.
I Corps' reaction was limited to increasing tactical Air Sorties. A
few US aircrafts were hit during their round-the-clock bombarding
of participating NVA units was far from low, as was first presumed.
Far from the expected two, there were at least 4 to 5 Divisions,
with Armor units, and two crack divisions - the 304 and 320 which
had campaigned in Dien Bien Phu in 1954. During the rather quiet
period, the I Corps headquarters summoned all large unit commanders
to a meeting in Dong Ha to revise the operation plan. Brigadier
General Bui The Lan, the Assistant Commandant and Chief of Staff of
the VNMC, had received orders from the the Joint General Staff to
move the entire Marine Division to reinforce I Corps. Lieutenant
General Le Nguyen Khang, the Commandant of the VNMC did not attend
the meeting. This hitch in the military hierarchy was potentially
disruptive to the co-ordination of troops. The problem was that
Lieutenant General Le Nguyen Khang actually outranked Commander
Hoang Xuan Lam, who was in charge of I Corps and the entire
operation. The presence of the former, would have confused the
troops, who would have been unsure as to whom to take orders from.
foreign media's field reporters were particularly biased against the
South Vietnamese, and were always ready to play up ARVN failures,
and spread bad publicity. The media actually dwelt a detrimental
role to the Operation of Lamson. The BBC Radio ruined the ARVN's
element of surprise by braodcasting that Tchepone had been invaded,
when in reality, the ARVN had only achieved Phase 1 i.e only half of
the objective. Thus the NVA were forewarned of the possibility of
our invading Tchepone. this forced the ARVN to hastily carry through
with the objectives in an attempt to save face.
meeting, Colonel Tho, the Chief of Room 3 of the Joint General Staff
was also present. Much debating took place, causing headaches for
Headquarters proposed a plan to airlift the Marine Division to
Tchepone. Airborne units, the 1st Infantry Regiment and the 1st
Armor Brigade were to contribute to the rear contingent. My unit,
the 147th Marine Brigade, which had been a reserve for I Corps, now
became the spearhead of the offensive. The 258th Marine Brigade
commanded by Colonel Nguyen Thanh Tri would also be airlifted to the
target. The 369th Marine Brigade commanded by Colonel Pham Van Chung
were to serve as a reserve for the Division, located north of Ham
Nghi Base (Khe Sanh). I had a strange feeling that the operation was
to share the same fate as the Assassination attempt on Emperor Qin
Shi Huang by the hero Kinh Kha. (In ancient China, Kinh Kha, a
courageous swordsman, had embarked on his assassination attempt,
knowing full well that the odds were against him. He narrowly missed
the Emperor, but despite being chopped to bits by the Emperor's men,
he continued in his endeavor, finally dying in the attempt). The
analogy was apt, as a few days before, the North Vietnamese radio
had boasted that Tchepone was to be the second Dien Bien Phu. They
were fully prepared for us. According to I Corps Intelligence
sources, the enemy had already organized an Artillery network, sowed
several minefields, and a dense antiaircraft system. Assigned such a
big task, and being responsible for thousands of Marines, I was
seriously disconcerted by the fact that our target was so well known
to the enemy. But at the same time, I was proud of being assigned
such and a difficult task.
time, the 147th Marine Brigade was formed by 3 Battalions commanded
by officers experienced in warfare, known for their courage. Though
demoralizing news came from the frontlines, they knew the honor of
the Marines was at stake, and so were willing to fight to the end to
live up to the expectation. Everyone readied themselves to be
airlifted to the battle ground. However, the plans were changed at
the last moment. The 1st Infantry Division became the spearhead
instead of the 147th Marine Brigade. The reason for the change was
probably because the ARVN only had two national reserves; the
Airborne and the Marines. The Airborne Division had recently
suffered severely, so the Joint General Staff was unwilling to place
the only remaining reserve, i.e. the Marines in a situation that
from the start seemed unfavorable.
another view point, the change of plan was reasonable because the
1st Infantry Division was one of I Corps own units. Consistent with
the new plan, the 1st Infantry Division would use one reinforced
Infantry Regiment and airlift it to the target. To the north of
Route 9, a special task force made of Armor units and the 1st
Airborne Brigade were to move as a rear column for the unit in
Headquarters of the 1st Infantry Regiment and another infantry
battalion was to move from Vantage Point 150 (FSB Delta) northwards
to another FSB in order to monitor its subordinate units moving
south of Route 9, and to be ready to reinforce the units at Tchepone.
The 147th Marine Brigade were to replace them at this position. It
was to deploy its units east and west of the base to eradicate the
enemy and to destroy the supply dumps hidden in the area of
Division, being composed of three Brigades, stationed its
headquarters east of Ham Nghi base.
Marine Brigade was to be airlifted to Mt Coroc, situated at the
Laotian border south of Lao Bao.
Battalions performing their military activities north of Mt Coroc
were to provide the 147th Brigade with support if necessary.
Marine Brigade, stationed north of Ham Nghi base (Khe Sanh) was to
be the Division reserve.
later, two marine brigades were moved by helicopter to the planned
areas. The 2nd Marine Battalion and the 4th Marine Battalion of the
147th Marine Brigade landed north, and north- east of Base Delta.
The Brigade Headquarters and the 5th Marine Brigade and a mixed
Artillery company with its two 155mm and four 105mm Howitzers were
stationed at FSB Delta. Only six Howitzer were positioned there
because the base had limited area. Moreover, the supply of
ammunition was extremely difficult to receive, especially by the end
of the operation, when the NVA anti-aircraft activities was very
intense. The landing of troops were achieved without much
the 2nd Infantry Regiment, the unit assigned to invade Tchepone was
preparing to be airlifted. At that stage, the invasion of Tchepone
was no longer an option for the ARVN. After the world media had
prematurely broadcasted the news that I Corps had invaded Tchepone,
it became a matter of honor to achieve just that. Phase 2 had to be
carried out, taking into account the change in circumstance. The
Headquarters of the 1st Infantry Division ordered the 2nd Regiment
to send the most able of its battalions by helicopter to Tchepone.
The idea was to carry out activities in Tchepone for a short while,
enough to prove that the ARVN had indeed invaded the City as
reported, and then retreat immediately by airlifts, as the enemy
presence was too strong.
was executed. Artillery barrages and continuous aircraft
bombardments ensured a safe arrival for the 2nd Infantry Regiment at
Tchepone. The enemy did not react. Their silence was predictable -
they were not so stupid as to place their units right at the site of
the target. They had instead stationed well outside the target to
avoid the bombings prior to the ARVN's landing, and only after the
ARVN arrived did they move in for the attack.
airlift had finished at daytime. But nothing happened until late in
the evening when the enemy artillery started concentrating their
artillery on the positions of the 2nd Infantry Regiment.
unit had withdrawn to a pick-up zone to be airlifted back to their
bases in the morning. When the NVA knew of this, they rushed their
troops to the pick up zone, causing a lot of difficulty to the
infantry men at the rear of the retreat. A number had to flee in the
direction of the Airborne units. While the enemy was continuing to
pressure the 2nd Infantry Regiment, their other units applied the
infantry and the artillery to attack the 1st Infantry Regiment, the
Airborne and the Armor units south of Route 9.
south, to the west and south west of Delta Base, the Marines were
engaged in fighting that had lasted for some days. The battle was
savage. The shelling was non-stop. All our units from the north to
the south of Route 9 were targeted by their intimidating artillery.
There were huge losses. It was impossible to receive supplies and
medevac because of the intense anti-aircraft fire. Eventually, the
Special Task Force (the Airborne and Armor) was ordered to retreat
to Khe Sanh. This withdrawal was extremely difficult since the enemy
had clearly expected our intentions. They intensified their attack.
Under such pressure, the fighting spirit of the troops fell
drastically, and the commanders had difficulty getting their orders
fulfilled. Helicopters however, had great trouble landing. Some
panic stricken soldiers struggled with their brothers in arms to
gain a spot on the helicopters which managed to land. Again this
fact was grossly exaggerated by the foreign media, which never
failed to harp on it whenever they had the chance.
northern column's withdrawal by foot along the route from Ban dong
to Lao Bao (on the Laos-Viet Border) could not avoid heavy
casualties either. The two columns consisting of the Airborne/Armor
and the 1st Infantry regiment did succeed in retreating with minimal
losses. That the 1st Infantry Regiment, however, lose one of its
best officers - Lieutenant Colonel Le Huan, a battalion commander.
Once these two columns had left the battleground, the enemy
concentrated their forces to assault the 147th Marine Brigade around
Delta base. The 2nd and the 4th battalion which had previously
deployed further west of the base, was forced slowly back towards
its perimeter. The Brigade was well supported from Mt Coroc by the
artillery of the 258th Marine Brigade, and also by air support. The
B52's were particularly effective and accurate in the close range
enemy stubbornly stayed in their hideouts and bunkers, and so
resisted our attacks. The fighting was protracted, and was
unfavorable to the Marines in that supplies and medevac was
unattainable. The enemy artillery, including recoilless 75mm guns
were positioned in vantage points opposite to Delta Base, so they
were able to fire directly at the TOC bunker of the Brigade
Headquarters. The antennae was shot down, neighboring bunkers were
destroyed, and our Howitzers were damaged. In response, the Brigade
gave the order to retreat south to block the apical line along which
the enemy could approach us. The 4th Marine Battalion was to move
north-east to protect the retreating route of the Brigade that led
eastwards towards the direction of the 258th Marine Brigade. The
Brigade Headquarters then requested I Corps permission to pull out
from the base to continue fighting in the surrounding areas, rather
remain at base, only to be on the receiving end of the enemy
artillery. However, the proposition was not applicable, as the order
to retreat was issued in the afternoon, and that very morning, an
unforeseen event occurred. A platoon of enemy sapper had
successfully infiltrated through the defense line of the 5th Marine
Battalion, and had managed to occupy one bunker located at the south
entrance of the base. But they were stopped there and the 5th
Battalion sent a company to dislodge them. Many of the Reds were
killed or wounded, and the rest surrendered. On interrogation, they
revealed they belonged to Division 324 B, and that their duty was to
assault the 147th Marine Brigade. Body searches revealed a piece of
paper reading: “We dedicate our lives to the annihilation of the
artillery located west and southwest of the base continued to pound
us daily. The 2nd Marine Battalion was also targeted. In the north,
the 4th Battalion received remarkably light shelling. In preparation
for the retreat, the Brigade Headquarters sent Reconnaissance
Company A, commanded by Captain Hien, to collect information about
enemy positions so that a route could be chosen for that evening.
Unfortunately, the company was overwhelmed by the enemy, and the
Commander and many Marines were taken. With no reconnaissance
reports, the brigade was forced to decide on the route that would
lead them in the direction of the 4th Marine Battalion, from which
they could cross the mountains to the east. The plan of retreat was
- The 4th
Marine Battalion was to open the route and lead the retreat.
- The 5th Marine Battalion was to follow with the Brigade in tow.
- The 2nd Marine Battalion was to make up the rear.
artillery pieces were to be left in an unusable condition: most were
destroyed, the important parts of others were disarticulated and
distressing and regrettable was the fact that our dead could not be
sent back home, as the helicopters were unable to land. The wounded,
however, were all carried along by medics and friends. To make the
retreat relatively safe, the Brigade requested B 52 intervention.
According to the agreed plan, once the B52 were to stop bombing, the
Brigade would start pulling out of the base. Just before the
scheduled time, the 2nd Marine Battalion reported having seen
indistinct lights presumably from track vehicles to the south. At
the fixed time, twelve B52's bombarded 1-2km south of the base, and
east of the 4th Marine Battalion's position. As soon as the
bombardment stopped, the Brigade immediately abandoned the base.
Barely 1 km away, the 4th Marine Battalion met an enemy mortar unit.
Only one volley of fire was enough to repel them. The retreat was
exceedingly arduous ... we had to cross hills and mountains covered
with thick thorny bamboos in total darkness.
the artillery of the 258th Marine Brigade located on Mt Coroc was
persistently shelling at Base Delta and behind the 147th Marine
Brigade to thwart the NVA pursuit. They also included flares to
illuminate the retreat path and to provide guidance in the darkness.
The 258th Marine Brigade was sent forth to welcome the 147th
Brigade. The entire night was spent marching. Luckily, there were no
engagements with enemy - the path being so rough, probably hindered
their pursuit. It was fortunate that after we left the base, the
enemy was unsure of our exact evolution. At noon the following day,
the Brigade met the 3rd Marine Battalion. Immediately we requested
the Marine Division Headquarters to medevac the wounded to safe
bases, then we all moved in the direction of the 258th Brigade. We
had covered considerable distance when the enemy began the shelling.
Fortunately, the aiming was poor. By dusk, we reached the gathering
place close to Mt Coroc, where we were to be airlifted to Khe Sanh
in the morning. So the 147th Brigade managed to reach safety after a
fortnight in Laos.
summary, our casualties (including MIA) was less than 10%. Weapons
were retained, except for the six artillery pieces left behind. Two
were 155mm and four were 105mmm Howitzers. By all accounts, enemy
losses were extremely high due to the ferocious fighting, continuous
shelling and B52 strikes. However, the exact count remains a mystery
as we did not master the battlefield.
Brigade started its withdrawal, a few Marines wanted to kill the
POWs. However, I disagreed - so we left them unharmed in the
bunkers. Whether or not they managed to escape our artillery and
bombings of the base afterwards is unknown.
Marine Division Headquarters, I was told that the 147th Marine
Brigade was the last unit to leave Laos. The Ranger Group
Headquarters stationed at Phu Loc (on the Laotian Border) north of
Route 9, had retreated a short time before we did. In the following
days, the enemy occasionally fired artillery rounds over the border
from Laos, but there was no significant damage sustained at Ham Nghi
Base. Eventually, the Brigade was moved by military trucks to the
district of Dong Ha. Thus, the operation of Lamson 719 ended.
VII. Assessment and comments
period of one month, the 147th Marine Battalion had participated in
Operation Lamson 719, which started at the beginning of February
1971. It has served as a reserve for I Corps in Phase 1, then a
direct fighting force in Phase 2. As the Brigade commander, I have
the following comments to make:
1. On the
terrain was extremely different from that in Vietnam. Only some
parts of Pleiku, Kontum in the Central Highlands vaguely resembled
only one route - the 9th, passing through the area of operation.
Bordering on both sides were continuous mountain ranges. Such
terrain was difficult for heavy armored vehicles which easily became
targets for ambushes. Thick forests on the mountains and hills
impeded troop movements, especially in the south which was covered
with huge bamboos. It was in the south that the 1st Infantry
Regiment and the Marine Brigade deployed. It was a disadvantage for
the offensive force, which could not evolve far and wide. Instead,
movement was limited to narrow trails. Observation was poor, and
losing directions was a real hazard. Often, brothers in arms would
mistake each other for the enemy at a distance, and would
inadvertently shoot each other. Bombings and air power found it
difficult to avoid hitting friendly troops. Furthermore, the terrain
hampered delivery of supplies and evacuation of the wounded.
Helicopters needed to facilitate these two crucial things could only
land with relative ease near Route 9. The strength of the troops was
greatly taxed as they had to carry an additional load of food and
ammunition to make up for the lack of supplies. All these factors
had a significant negative effect on the morale of the troops. On
the other hand, the terrain was very familiar to the enemy, as they
actually lived and carried out military activities there. Their
personal gear was light, contrasting greatly with our bulky loads.
In summary, in planning an operation, it is crucial to take the
terrain into account.
Cambodia, the terrain was much flatter and vision was rarely
impeded. Thus the operations across the Cambodia in 1970 were very
successful - All units fought efficiently and effectively, and many
victories were came by. The weather was also favorable to both
ground forces and aircrafts.
operation, it is crucial to gather intelligence. G3 would outline
the operation plan, which would then be discussed by staff members.
ultimately the decision would be made by the commander. Accurate
information, timing, and location are all important factors to
consider, in order to keep the number of losses low. In the past,
there was a tendency to abuse the services of the national reserves
i.e. the Marines and the Airborne Division. They were often
over-used ... called upon for the most trivial of skirmishes to the
most ferocious of battles. As a result, the divisions rarely had
time to recover before they were shunted to another operation. The
strength and manpower of of the reserves were needlessly taxed.
Often, these soldiers, who were crack combat troops fell victim to
booby traps and mines during inappropriate assignments.
recall the time the Marines were called upon to re-enforce the 21st
Infantry Division, IV Corps, in Chuong Thien Province. For a couple
of months, we did not meet a single V.C. but still required many
medevacs because men were blown up by the mines scattered over the
area of operation. I sarcastically asked the commander of the 21st
Infantry Division whether he thought the Marines were good mine
detectors. In fact, that was exactly what he wanted us to be.
general, intelligence information was inaccurate or came too late,
and many operations were doomed from the beginning. Sometimes, if
the information gathered was correct, the planning was poor.
Operation Lamson, G2 I Corps really did not have a really clear idea
of what was going on. During briefings, information provided was
vague, and orders given to the Divisions, Brigades, and Regiments
lacked co-ordination and accuracy. Thus the units had to find out
for themselves the true nature of things.
Operation started, intelligence sources had estimated that there
were only one or two active NVA divisions in the area. They failed
to note that potential reinforcements could have poured in from the
Laotian-North Vietnamese border.
battle broke out, there were at least 4-5 enemy divisions in
addition to tanks and a very strong display of anti-aircraft
weapons. Information about the main target, Tchepone was poorly
gathered. The planning of the attack was based on what had been
broadcasted by Hanoi Radio. The result was that our forces were
continuously overwhelmed, surrounded, counter-attacked, by the enemy
through out the entire retreat from Tchepone to the Laotian border.
knowledge regarding enemy activities and unfamiliarity with the
terrain led to bad planning, that arrived at unsuitable requirements
to in order to capture the target. Even if there were only one or
two enemy divisions present in the area, the fighting force of I
Corps was still too small - for an attacking force to succeed, their
numbers ought to be triple the size of the enemies. I Corps force
was no where near achieving this advantageous ratio.
to the planning, our attacking force in Phase 1 was composed of :
column north of Route 9: - Two Airborne Brigades - One Armor Brigade
with 2 A.P.C. Battalions and 1 tank battalion. - Two Rangers
column south of Route 9: - 1st Infantry Regiment - 3rd Infantry
practice there were only 4,5 battalions which deployed widely. The
remainder had to establish fire support bases to protect them and to
patrol the surrounding areas. The establishment of FSB's
inadvertantly transformed their active potential to a passive
position. FSB's became targets which were threatened and overran by
support bases were necessary to provide positions for the artillery.
However, they were not effective because supply of ammunitions
during the operation was hampered. The terrain did not allow trucks
to move. Air shipments were insufficient and costly, not to mention
foiled by the anti-aircraft activities. Supplies were very scarce.
set back was that the FSB's were built on vantage spots, which did
not have sufficient space to position the necessary amount of
batteries needed to protect the fighting units. A Marine or Airborne
Brigade only received support from one Artillery battalion only.
Operation Lamson 719, the 147th Marine Brigade was actually assisted
by four 105mm and two 155mm Howitzers, but the artillery men had to
ration ammunitions, even during fighting. So, it was clear that the
Artillery could not carry out support during combat, nor could they
carry out Harassment and Interdiction as scheduled. Because of this,
fighting units had to rely upon air fire power which, unlike
artillery H & I, was dependent on the weather. Furthermore, it
lacked the accuracy and continuity of the artillery shelling.
point worth mentioning, is that Americans support of our operations
exposed Vietnamese officers and soldiers to a new kind of fighting -
which involved plying maximal firepower prior to assaults. This rich
man's way of fighting rather spoilt them, so that when fire-support
was lacking, they were reluctant to thrust forward. Thus, the fire
support bases could not perform their assigned duties because of the
above mentioned reasons.
reliant on FSB's headquarters were unable to direct their units
freely to keep the enemy guessing. The only attacking force with any
mobility and strong firepower was the Armor Brigade. But it did not
fare any better. Again, the terrain was against them, making it very
difficult for tanks to help advancing columns. They too ended up
like the infantry - caught up in protecting FSB's, and eventually
became targets of the enemy artillery.
1, while the enemy was relentlessly driving towards FSB 31 where the
3rd Airborne Brigade was, I Corps' reaction was very clumsy. They
left the situation to develop on its own - to end in favor of the
NVA. In short, the I Corps Staff had relied too much on the air
support to change the situation.
2, the preparation time was so prolonged that the enemy had plenty
of time to regroup and move other units in to the battlefield.
preparatory briefing for phase 2, there were various opinions, not
to mention lack of unanimity. The change of plans revealed the
tactical and strategically short-comings of Operation Lamson 719.
General Staff and the I Corps did not attain their goal and in the
process allowed the elite troops of the ARVN to suffer such
remarkable losses that the repercussions of this was felt during the
Easter Offensive 1972 and in the year 1975.
2, I Corps and the 1st Infantry Division were forced to send the 2nd
Infantry Regiment to invade Tchepone because the media had
broadcasted that the ARVN was already there. Though the 2nd Infantry
Regiment was secretly ordered to withdraw shortly after the
invasion, everything did not go as smoothly as expected. The retreat
aiming at ending the operation was disorderly - poorly co-ordinate.
It was a case of every unit for themselves. There was one exception,
and that was at Base Delta, where the 147th Marine Brigade retreated
in a relatively well-organized and timely manner. Fire supports for
the 147th Brigade was efficacious and continuous. One more day, and
the brigade would have suffered at the hands of the NVA.
Lam Son 719 was clumsily executed, consequently, the aim, namely to
stop enemy activities along the Ho Chi Minh Trail was not achieved.
This failure led to the Easter Offensive in 1972 and the full scale
invasion in 1975.
a necessity for any operation. There were innumerable operations
carried out under the 1st and 2nd Republics, but their results were
not particularly notable, though sometimes facts were ameliorated
for propaganda purposes, or to boost morale.
the Communists grew larger and stronger. Remote country areas
gradually fell into their hands, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was extended
to allow troops and supplies to be transported to the South. These
factors were the reasons why our Search and Destroy Tactic failed in
the long term, though it had been so effective. The Communists
merely hid across the border or in far-reaching provinces.
was notoriously inept at keeping secrets. Often, Operations would be
launched only to find that the enemy had deserted the targets a few
days beforehand. Assaulting deserted targets was a waste of time and
lives, as most were rigged with booby traps and land mines. In
addition such fruitless operation exhausted logistical supplies,
leaving us susceptible to enemy attack. The enemy, by avoiding a
head to head confrontation had the advantage of surprise, and good
were usually revealed by individuals present at briefings - either
by their talkative nature or greed for the tempting rewards offered
by communist spies. Learning form harsh experiences, it was decided
much later in the war, that only commanders of participating
fighting units were to be present at briefings, which usually took
place a short time before the operation was scheduled.
Unfortunately, even if secrets were well-kept, operations still
could fall apart if preparations were incomplete or if aspects of
the plan were misunderstood.
Lam Son 719, the organization took two or three months, during which
every facet was taken into account. These included plans to move I
Corps Forward Staff from Da Nang to Dong Ha, building supply
warehouses in Dong Ha and Khe Sanh, building command bases for I
Corps Staff, sending for reinforcements from Saigon. With such
activity, even civilians could tell something was up. Needless to
say, the NVA, with its sophisticated spy system, easily guessed the
purpose of the operation. In an attempt to fool the enemy, I Corps
came up with a rather banal and naive decoy. The 147th Marine
Brigade had to perform some amphibious maneuvers as if they were
planning to make a foray into North Vietnam. Naturally, the NVA did
not bat an eye lid, and calmly watched developments at the real
target. They had plenty of time to move in more reinforcements from
the North and survey the battle ground.
have been impossible to hide such a large operation when
organization involved so many people at so many levels. Furthermore,
the protracted preparation and the busy movement of troops in the
area quickly revealed the intensions of the ARVN. In such a
situation it should have boiled down to finding a way to
disorientate the enemy, and confuse their reaction somewhat. Instead
briefing that took place days prior to the operation were
unrestricted, and information more or less flowed straight into
planned attacks to be backed by the fire support bases, was an index
of the opeartion, enabling the NVA to analyze the situation and
the effects of leaked information, I Corps should haved used a
mobile advancing column to move along Route 9, or should have
airlifted troops to vantage points from where they could have storm
targets, The drive should have been continuous, until the ARVN was
master of Route 9, from Mt Coroc to Tchepone. Only then should
consolidation have taken place by means of “search and destroy.”
ought to have been used as the main supply artery, FSB's for
artillery should only have been established along Route 9. and
fighting units should have deployed within range of the supporting
artillery. Tactical airpower should have been used to assist at
close range as well as far away. Had the operation been carried out
in this way, mutual help could have been maintained throughout.
more, our numbers should have at least equalled the number of NVA
regulars. Two complete Airborne and Infantry Divisions, an Armour
Brigrade, and the Ranger Group 1 should have been accompanied by
strong artillery support. A reserve should have been ready to move
in to reinforce as the situation required.
movement, whether forwards or backwards, would have been easier, and
the enemy would not have had the chance to cut the units into two.
Supplies and Medevacs
and Medevac are the mainstays of any Operation. The larger the
operation, the greater the demand.
Operation Lam Son 719, preparations were relatively adequate, but
did not meet the battlefield needs. In the planning, I Corps had
absolutely relied upon the air force, namely helicopters from the
Americans for support, supplies, medevac. Route 9 was used initially
to accomplish these goals for the Special Task Force (The 1st
Airborne Brigade and the 1st Armor Brigade). For such a large-scale
operation, it was impossible for supplies and medevac to be
accomplished by helicopters alone, especially in the presence of
enemy anti-aircraft firepower. The crude facts of the Operation
supplies were hampered, the fighting spirit of soldiers was
naturally influenced. Lack of ammunition and guns caused the
firepower to decrease. Shortage of food and water weakened the
troops. The wounded died waiting for medevac.
organization of logistics should be of primary concern.
Commanding and Staff Matters
The key to
commanding effectively is to have a unified system of command and
control between commanders. This is much more effective than
executing tasks separately. In Operation Lam Son 719, there was
discordance at the top levels. Lieutenant General Hang Xuan Lam the
overall commander was outranked by the Marine Commandant, Lieutenant
General Le Nguyen Khang, who was his senior. Lieutenant General
Khang instead of flying to Khe Sanh to help and advise the former,
stayed in Saigon, and sent his Assistant Commandant, Colonel Bui The
Lan to I Corps to command the Marine Division.
Phase 2, the Marine Division Staff and I Corps Staff had several
disagreements between them. And I Corps itself was not in perfect
accord with the 1st Infantry Division, and Airborne Division.
Lam Son 719 was the largest operation into Cambodia till then,
though there had been previous incursions organized by III Corps and
operation, which was reported around the world, required an
experienced and talented commander at higher levels to deal with the
confrontation. It need a truly experienced military man, not someone
who made his way by supporting the right political factions.
Lieutenant General Lam had never had experienced in commanding big
battles and naturally encountered big problems when he was in charge
of I Corps. He surrounded himself with cronies of the same
background. During the operation, while with the 147th Brigade, I
was frequently present at I Corps Staff meetings. I noted that the
Staff were extremely indecisive in handling the situation, and did
not seem to grasp the details of the battle well. I noticed that
Colonel Nguyen Dinh Vinh aide to Lieutenant General Lam. He had been
dismissed from his job as Secretary General of the Defense Ministry
for political reasons when Lieutenant General Nguyen Luu Co was
Minister. Looking at the Staff, we knew what would ensue. Rumor had
it that Lieutenant General Lam had returned to Dong Ha, as he was
absent from the tactical operations center (TOC) for days. It was
noteworthy that I Corps had no Executive Commander for Operations.
summary, with such a Corps Commander and Staff, the Operation was
doomed from the start. The operation ended hastily after more than a
month of fighting, leaving on the battlefields heavy human and
material losses on both sides. The situation in Laos remained
wondered whether Operation Lam Son, conceived by the Americans, was
a political move. Did the foreign powers want to draw the ants of
two nests out with a sugar cube to weaken the forces of both? Was
that a means to render both parties more malleable for peace talks ?
It is interesting to note that the fiasco occurred around the period
of Vietnamization, when South Vietnam was prodded into negotiations.