Operation Lam Son 719

                                                                           in 1971

                                                                                                      Colonel Hoang Thich Thong

I.  Background landscape


In 1968, 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).

It took the ARVN several days to successfully push the VC and the NVA back. In regaining ground, ARVN inflicted heavy casualties to the invaders.

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.

Our 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.

Meanwhile 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 invincibility.

After the “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.

The ARVN 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.


II. The area in which operation of Lamson 719 was carried out


The area 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 border guard-posts.

Movements 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.

Operation 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.

The local 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.


III. The condition of the enemy in the area of operation


Before 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 indefinite.


IV. Conditions in the first tactical zone and I corps


In the 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.

It was 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 Zone.

I Corps 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).

The Operation had been prepared one to two months, before the Lunar New Year. The plan of preparation was divided into two phases.


V.  Preparation 1st Phase


The 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.

After 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 Hien.

The 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 activities.

The 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 surprise.

2nd Phase

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 American troops.

A day 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 included:

1. Brigadier General Pham Van Phu, commander of the 1st ARVN Infantry Division with his regiments' commanding officers.

2. 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 Airborne Brigade.

3. Colonel Hiep commander of the 1st Ranger Group

4. Colonel Nguyen Trong Luat commander of the 1st ARVN Armor Brigade.

The 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.

During 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.


VI.  Progress of the operation


According 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...

a) To invade and occupy the part of the Laotian land around Route 9, stretching from the Laotian border to Tchepone.

b) To 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.

2. The concept of operation...

I Corps 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.

Phase 1

Troops were to be  lifted by helicopters to higher terrains along Route 9:

a) up to Ban Dong,
b) midway between the Laotian border,
c) at Tchepone.

At these sites, they were to:

a) establish fire support bases (FSB)
b) Seek and destroy the enemy.
c) Station Armor, Logistical units, Combat Engineers, and the 1st Airborne Brigade.
d) Fully use airpower, firepower, including B52's to bombard suspected targets.

Phase 2

Airlifted troops and ground troops were to take over Tchepone...

a) To 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.

Timing was dependant on the situation.

3. The plan of execution

Phase 1

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:

a) 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 the South.

2. The 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.

One 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 9.

These two 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 North.

The 1st Ranger Group was to move to high spots situated along the Laotian border (Phu Loc), north of Route 9. They were to:

a) airlift two Ranger battalions to two high spots north east of the 3rd Airborne Brigade
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.

5. Artillery Staff Officers of I Corps were to:

a) 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 Reserves:

The 147th 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.

Phase 2

After 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:

The 1st 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.

The 2nd Airborne Brigade was to move by helicopter to assault Tchepone (A Shau).

The 1st Regiment/1st Infantry Division was to move in a southwesterly direction from Route 9.

The 1st Ranger Group was to continue operating in the area to protect the north flank, and the area northeast to Route 9.

The Reserves consisting of the 147th Marine Battalion, the 2nd Regiment/ 1st Infantry Division were to still remain on standby.

Supporting 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.

As 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.

The 1st Regiment/1st Infantry Division were airlifted to vantage points south of Route 9.

The 3rd Regiment/1st Infantry Division was airlifted to vantages points to the north of Route 9.

All troop 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.

The NVA's 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.

The 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.

The enemy 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.

After FSB 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.

The main 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.

After 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.

Meanwhile, 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.

Of course 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 air-support.

Under the 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 missions.

The number 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.

The 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.

At the meeting, Colonel Tho, the Chief of Room 3 of the Joint General Staff was also present. Much debating took place, causing headaches for General Lam.

I Corps 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.

At the 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.

From 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 Tchepone.

The 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 responsibility.

The Marine Division, being composed of three Brigades, stationed its headquarters east of Ham Nghi base.

The 258th Marine Brigade was to be airlifted to Mt Coroc, situated at the Laotian border south of Lao Bao.

Marine Battalions performing their military activities north of Mt Coroc were to provide the 147th Brigade with support if necessary.

The 369th Marine Brigade, stationed north of Ham Nghi base (Khe Sanh) was to be the Division reserve.

Some days 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 difficulty.

Meanwhile 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.

The plan 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.

The 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.

But the 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.

Further 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.

The 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 support.

But the 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 Crazy Buffaloes”.

The enemy 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 as follows:

- 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.

All artillery pieces were to be left in an unusable condition: most were destroyed, the important parts of others were disarticulated and thrown away.

Deeply 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.

Meanwhile 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.

In 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.

When the 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.

At the 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


For a 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 topography

The terrain was extremely different from that in Vietnam. Only some parts of Pleiku, Kontum in the Central Highlands vaguely resembled it.

There was 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.

In 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.

2. On Intelligence Information

Before any 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.

I still 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.

In 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.

Prior to 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.

Before the 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.

When the 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.

3. On planning

Lack of 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.

According to the planning, our attacking force in Phase 1 was composed of :

a. A column north of Route 9: - Two Airborne Brigades - One Armor Brigade with 2 A.P.C. Battalions and 1 tank battalion. - Two Rangers Battalions

b. A column south of Route 9: - 1st Infantry Regiment - 3rd Infantry Regiment

In 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 the enemy.

The fire 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.

Another 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.

In 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.

Another 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.

Being so 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.

In phase 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.

In phase 2, the preparation time was so prolonged that the enemy had plenty of time to regroup and move other units in to the battlefield.

In the 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.

The Joint 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.

In phase 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.

Operation 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.

4. Keeping Secrets

Secrecy is 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.

Meanwhile, 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.

The ARVN 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 preparation time.

Secrets 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.

Regarding 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.

It would 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 enemy ears.

The planned attacks to be backed by the fire support bases, was an index of the opeartion, enabling the NVA to analyze the situation and react accordingly.

To counter 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.”

Route 9 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.

Further 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.

That way, movement, whether forwards or backwards, would have been easier, and the enemy would not have had the chance to cut the units into two.


5. Supplies and Medevacs


Supplies and Medevac are the mainstays of any Operation. The larger the operation, the greater the demand.

In 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 demonstrated this.

Once 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.

Thus the organization of logistics should be of primary concern.

6. 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.

Throughout 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.

Operation Lam Son 719 was the largest operation into Cambodia till then, though there had been previous incursions organized by III Corps and IV Corps.

This 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.

In 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 unchanged.

I've often 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.



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