THE FINAL ACT: THE BATTLE OF XUAN LOC AND THE FALL OF SAIGON
78 ABW OFFICE OF HISTORY
ROBINS AFB Introduction
In all of recorded human history there have been heroic events in which an outnumbered force of soldiers have defended their nation against overwhelming odds knowing full well their chance for victory or, even, survival was minimal. Many people are familiar with the heroic defense of the pass at Thermopylae in 430 BCE by King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans. James Fennimore Cooper in his famous novel Last of the Mohicans made most members of my generation familiar with the desperate struggle in 1757 by outnumbered British forces to defend Ft. William Henry in the French and Indian War. Many others, especially Jews and Israelis, are also familiar with the valiant and defiant defense of the mountain top fortress of Masada by a handful of Jewish rebels against the elite Roman X Legion in 73 CE.
Many Americans are familiar with the many courageous battles fought by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. To be sure, names such as Ia Drang, Khe Sanh, Tet, Hue, and Hamburger Hill still echo throughout the pantheon of the American military deeds. Yet, in the end, the final desperate battle to save the Republic of Vietnam was not fought by Americans. Instead, it was a heroic struggle fought against overwhelming odds by members of Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) at an obscure outpost only 40 miles from Saigon known as Xuan Loc or in Vietnamese, as Tran Xuan Loc. After nearly 30 years of bitter conflict and bloody war, the opposing forces in the erstwhile civil war between the pseudo-republican forces of the south, recently abandoned by their American sponsors, and the Marxist/nationalist forces of the north, locked horns in one final desperate struggle to decide the fate of Vietnam once and for all. South Vietnam’s final stand at Xuan Loc, in spite of the casualties they inflicted on the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), ended in defeat. This, in turn, led to the resignation of President Nguyen Van Thieu and the eventual fall of Saigon.
As is now evident in hindsight, by the time the South Vietnamese government sent its last mobile forces, specifically the 18th Infantry Division under General Le Minh Dao, to Xuan Loc, the war had already been lost. At the time, President Thieu hoped to slow the NVA’s advance and form a defensive perimeter. Even though General Le himself probably realized how untenable his position was, he and his troops put up a tenacious struggle between 9 and 21 April 1975, when he was ordered to withdraw, and the town of Xuan Loc was occupied by the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) 4th Army Corps. Since this was the ARVN III Corps’ last defensive line in front of the capital of Saigon, once Xuan Loc fell, there was little between the communist forces and their final victory. Even though elements of the III Corps’ Armored Task Force, remnants of the 18th Infantry Division, and depleted ARVN Marine, Airborne and Ranger Battalions continued a fighting retreat for nine days, PAVN armored columns smashed through the gates of South Vietnam’s Presidential Palace on 30 April 1975, effectively ending the war.1
Background In the years since Xuan Loc fell, the battle itself has been defined by the inspirational leadership of Brigadier General Le Minh Dao and the determined resistance of the ARVN 18th Division. The numbers alone, demonstrate how effective they were. On the first day of battle, the NVA’s 4th Army Corps, under Major General Hoang Cam, lost more than 700 men. By 13 April, the death toll climbed to 2,000 and Gen. Hoang Cam had not advanced a single inch. At this point, according Gen. Tran Van Tra, the famous National Liberation Front (NLF) Commander, they had to alter their tactics from a standard frontal assault to a more subtle encircling action designed to wear down the 18th. Over the following week, the NVA concentrated their forces around Xuan Loc. In spite of the enemy’s superior numbers and, apparently, superior position, Le’s men struck out wherever and whenever possible hammering their opponents even though they were outnumbered four or five to one. Ultimately, Le was ordered to return to Saigon, which required all of his skill to outmaneuver the PAVN forces.2
In spite of the heroic defense by the 18th, it all came to nothing, and Saigon fell on 30 April. Even though Gen. Le could have evacuated with other key leaders and officials, he stayed with his men and, on 9 May, he surrendered to enemy forces. He was tried and sentenced to a 17 year prison term. He was released on 4 May 1992 and eventually migrated to the United States. Like so many South Vietnamese who had made such a devoted commitment to their nation, Le was left to wonder how it had come to this. How had he and millions of others become refugees and/or members of a defeated nation that, after 1975, ceased to exist? To answer that question, the reader must return to early 1973 and the departure of the Americans.
The Beginning of the End for South Vietnam While the penning of the Paris Peace Accords on 27 January 1973, garnered acclaim and renown for President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and allowed the U.S. to withdraw from the war, it did not end the fighting in South Vietnam. Almost immediately, both sides violated the tenets of cease-fire and attempted to gain control of as much territory as possible. Both Saigon and Hanoi realized that they needed to control as much of the Southern population centers in order to have leverage in any future dialogues or efforts at reunification. While President Thieu seemed to hold a strong position, especially since he had assurances from President Nixon of continued American material aid, the truth was that 200,000 enemy forces were in South Vietnam along with enough supplies to launch the NVA’s three-phase “Land-grabbing-and population nibbling” campaign which included assaults by four division-sized units aimed at several strategically significant positions.3
As the year wore on, Northern leaders held critical meetings to discuss the future direction military operations would take. On the one hand, PAVN Chief of Staff General Van Tien Dung and the North’s Defense Minister, the famed Vo Nguyen Giap, ardently counseled the renewal of conventional military operations fearing that a lack of action would allow the ARVN to grow stronger and the morale of their own army to wane. On the other hand, Premier Pham Van Dong worried increased fighting would bleed away precious resources needed to rebuild the Northern infrastructure and economy as well as relieve the constant military sacrifice and commitment by the citizens of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). Some leaders even feared that a full-scale assault in the South might cause the Americans to increase their supply of resources to the Saigon regime and, maybe, even recommit their own forces, no matter how unlikely that might have appeared at the time.4
What evolved from this debate was something known as Resolution 21. It called for “strategic raids” against ARVN units in an effort to retake ground they had lost since the signing of the Paris Accords. The purpose of this new tactic was to test the reaction of both South Vietnam and the U.S. The initial manifestation of the new policy occurred during assaults in Quang Duc Province in March 1974 and, again, in November 1974, when the NVA attacked the ARVN at Bien Hoa. While the Southern soldiers put up a determined fight there was nothing really new in their response. In turn, Northern leaders anxiously waited to see if the U.S. might initiate B-52 “Stratofortress” air strikes. As the days passed, it became clear they had nothing to worry about. As the year came to an end the PAVN once again seized the military initiative thus gaining experience in combined arms operations, depleting ARVN forces and causing them to expend large quantities of supplies, ordnance and manpower. Of equal importance, they found new opportunities and routes to probe deeper into South Vietnam and create staging areas and launch points for a new full scale offensive. In short, they had found the key to final victory.5 In the meantime, President Thieu was wrestling with the circumstances he had been left with following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords and a cease-fire agreement that he neither agreed with nor wanted. Even before it had been concluded, he had openly proclaimed what he called the “Four Nos.” In short, “no negotiations with the communists, no communist political activities south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), no coalition government, and no surrender of territory to the North Vietnamese or Provisional Revolutionary Government. Of course, the Paris Peace Accords all but rejected these demands. While he was very upset by the Accords, Thieu took solace in his faith in the promises made by President Nixon to reintroduce American airpower to the conflict if any serious violations of the Accords took place. He also anticipated U.S. financial and military aid would continue, at previous levels, following the signing of the Peace agreement. They did not!6 On 1 July 1973, the American Congress passed legislation that restricted nearly all direct or indirect U.S. aerial combat activities over or in any part of Southeast Asia. On 7 November of that same year, they overrode Nixon's veto of the War Powers Act. In fact, this caused aid to the Republic of Vietnam to shrink from $2.5 billion in 1972 and 1973 to $965 million in 1974.7 Making matters worse was the President’s increasing political problems brought on by the infamous Watergate break in and cover up. With Democrats in charge of the Congress, there was antipathy between the legislative and executive branches over nearly all of Nixon’s policies, especially Vietnam policies, making it increasingly difficult for President Nixon to support South Vietnam. Meantime in Saigon, Thieu’s expectations of U.S. aid remained high. A few Southern leaders were more realistic. General Dong Van Khuyen, Republic of Vietnam Air Force (RVNAF) Commander declared later that, “Our leaders continued to believe in U.S. air intervention even after the U.S. Congress had expressly forbidden it...They deluded themselves.”8 If the reduced aid in 1974 was not enough, Nixon’s resignation on 9 August 1974, left South Vietnamese leaders in a state of shock and confronted them with the cruel reality that their independence was in grave jeopardy.
However, even without U.S. supplies, President Thieu took advantage of Hanoi's brief combat respite during 1974, to launch numerous offensive actions against PAVN forces in several locations throughout South Vietnam. While the ARVN took back most of the lands seized by the enemy during their own attacks in 1973 and nearly a quarter of the land area controlled by the communist forces at the time of the cease-fire, Thieu had stretched his own forces dangerously thin by launching these assaults--a fact not lost for very long on the NVA. 9 On 27 April 1974, the ARVN initiated the Svay Rieng Campaign against enemy sanctuaries in eastern Cambodia. It began with a major push against the NVA 5th Division by crack ARVN units. South Vietnamese Regional Force units established blocking positions on the southwestern edge of the 5th Division, while the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) struck 5th Division base areas. Commanded by General Thuan, the ARVN 40th Infantry Regiment and the 7th Ranger Group spearheaded the attacks against positions around Duc Hue not far from the Cambodian border. The next day, communist troops countered by smashing into 11 ARVN battalions preparing for their own assault near the Long Khot District Town. The NVA forces were soon repelled and, on the 29th, ARVN armored units drove across the Cambodian border just west of Go Dau Hau. With PAVN 5th Division Headquarters in danger, the communists committed all their reserves to defend their logistics network. When ARVN actions ended on 2 May, they had severely damaged NVA communication lines and supply/equipment installations. Due to the secrecy, speed and intensity of the operation, the ARVN lost less than 100 men, while the NVA lost more than 1,500 men and large quantities of weapons and supplies.10 This proved to be the last major offensive operation launched by the ARVN. While these operations were successful, they created a feeling of overconfidence among the Southern leadership. In addition, while they lost a relatively low number of troops, the reduction in U.S. supplies was already being felt. By the end of the year, the military was experiencing shortages, while communist forces had begun to gain strength. The cruel irony was that, even as the Southern forces appeared to be winning, they were actually sowing the seeds of their own defeat by expending precious resources at a high rate and compelling the NVA to initiate countering actions to retake the momentum in this back-and-forth struggle.
By the end of October 1974, leaders in Hanoi decided on a new strategy that became known as the Resolution of 1975. It proclaimed that the war was entering its “final stage” and that Northern forces would consolidate their gains, eliminate South Vietnamese border outposts, and secure a logistics corridor in order to complete their build-up in South Vietnam. Finally, in 1976, the concluding general offensive would begin. In many ways, this operational plan reflected the divergent views of Gen. Giap and Pham Van Dong in 1973 and the need to find conciliation in 1974. Since it was a compromise, the overall strategy proved to be very conservative. Part of this also came from the general staff’s overestimation of the ARVN’s abilities based on battles like the ones they faced in that spring and summer of 1974. Indeed, until nearly the end of the war, most NVA leaders believed they were outnumbered by the ARVN even though they were not.11
In November 1974, officials in Hanoi called PAVN field commanders and their political officers to the capital to evaluate the new strategy. It was at this point they all believed they had a chance to break the stalemate and finally win the war. They agreed that an attack in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam would have the greatest chance of success. However, there was one voice raised in opposition; Lieutenant General Tran Van Tra, military commander of the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN). His forces included communist main force Southern guerilla units or Viet Cong (VC) troops of the B-2 Front. He and his staff had already developed a plan for a direct assault on Saigon. General Tra proposed that his forces initiate a “test” attack in Phuoc Long Province to see how well the ARVN would fight and if the U.S. would react with any kind of support. Tra’s plan was very appealing since it offered the potential of immense benefit with relatively low risk. Communist Party First Secretary Le Duan approved the plan. No sooner was the ink dry than he forewarned Tra that failure was not an option, telling him, “Go ahead and attack . . . [but] you must be sure of victory.”12