Defense of Lai Khe Base Camp

General Hieu preferred being on the offensive rather than on the defensive. Nevertheless, he excelled in both postures. Captain Tran Hoai Thu, belonging to 405th Long Range Patrol Company which was attached to the 22nd Divisionís headquarters as a reserved unit located at Ba Gi, during the time General Hieu was the Commanding General of that division, wrote: "no rockets had ever hit the area of the headquartersĒ in the years 1966-1969. In August of 1969, General Hieu was appointed Commander of the 5th Division. At that time its headquarters was located in the town of Phu Cuong, Binh Duong Province.

By the end of December 1969, the US 1st Infantry Division was selected as the 2nd American big unit to return to the United States according to the vietnamization of the war. Lieutenant Colonel Roy Couch, ARVN 5th Division Deputy Advisor, wrote back to his wife on 12/25/1969: "It appears that the U.S. 1st Division will be the next Division to go home." In a cassette tape he sent to his wife and three daughters at the beginning of 1970 related to the plans to move to Lai Khe, "He said the buildings at Lai Khe would require a lot of repair; first they would have to build up the fortification of the compound, then refurbish the quarters and other buildings. It seemed that neither the ARVN nor Americans wanted to leave the area and go to Lai Khe. " On 2/2/1970, he wrote further to his wife: "We are getting ready for the move to Lai Khe, and it looks today as if it will be completed by February 21st."

Right so, the change of command ceremony from the hands of General Milloy, US 1st Infantry Division to the hands of General Hieu, ARVN 5th Division, was held on 2/27/1970, although it was set to occur on 3/15/1970.

Because the base-camp of Lai Khe was built to the size of an American division, it did not fit a Vietnamese division. In a memorandum dated 12/28/1970, Lieutenant Colonel George Layman, ARVN 5th Division Deputy Advisor wrote to the ARVN III Corps American Advisor:

The turnover of large US Base Camp to ARVN taxes the capability of the ARVN units to operate them. The size of most of these US bases dictates en inordinate number of ARVN forces to be committed for static security therereby limiting the number of personnel available for field operations. ARVN units are gradually reducing the size of the defensive perimeters of these bases so they can effectiverly be defended by a minimum number of personnel.

In the letter dated 1/23/1970 addressed to General Cao Van Vien, General Do Cao Tri, III Corps Commander noted:

"The defensive system consists of 11,750 meters of fences of the perimeter; 11,000 meters of fences among units, 112 bunkers and watchtowers."

and the maintenance of the defensive system needed:

23,632 M16 mines; 860 Claymore mines; 1,720 trip flares; 738 cubic meters of lumber; 1,456 bolts. 12x150; 22,800 kilograms of nails, 6-10-15cm; 672 bags of cement; 183 cubic meters of sand."

As from his part, General Conroy MACVJ4 , after inspecting Lai Khe base camp, foresaw that the 5th Division would encounter a lot of difficulties in the maintenance of such a huge camp due the limited budget of the Vietnamese Armed Forces.

Funds for base maintenance -- He said that the GVN normally provides very little funds to maintain base camps, often only about one-tenth of what has been requested, and that it is generally not possible to obtain additional funds for this purpose. He commented that ARVN units occupying former US base camps will have to learn to live under this austere funding; alternatively, they should not accept these bases for occupancy. He noted that many of the buildings at Lai Khe are in need of repair and that, if building materials cannot be obtained through normal channels, it should be possible for some buildings to be torn down in order to provide materials to patch others.

After listening General Hieu's briefing about his plan for Lai Khe base defense, General Conroy "observed that there appeared to him to be an over commitment of troops assigned for this purpose, and that some of these troops might better be utilized in repairing buildings, etc, during daylight hours."

Such was General Hieuís natural tendency of being cautious in seeing the need of deploying an amount of units more than the ordinary would dictate at the beginning phase of assuming the new base camp. He was directly involved in securing the defense of the base camp. When he assigned the 1/8th Battalion the task of defending the base campís perimeter, he instructed Captain Tran Van Thuong, 1/8th Battalion Commander, to report immediately to the divisional headquarters when the battalion outposts detected any signs of Viet Cong sappers attempting to penetrate the base campís perimeters.

Captain Thuong recounted that one night, soldiers at the outposts reported that Viet Cong sappers was breaking through barbed wire fences. He immediately reported back to the divisional headquarters as instructed by General Hieu, and at the same time he dragged along Captain Ranger, his American counterpart. They both jumped up on to a 4x4 truck and headed to the outpost. Right at the moment they arrived at the outpost and jumped out of the vehicle, a helicopter scooped down above their heads. The fight flared up during 5 minutes with the catch of three VC sappers. Captain Thuong attributed his survival of a certain death to the sudden and unexpected appearance of General Hieu on the helicopter, because these three VC sappers were discovered at a hiding spot located right behind his and Captain Rangerís backs, and when he questioned them why they did not open fire on them, they said that when they sighted the helicopter, they were afraid that by opening fire they would reveal their position and would jeopardize the entire raid operation. General Hieu had his helicopter land down to bring the three prisoners back to the headquarters for interrogation. Captain Thuong continued his account: "General Hieu interrogated the prisoners, and he gave orders pertaining to the defense of Lai Khe that night. The results were that the 1/8th Battalion gunned down the sappers team, and the divisional headquarters equally annihilated the remaining sappers beyond the defense perimeter of 1/8th Battalion. Subsequently, the Viet Cong did not attack the divisional headquarters anymore."

Captain Ranger was impressed with Captain Thuongís daring and lightning counterattack and recommended him for the US Army Bronze Star Medal with "V" Device, which was awarded on 7/4/1970 (CL # 3623).

Nguyen Van Tin
07 July 2004.