(General Hieu, 3rd Corps Deputy Commanders/Operations, was the behind-the-scenes player who designed and executed these military operations. Tin Nguyen)
In the bloody year of 1974 no single operation or campaign was longer, more ferocious, or more costly than the Battle of the Iron Triangle. Pitted by countless bomb and shell craters, undermined by a network of abandoned tunnels, the Triangle bore the scars of thousands of skirmishes, firefights, and full-scale attacks that had raged across the flat, scrub-covered plain for more than twenty years. What made the area so valuable was apparent from one glance at the map. Like the head of an arrow pointed straight at the heart of South Vietnam, the wedge of land lying to the west of Ben Cat was no more than forty kilometers northwest of the capital. NVA control of the region would put Communist artillery within range of Tan Son Nhut Air Base and threaten what ARVN defensive positions at Phu Cuong, Cu Chi, and Lai Khe.
On May 16 two regiments of the 9th NVA Division, backed by a small contingent of tanks, overwhelmed Rach Bap and Hill 82, two outposts guarding the northern leg of the Triangle. By the evening of the seventeenth, as artillery and rocket fire drove some 4,500 civilians from Ben Cat, Communist troops from the 95C Regiment took possession of An Dien while the 272d Regiment pushed south along Highway 14 toward Phu Cuong.
With government forces clinging only to a narrow bridge connecting Ben Cat and An Dien, MR3 commander Lieutenant General Pham Quoc Thuan deployed the 18th ARVN Division in a multipronged counterattack designed to recapture all of the lost positions by May 22. The 43d Infantry supported by the 322d Armored Task Force attacked from the south toward Rach Bap and Hill 82. Task Force 318 advanced from the east toward An Dien, while three battalions of the 7th Ranger Group struck from the north toward Hill 82. None of these efforts met with success. By May 28, with the counterattack bogged down, Thuan decided to regroup for a fresh assault.
A renewed push began on June 1 spearheaded by the 52d Infantry, which crossed the Thi Tinh River south of Ben Cat then turned north toward An Dien, while other elements of the 18th Division attacked the village over the semi-repaired An Dien bridge. Over the next two days Communist and government forces traded heavy blows that decimated the 52d Regiment. On June 4 government troops battling enemy tanks finally entered An Dien. Although captured NVA soldiers reported terrible casualties among their comrades, the Communists launched a furious counterattack on the night of June 5 to 6 with two reserve battalions. But the ARVN held, and General Thuan predicted that the remaining two outposts would be recaptured within three weeks.
In fact, it would take four months before government soldiers regained Hill 82, only three kilometers west of An Dien. The dense bush and cratered terrain obscured the enemy's entrenchments and concealed reserve positions. ARVN armor, restricted to a narrow dirt road surrounded by high grass that reduced the attackers' visibility to no more than a few meters, were picked off by hidden enemy soldiers wielding B41 antitank grenade launchers and Soviet 82MM recoiless rifles. Meanwhile, Communist defenders occupying the high ground had the advancing government columns in full view. Dug into the thick jungle and rubber plantations north of Hill 82, concentrations of enemy artillery pounded the only avenues of approach as soon as ARVN soldiers came within range. Instead of concentrating on neutralizing the Communist artillery, government soldiers were lured into pretargeted artillery zones, then cut to pieces by heavy fire. Making matters worse was the onset of the summer monsoon that, combined with Communist antiaircraft barrages, virtually eliminated VNAF air support.
Between June 7 and July 1 the men of the 18th ARVN Division along with supporting armored task forces repeatedly attacked NVA position east, south, and north of Hill 82, only to be driven back by enemy artillery and antitank fire that claimed thousands of government casualties. By the end of the month the troops he had originally committed had been so roughly handled that General Thuan abandoned the attempt to retake Hill 82 until new plans could be devised.
When the ARVN counterattack resumed on September 7, the initial results were no better than they had been two months earlier. A new government task force swiftly reached the enemy perimeter but could not penetrate the mines and barbwire that ringed the base of the hill. Driven back through pouring rain by fierce artillery fire and tank assaults, the task force was replaced by three battalions of the 9th Regiment which began still another assault on September 19. Using effective counterbattery fire and small assault teams, the 1st and 3d Battalions inched forward, eliminating enemy bunkers one by one. Joined on October 2 by a battalion of the 25th ARVN Division, the attackers pounded NVA defenses with salvos of 155MM howitzer fire that forced the remaining enemy soldiers from their shattered earth and log fortress. Finally, on the afternoon of October 4, government soldiers placed their flag atop Hill 82.
Another six weeks passed while ARVN regrouped and reinforced its battered units before driving the NVA from its last foothold in the Triangle, Rach Bap. In the interim the southern Communist command received instructions from Hanoi to prepare for the offensive strikes to begin at the end of the year. Withdrawing most of its units to base areas farther north, the enemy left behind only token forces. On November 20, after a firefight that left forty ARVN soldiers wounded, GVN troops enter Rach Bap unopposed. The Battle of the Iron Triangle was over.
Samuel Lipsman and Stephen Weiss