(General Hieu, 3rd Corps Deputy Commander/Operations, was the behind-the-scenes player who designed and executed this battle. Tin Nguyen)
(December 13, 1974-January 6, 1975)
The five South Vietnamese outposts in the Phuoc Long province were important because they lay across the east-west and north-south supply lines used by the NVA in the Saigon area. While an obstacle to the Communists, their location placed them far north of the main South Vietnamese defense line in Military Region 3. Major concentrations of COSVN infantry and special units, such as the M-26 Armor Command, bordered ARVN's position on three sides. The government soldiers had as their only links to outside help Route 14 to the south and an airfield big enough to land C-130 transports at the capital city of Phuoc Binh (also known as Song Be or Phuoc Long City) almost in the center of the province and about 110 kilometers northeast of the nation's capital. The forces in the government salient kept enough ammunition stored for a week of intensive combat before they required resupply.
A week before the Phuoc Long attack, Tra struck in the west at Tay Ninh to attract any ARVN reserves away from his main battlefield. The move fulfilled ARVN expectations and focused attention far from their eastern flank. On December 13 (the date predicted by Tra's assistant), B-2's 7th and newly formed 3d Divisions struck hard, capturing Bo Duc and Duc Phong the next day. Don Luan, held by a Regional Force battalion of about 350 men, survived the initial assault, but Route 14 beyond the town was closed by the Communists. The ARVN forces at Phuoc Binh managed to launch a counterattack toward Bo Duc, but as they did so the NVA struck behind them capturing Fire-base Bunard and its four 105MM howitzers. The South Vietnamese air force began flying in replacement artillery and taking out civilians, but soon NVA artillery fire destroyed a C-130, damaged a second, and closed the airfield at Phuoc Binh. By December 22 the remaining ARVN garrisons were cut off.
In Bien Hoa the III Corps commander, Lieutenant General Du Quoc Dong, newly appointed in November weighed the attacks at Tay Ninh in the west against those at Phuoc Long to the northeast. With his major units tied in their defensive positions, and the Airborne and Marine Divisions, the nation's strategic reserve, still in 1 Corps, General Dong possessed only a few battalions of reinforcements. Dong decided that these had to be saved to defend the more important city of Tay Ninh, the keystone of Saigon's defense. He sent only one battalion to reinforce Phuoc Binh, a smaller force than even Tra had anticipated.
Nevertheless, the implications of losing a province capital, especially when the South Vietnamese were already discouraged by shrinking U.S. aid and support, was not wasted on General Dong. With his own III Corps reserves gone, he cornered President Thieu's assistant for security affairs, Dang Van Quang, and insisted that to save Phuoc Long he needed at least part of the Airborne Division that currently was in the lines north of Da Nang.
Thieu's decision must have been an agonizing one. All the tactical and logistical weaknesses of the RVNAF had finally caught up with the president's policy of no retreat. Either he shifted some of his overextended troops to Phuoc Long which would endanger the nation's military position somewhere else, or he allowed the province to fall, which would undermine his political position. On this occasion Thieu opted to preserve the precarious military situation around Saigon. The single group of Airborne Rangers remaining in the JCS reserve stayed in Saigon and the Airborne Division stayed in I Corps. According to Colonel William Le Gro, the senior U.S. intelligence officer in South Vietnam, Thieu wrote off Phuoc Long with the statement that "the Airborne was not available and that it could not be moved in time anyway."
The noose around Phuoc Binh closed a little more tightly when the NVA brought up tanks and unleashed a thousand-round artillery barrage on December 26 to overrun the stubbornly held town of Don Luan. At the end of the day only the garrison at Phuoc Binh remained. Since all the maneuvering had narrowed the campaign down to the final battle, both sides decided to raise their ante on January 5, The Joint General Staff (JGS) relented enough to send two companies of the 81st Airborne Rangers into the fight! The 250 Rangers, highly skilled in commando operations, moved in by helicopter early in the day and joined the survivors of the city's other units. But on the opposite side of the battle lines, Le Duan and the Politburo allowed Tra to commit more of the precious T54 tanks and 130MM field-gun batteries.
The attacking Soviet-built tanks were equipped with shields to neutralize the effects of armor-piercing shells. As one survivor described the phenomenon: "The enemy tanks had something new and strange. Our M-72 rockets were unable to knock them out. We hit them, they stopped for a while then moved on." Another ARVN combatant, Major Le Tan Dai, watched as his men, despite the NVA's four-to-one superiority of forces, climbed onto the backs of the buttoned-up tanks in brave attempts to throw hand grenades into the hatches. The defenders of Phuoc Binh destroyed at least sixteen tanks, but more appeared to continue the attack on the city. At midnight, with all their heavy guns and communications destroyed by NVA artillery and while under direct fire from Communists tanks, a few hundred survivors of the Rangers and Territorial Forces filtered out of their defensive positions into the jungle. Eventually 850 of the 5,400 soldiers of various types defending Phuoc Long returned to government lines.
Clark Dougan and David Fulghum