Battle of Kontum
The lead-up to the Battle of Kontum began in mid-1971, when North Vietnam decided that its victory in Operation Lam Son 719 indicated that the time had come for large-scale conventional offensives that could end the war quickly. The resulting offensive, planned for the spring of 1972, would be known as the Easter Offensive in the South and the Nguyen Hue Offensive in the North, Nguyen Hue being a hero of Vietnamese resistance against the Chinese in 1773. The Easter Offensive would make use of fourteen divisions and would be the largest in the war.
The 1972 Nguyen Hue Campaign began with a massive attack on the Demilitarized Zone with 30,000 People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) soldiers and more than 100 tanks. Two thrusts of equivalent size, one towards Saigon and a third to the Central Highlands and provincial capital of Kontum began soon after. The North Vietnamese knew that if they could capture Kontum and the Central Highlands, they would cut South Vietnam in half.
The Battle for Kontum would pit the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 22nd and (later) the 23rd Divisions under the command of Lt. Gen. Ngo Dzu and later Maj. Gen. Nguyen Van Toan against the equivalent of three North Vietnamese Army divisions, the 320th and 2nd Divisions plus combat units of the 3rd PAVN Division, B-3 Front, and local Viet Cong forces under the command of Lt. Gen. Hoang Minh Thao.
There were two factors that persuaded North Vietnam that all out assaults of this kind could be successful. First, due to President Nixon's Vietnamization policy, there were no American divisional forces in the Central Highlands, only advisers and U.S. aviation units including Air Cavalry helicopter units from the 7/17 Air Cavalry Squadron. By June of that year there were less than 50,000 U.S. forces in all of Vietnam.
Second, the North Vietnamese had persuaded the Soviets and Chinese to provide 400 PT-76, T-34-85, T-54s, and Type 59 tanks before the spring offensive. The T54 was better than any tank used by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and would add to the PAVN's superiority on the ground.
Situation on the Ground
North Vietnam had been using the Ho Chi Minh Trail along the border as a logistical artery for years. The mountainous terrain and the jungle were a shield against American air attack.
The ARVN bases at Tan Canh and Dak To, were protected by the 42nd Regiment of the ARVN 22nd Division. The 22nd also controlled five fire support bases (FSBs) that stretched south-west from Tan Canh towards Kontum along a backbone of mountains nicknamed "Rocket Ridge."
John Paul Vann, the civilian "general" of the American II Corps, had received intelligence that a major battle was coming. Lt. Gen. Dzu responded by gathering the ARVN 23rd Division into the Tan Canh/Kontum area. Vann also ordered increased B-52 air attacks that February and March.
Attacks on the Fire Support Bases
On the morning of April 4, 1972, an early morning attack was launched against Fire Support Base Delta. Instead of the usual artillery fire from the jungle, elements of the PAVN 320th Infantry Division made a massed attack supported by artillery and rockets. For several days the PAVN hit FSB Delta and the other fire support bases along Rocket Ridge. Helicopters from the 52nd Combat Aviation operating out of Camp Holloway in Pleiku, were dispatched to provide support.
The FSBs were totally dependent on helicopter support for supplies and ammunition and in spite of the heavy anti-aircraft fire, the helicopters went on the offensive to provide fire support the FSBs.
At one point, the northern part of FSB Delta became overrun by elements of the PAVN 320th. John Paul Vann, already in the area for an air rescue, was able to direct attacks on the PAVN soldiers entering the base with Cobra gunship. The PAVN attack was stopped in its tracks.
The attacks on the FSBs continued as April wore on. Finally on April 21, FSB Delta was taken by the North Vietnamese Army. Several of the other bases had to be given up soon after with heavy casualties.
The Loss of Tan Canh
During this period, the ARVN 42nd Regiment, stationed in Tan Canh(), was coming under increased rocket and artillery attack.
The ARVN force in Tan Canh had a handful of M-41 tanks (14 total) and some artillery, 155mm and 105mm howitzers. The base was on a low plateau and had roughly 1,200 defenders. The base prepared for a major attack. The PAVN had secured the jungle terrain to the north and east of the compound while the ARVN forces in Tan Canh under Col. Dat had been content to take up a purely defensive position.
During the second half of April incoming artillery against Tan Canh was 1000 rounds a day. Finally on April 23, the PAVN 2nd Division, elements of the 203rd Tank Regiment, and several independent regiments of the B-3 Front attacked.
Then the division combat bunker was destroyed by a direct hit. Several American advisers including Col. Phillip Kaplan, the 22nd Division's senior advisor, were wounded and the accuracy of the PAVN surface-to-surface missiles continued to exact a heavy toll. By noon all five of the M-41 tanks and several more bunkers had been destroyed.
In the middle of this barrage, Vann landed to assess the situation. He discovered that the 22nd Division's confidence had been shattered. Col. Dat simply didn't believe they were a match for the battle-hardened North Vietnamese. At 2100 hours a PAVN tank column was spotted in the area. An Air Force Spectre C-130 gunship was dispatched but their 105mm cannons were unable to stop T-54 tanks.
Just before 0600 hours on April 24 the PAVN tanks attacked Tan Canh in two columns. One column of T-54s attacked the main gate, the other moving to secure the air strip. The advance of the tanks caused the 900 support troops to panic. The situation at the main gate was equally hopeless.
With the collapse of all command and control on the base, the American and ARVN soldiers tried to escape. However no one could be extracted from the base itself, the area was too dangerous for helicopters. A few soldiers were able to find their way out of the battle zone, many were captured or killed. The entire ARVN 22nd Division had been eliminated as a cohesive unit.
Lead-up to the main battle
With the loss of Tan Canh, nothing stood between the PAVN and Kontum. Whether because of logistical issues or lack of leadership, the PAVN did not pursue their advantage. Instead of refilling their tanks and traveling 25 miles to Kontum, the North Vietnamese waited for almost three weeks.
John Vann took direct control of the ARVN II Corps forces. The remaining FSBs were evacuated. Lieutenant General Dzu was ordered to Saigon and replaced by Major General Toan. John Vann also coordinated the replacement of the 22nd with the 23rd ARVN Division under the command of Colonel Ly Tong Ba, an experienced commander. He also unified the 23rd with its organic regiments that had been stationed elsewhere.
On the ground in Kontum, Colonel John Truby, the acting Senior Advisor for the 23rd (awaiting the arrival of Col. Rhotenberry), had the task of tactical coordination of defense. Outlying units were brought into the city. A perimeter defense of the city and proper defence was implemented. The ARVN soldiers, believing that the T-54 tanks were unstoppable, were trained on how to attack them using M-72 LAW missile launchers.
Main Battle of Kontum
On May 13 Hawk's Claw pilots noticed signs of a large buildup to the north. The defenders waited. At 2230 hours that night there were reports of lights moving down Route 14.
With captured document stated that the attack would take place at 0400 on May 14, Col. Truby suggested to Vann that they order an air strike in preparation. However, the heavy PAVN artillery build up that had signaled attack at Tan Canh and the FSBs was absent. Even so, air support was requested.
By 0400 hours the defenders waited. Nothing. Another captured document indicated the attack had been moved back to 0430. Again, no attack. Finally the defenders realized that PAVN intelligence would be operating on Hanoi time. At 0530 as predicted, the attack began.
The PAVN attacked Kontum without the heavy artillery preparation that had been used at Tan Canh and drove straight down Route 14. The 48th PAVN Regiment and 203rd Tank Regiment attacked the city from the northwest. The 28th PAVN Regiment came from the north and the 64th and 141st PAVN Regiments attacked from the south.
The ARVN artillery began targeting the T-54 tanks moving down Route 14. This targeting separated the supporting PAVN infantry from their tanks and allowed the ARVN tank killers to do their work. Two T-54s were destroyed by teams with LAWs.
The sky was overcast and TACAIR was not able to operate. However, Hawk's Claw had arrived on the scene from Camp Holloway in Pleiku. Their helicopters and Jeeps had TOW missiles, a new armament which was powerful enough to penetrate a T-54. They found the PAVN tanks before they could find cover in the jungle and destroyed two more tanks. By 0900 hours, the attack had been stopped.
The PAVN continued their rocket and artillery fire throughout the day. Then at 2000 hours on the 14th, the PAVN launched a second attack, putting heavy pressure on the north, west and south.
There were two B-52 strikes scheduled and Col. Truby asked Vann if those strikes could be used to target the PAVN battalion that was already very close to their lines. The two forces were now close enough for hand-to-hand combat.
Col. Truby called Lt. Col. Tom McKenna, senior advisor to the 44th ARVN Regiment, and told him to pull his men back and to have his troops find deep foxholes. As the hour for the B-52 strike approached, ARVN troops laid down cover fire to allow those in close proximity to the PAVN forces to be pulled back. At the same time the ARVN 44th was holding its own against the PAVN along its perimeter with the aid of Spectre and helicopters.
The two B-52 air strikes were close enough that as McKenna stated, "it was like they [the bombs] came from the center of the earth – just like the bowels of the earth exploding." The PAVN forces pulled back having suffered significant casualties. On May 15, the PAVN attack continued, but the 44th held its positions assisted by tactical air support.
On the night of May 16, PAVN pushed the 53rd from its positions and the perimeter was partially penetrated. Col. Ba blocked the nose of the penetration by ensuring that the 53rd's reserve force was put in proper location; but he did not want to move an additional blocking force through Kontum at night.
There was considerable risk that enemy units would break through the lines and capture the city. A new B-52 strike was requested for the base of the penetration. This request was denied by the MACV staff because the intended strike area was too close to a small village shown on the map.
After considerable debate and analysis by the advisory staff, Col. Truby remembered a technique taught at Ft. Leavenworth and suggested to Col. Ba that the troops at the nose of the penetration be withdrawn 500 yards despite the obvious difficulty of such a nighttime maneuver. This would clear the threat to the town.
Truby and Ba convinced Vann that if the ARVN forces could be pulled back during the cover of darkness, their safety concerns could be met. The request was approved by II Corps and MACV and the new strike was adjusted by the B52 in flight while ARVN artillery continued heavy fire to hold enemy forces in place.
The strike was delivered on schedule with devastating results as NVA forces had massed to break the perimeter defense. The attack had been stopped and numerous tanks destroyed. The strike was decisive, for the first time since Tan Canh, the PAVN momentum had been broken. The three weakened PAVN divisions regrouped in the jungle surrounding Kontum.
Final Attack on Kontum
The strike was decisive for the battle, but the PAVN still had superior numbers and quickly began to regroup. During this period, Col. Rhotenberry, the advisor originally assigned to work with Col. Ba, arrived in country. Mr. Vann returned Col. Truby to his original job of overseeing other actions within II Corps.
During the next two weeks, the ARVN and PAVN forces tested each other. The ARVN forces responded to artillery attacks with their own artillery or by calling in Hawk's Claw helicopter fire. B-52 sorties were again used. However the PAVN had years of experience with the B-52s and knew not to mass troops as they had while trying to break the perimeter defense.
At 0345 hours on May 20, the 53rd ARVN Regiment was attacked by the first of three all-out assaults from the north. On the third attack the 53rd was pushed from their positions. Throughout that day the 53rd tried to regain their position but the PAVN was now dug in.
Col. Rhotenberry, the division's new senior adviser, and Col. Ba decided to pull up nine M-41 tanks and to direct all that fire to the enemy position along with helicopter gunships. The front was restored. Three additional assaults were made in the early morning hours. Each was pushed back after fierce hand-to-hand combat. It was clear that the PAVN was preparing for another major assault.
Then in the early hours of the 25 May, PAVN mortar and artillery fire increased enough to indicate preparation for a major attack. In the southern quadrant, the artillery fire kept the ARVN 23rd Division in their bunkers. Under the artillery cover, the PAVN sappers, some dressed in ARVN uniforms, moved into the buildings south of the air field.
A New Attack
In the early morning of May 26, the PAVN attacked the ARVN 23rd Division from the north with tank/infantry teams. At first light, Hawk's Claw was able to destroy nine tanks, two machine guns, and one truck. This effectively stopped the momentum of the attack. Later in the day Col. Ba threw a battalion of the 44th Regiment into the fight. This limited the enemy penetration of the ARVN lines.
After dark, attacks on the ARVN 45th and 53rd Regiments increased with the 45th facing the heaviest action. TACAIR was diverted to supporting the regiment. Lt. Col. Grant and Col. Rhotenberry were able to divert two B-52 strikes scheduled for 0230 hours on 27 May. This blunted the attack.
That same morning the ARVN 44th Regiment woke to discover PAVN tank and infantry within their perimeter. The area hadn't been properly secured and T-54 tanks were within 50 yards of the bunkers. If these PAVN units breached the 44th's defenses, they could pour into the city. The defenders were able to use M-72 LAW fire to slow the tanks.
By dawn, Hawk's Claw helicopters with TOW missiles arrived from Pleiku. The dense smoke obscured the action but Hawk's Claw was still able to destroy two T-54 tanks. With helicopters to neutralize the tanks, the ARVN infantry was able to stop the advance of the PAVN.
The battle see-sawed back and forth on 28 May. The PAVN occupied bunkers and buildings in sections of the city and were too well fortified to be destroyed by air or artillery attacks. However, their ability to launch a sustained attack seemed to be gone. With US and VNAF air superiority, PAVN troops could not receiving adequate food and supplies from their bases in the jungle.
In June 6, the PAVN's B3 Front Command mobilized their last reserve unit, the 66th Regiment to cover the withdrawal of all remaining within the town.
From May 29 to June 8 the ARVN forces went bunker to bunker cleaning out the remaining PAVN forces. On June 9 the city of Kontum was declared fully secure by the 23rd ARVN Division Commander, Ly Tong Ba, who had been promoted to Brigadier General. The combined efforts of the ARVN troops and US aviation units had finally stopped the massive assault.
That same night John Paul Vann and his pilot were flying through the mountains. The night was rainy and there were low clouds. The pilot didn't realize his altitude and flew into the hillside. A Vietnamese account stated that the helicopter carrying him was shot down. The purpose of the flight was to deliver a celebration cake to the advisers and ARVN commanders for the Kontum victory.
John Paul Vann had been a key in developing a more subtle and flexible approach to the war, one based on winning over the hearts and minds of the local population while using the US military's traditional strengths. His death was a huge loss.
The Battle of Kontum, a key success during this period, was virtually ignored in the US. The victory was written off simply as an example of B-52 power. Certainly the hundreds of missions between February and June were a major element of the success. But the PAVN had neutralized this advantage in large part by using the jungle and attacking at night.
The other keys to success, in addition to the B-52 strikes, were the close integration of US advisers and their ARVN counterparts and the moment-to-moment edge provided by aviation units flying in support of the ARVN forces. If the ARVN forces had not been able to hold their ground, the battle would have been lost. The 23rd's determined defense under the leadership of Gen. Ly Tong Ba forced the PAVN forces to compensate by attempting a breakthrough of the perimeter. This exposed them to a decisive strike which killed a great many of their soldiers.
Without these two elements, the 23rd ARVN might not have pulled itself together and successfully resisted three divisions of battle-hardened PAVN soldiers and armor units. Nevertheless, their capabilities and the leadership of Col. Ba were of primary importance
- Andrade, Dale. Trial By Fire: The 1972 Easter Offensive, America's Last Vietnam Battle. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1995, p. 368. These figures were derived from Project CHECO's "Kontum: Battle for the Central Highlands," 27 October 1972, pp. 88–89.
- The Vietnam Experience: South Vietnam on Trial, David Fulghum, Terrence Maitland, and the editors of Boston Publishing Company, Page 116, Boston Publishing Company, Boston, MA, 1984.
- Sheehan, Neil, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York: Random House, 1988. p 754.
- U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Command History 1972, Annex K., Kontum. 1973, p. K-1.
- Fulghum and Maitland, p. 23.
- Fulghum and Maitland, p. 120.
- Sheehan, p. 755.
- Battle of Kontum website
- Sheehan pp. 756-7.
- MACV, p. K-6.
- MACV, p. K-6.
- MACV, p. K-7.
- MACV, p. K-8.
- Fulghum and Maitland, p. 156.
- MACV, p. K-12.
- MACV, p. K-14.
- MACV, p. K-15.
- MACV, p. K-15.
- MACV, p. K-15.
- MACV, p. K-15.
- Fulghum and Maitland, p. 156.
- MACV, p. K-17.
- MACV, p. K-17.
- MACV, p. K-18.
- MACV, p. K-19.
- MACV, p. K-19.
- MACV, p. K-20.
- MACV, p. K-22.
- MACV, p. K-22.
- MACV, p. K-22.
- MACV, p. K-23.
- MACV, p. K-23.
- MACV, p. K-24.
- Sheehan, p. 787
- Col. Trinh Tieu's memoir
Unpublished Government Documents
- U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Command History 1972, Annex K. Kontum, 1973.
- Andrade, Dale. Trial By Fire: The 1972 Easter Offensive, America's Last Vietnam Battle. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1995.
- Flughum, David, Terrance Maitland, et al. The Vietnam Experience: South Vietnam on Trial. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1984.
- McKenna, Thomas P. "Kontum: The Battle to Save South Vietnam." University Press of Kentucky, 2011.
- Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York: Random House, 1988.