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 1789. The Easter Offensive would make use of fourteen divisions and would be the largest in the war.
The 1972 Easter Offensive/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 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 ARVN and would add to the PAVN's superiority 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 Tân Cảnh and Đắk Tô, were protected by the 42nd Regiment of the 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 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 Firebase 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 320th Division. 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 gunships. 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 PAVN. Several of the other bases had to be given up soon after with heavy casualties.
Loss of Tân Cảnh and Đắk Tô
In early 1972 the ARVN 42nd Regiment of the 22nd Division was stationed at Tân Cảnh.
On 7/8 February following intelligence showing a PAVN buildup in the area the 22nd Division forward command post, 47th Regiment and supporting units were moved from Ba Gi to the Đắk Tô/Tân Cảnh area. Elements of the 19th Cavalry Regiment were attached to the Division to support its organic 14th Cavalry Regiment equipped with M-41 light tanks. The armored units would be deployed forward at Ben Het Camp which was regarded as the most likely direction of a PAVN armored attack.
Since the start of the Easter Offensive at the end of March, the base areas had come under increasing PAVN artillery and rocket fire, which had gone from 20-50 rounds per day in March to up to 1000 per day by mid-April. During early April the 47th Regiment withdrew to Đắk Tô II, while the 42nd Regiment and one Battalion of the 41st Regiment were at Tân Cảnh supported by armor and artillery. In addition ARVN Airborne and Rangers occupied a string of firebases along Rocket Ridge.:K-6 On 23 April, the PAVN 2nd Division started their attack on Tân Cảnh by hitting the ARVN tanks with AT-3 missiles and this was followed by a direct hit on the 42nd Regiment command bunker injuring the senior U.S. Adviser and several of the ARVN commanders and severely undermining the confidence of COL Dat the 22nd Division commander . By midday all 5 of the M-41 tanks in the base and several more bunkers had been destroyed by the missiles. At 11:00 John Paul Vann the senior U.S. military adviser in II Corps landed to assess the situation and instructed the U.S. advisers to prepare to escape and evade from the camp. At 19:00 PAVN rocket fire ignited the base ammunition dump:K-7
At 21:00 hours a column of 18 PAVN tanks was spotted in the area, an Air Force AC-130 gunship arrived at 23:00 and began to engage the T-54 tanks with its 105mm cannon. Three T-54s were disabled but later recovered by the PAVN.:K-7 At midnight the tank column turned towards Tân Cảnh and the ARVN artillery began firing on the column until stopped by PAVN counterbattery fire. Two bridges on the approach to Tân Cảnh were abandoned without being destroyed. The ARVN organised hunter-killer teams and these destroyed two tanks.:K-8
Just before 06:00 hours on 24 April the PAVN tanks attacked Tân Cảnh in two columns. One column of T-54s attacked the main gate, the other moving to secure the airstrip. The advance of the tanks caused the 900 support troops to panic. The new command bunker was hit by further artillery fire destroying the radio antennas. With the collapse of all command and control on the base, the American advisers abandoned the command bunker and moved to a new position to call in airstrikes, however fog made such airstrikes impossible.:K-8 At dawn Vann arrived over Tân Cảnh in his OH-58A and made contact with the advisers who had escaped from the base perimeter. Vann landed and 6 advisers squeezed into the helicopter while frightened ARVN troops hung onto the skids. The helicopter flew to Đắk Tô II to drop off the passengers and then flew back to Tân Cảnh where they picked up the remaining 3 advisers, however the helicopter was swarmed by panicky ARVN and crashed on takeoff. Another helicopter came in and picked up Vann, his pilot and the 3 advisers and flew them to Pleiku.:K-9
One hour after the main PAVN attack on Tân Cảnh commenced, the PAVN began their attack on Đắk Tô. A UH-1H helicopter #69-15715 landed to evacuate the 6 U.S. advisers who had been rescued from the Tân Cảnh perimeter, this helicopter was hit by PAVN anti-aircraft fire and crashed, 5 passengers and crew were killed in the crash while 5 survived, evaded capture and were recovered up 13 days later. The PAVN penetrated the base perimeter suffering heavy losses, the remaining U.S. advisers called in airstrikes as the morning fog cleared but by 10am the 47th Regiment commander had lost contact with most of his subordinates and the command group evacuated the command bunker for a bunker in the inner perimeter.:K-9 A T-54 moved into the base and began direct fire on the command post, the two remaining M-41s engaged the T-54, however their 76mm guns had no apparent effect on the T-54 which quickly knocked out both M-41s. A relief column of M-41s supported by infantry arrived from Ben Het around this time, but all the M-41s were knocked out by B-40 rockets and recoilless rifle fire and the infantry dispersed. With the failure of this counterattack and the loss of command and control the ARVN forces began to evacuate the base towards the south. As the ARVN attempted to cross the Dak Poko river they came under intense PAVN fire and the senior U.S. adviser LTC Robert Brownlee disappeared during this engagement. At 20:00 the 47th Regiment command group attempted to escape the base and by 04:30 on 25 April after losing several men to PAVN fire escaped the base perimeter and were recovered the following day.:K-10
On 25 April the PAVN mopped up the remaining ARVN positions around Tân Cảnh/Đắk Tô. The 22nd Division had ceased to exist as a fighting unit, the Division commander and his entire staff had disappeared and the PAVN had captured 23 105mm and 7 155mm howitzers and large suplies of ammunition and stores.:K-11 With the loss of the main camps, the remaining firebases along Rocket Ridge were abandoned and the PAVN had a clear approach to Kon Tum.:K-12
With the loss of Tan Canh, little 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.:K-12 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 M72 LAW missiles.:K-14
In early May the PAVN turned their attention to the Polei Kleng Camp which blocked the avenue for attack on Kontum and to Ben Het Camp which threatened their supply lines. Polei Kleng had been subjected to artillery fire since 24 April, but from midday on 6 May the volume of fire increased dramatically with over 500 rounds systematically destroying the base bunkers and at 19:00 the two U.S. advisers at the base were evacuated by helicopter. The ARVN continued to hold for a further 3 days during which time U.S. airpower, including 16 B-52 strikes, was concentrated on the attacking PAVN. On the morning of 9 May the ARVN abandoned the base in the face of a PAVN tank and infantry assault.:K-14 At Ben Het on 9 May elements of the PAVN 203rd Armored Regiment assaulted the camp. ARVN Rangers destroyed the first three PT-76 tanks with BGM-71 TOW missiles, thereby breaking up the attack. The Rangers spent the rest of the day stabilising the perimeter ultimately destroying 11 tanks and killing over 100 PAVN.:K-14
On May 13, 1st Combat Aerial TOW Team ("Hawk's Claw") pilots noticed signs of a large buildup to the north. At 2230 hours that night there were reports of lights moving down Route 14.:K-15
As captured documents stated that the attack would take place at 04:00 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 signalled attack at Tan Canh and the FSBs was absent. Even so, air support was requested. Another captured document indicated the attack had been moved back to 04:30. Again, no attack. Finally the defenders realized that PAVN intelligence would be operating on Hanoi time. At 05:30 as predicted, the attack began.:K-15
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.:K-15
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 tactical air support was not able to operate. However, Hawk's Claw had arrived on the scene from Camp Holloway. Their helicopters and Jeeps had BGM-71 TOW missiles, which were 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 09:00 hours, the attack had been stopped.:K-15
The PAVN continued their rocket and artillery fire throughout the day. Then at 20:00 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 AC-130s 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.:K-17 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.:K-17 The request was approved by II Corps and MACV and the new strike was adjusted by the B-52 in flight while ARVN artillery continued heavy fire to hold enemy forces in place. The strike was delivered on schedule with devastating results as PAVN forces had massed to break the perimeter defense. The attack had been stopped and numerous tanks destroyed.:K-18 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.:K-19 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 03:45 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.:K-19 The front was restored. Three additional assaults were made in the early morning hours. Each was pushed back after fierce hand-to-hand combat.:K-20 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.:K-22
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.:K-22 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.:K-22
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.:K-23 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.:K-23 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.:K-24 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. MACV" (PDF). p. K-1. Retrieved 7 January 2015.
- Fulghum and Maitland, p. 23.
- Fulghum and Maitland, p. 120.
- Sheehan, p. 755.
- Battle of Kontum website
- Sheehan pp. 756-7.
- "Information on Helicopter UH-1H 69-15715". Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association. Retrieved 8 January 2015.
- "Report of the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs: Appendix 2j". MIA Facts. Retrieved 8 January 2015.
- Fulghum and Maitland, p. 156.
- Starry, Donn (1978). Mounted Combat In Vietnam Vietnam Studies. Department of the Army. pp. 215–217. ISBN 978-1780392462.
- Sheehan, p. 787
- Col. Trinh Tieu's memoir
- 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.