Does Anybody Remember the Battle of An Loc?


Thomas Fleming is a fellow—and past president—of the Society of American Historians and is on HNN's board of directors.  This essay is based on his article on An Loc in the current issue of MHQ, the Quarterly Journal of American History.

The answer to that question is a big NO.  But for a few months in the spring of 1972, it looked as if An Loc would join the historic turning point victories of Saratoga and Gettysburg in the American pantheon.  As we withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps we should remember why the message of hope An Loc sent to the free world faltered and failed so heartbreakingly.

An Loc from the air

An Loc is a city of about 15,000 people, the capital of rural Binh Phuoc (Sleeping Dragon) Province, on the border with Cambodia.  After more than a decade of savage civil war between North and South Vietnam, no one thought of An Loc or Binh Phouc Province as militarily important.  Only one division of the Republic of Vietnam’s million-man army, (the Army of the Republic of Vietnam—ARVN in media shorthand) was stationed there.  But to General Vo Nguyen Giap, commander of the army of North Vietnam (NVA), An Loc acquired special significance as 1972 began.  It sat on a paved highway, QL-13, only ninety miles away from the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon.

In distant Paris, North Vietnamese diplomats were pretending to negotiate a treaty of peace with South Vietnamese and American representatives.  In Washington, D.C. President Richard Nixon had refused to yield to massive protests against American involvement in the war.  His response was a program he called “Vietnamization”—the transfer of the fighting war to the South Vietnamese, and the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops.  By 1972, there were less than 100,000 combat GIs in Vietnam; none were in or near Binh Phuoc Province.  In November Nixon would run for reelection.  The leading Democratic candidate was Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, who was calling for immediate and total withdrawal of all American troops, planes and warships.

General Giap had persuaded the members of the North Vietnamese Politburo that now was the time for an offensive to conquer large chunks of South Vietnam.  The centerpiece of this effort would be the capture of An Loc, which they would christen the provisional capital of Revolutionary South Vietnam.  Communist politicians would muster there, while Giap poised a tank army, ready to rumble down Highway 13 to Saigon when disgusted war-weary American voters would elect Senator McGovern and the demoralized South Vietnamese “puppets” realized the United States was about to abandon them.

Did General Giap’s proposal mean that Vietnamization had been a failure?  The contrary would seem to be the case.  In 1968 the South Vietnamese and Americans had inflicted a shattering defeat on the Viet Cong, North Vietnam’s guerilla army, when the VC launched an all-out offensive during the traditional Vietnamese holiday known as Tet.  In the wake of this victory, the ARVN and the U.S. Army had been able to seize the initiative and pacify much of the countryside, producing a remarkable approximation of peace.

A former army colonel who had become a key civilian advisor said in January 1972, “We are now at the lowest level of fighting the war has ever seen.”  There was “an air of prosperity” throughout the rural areas of South Vietnam.  On the highways a traveler was in more danger “from hustling Hondas and Lambrettas than…from the VC.”  Vietnamization and pacification had left General Giap with only one hope of victory:  a massive invasion with his regular army.

At U.S. Army headquarters in Saigon, there were no illusions that the war was over.  Intelligence from NVA deserters and other sources detected General Giap’s buildup of forces on South Vietnam’s borders.  General Creighton Abrams, the U.S. Army commander, increased his airpower at bases in South Vietnam and Thailand.  Two aircraft carriers were ordered on station off the coast, with two more carriers on standby, ready to join them if needed.  B-52 bombers on Guam were told to prepare for an all-out effort.  “The stakes in this battle will be great,” Abrams said.

At noon on March 30, 1972, the game began with an attack across the supposedly demilitarized zone between the two Vietnams.  Fifteen NVA regiments poured thousands of rounds of mortar, rocket and artillery fire into ARVN bases along the border and surged toward the district capital of Quang Tri.  A second offensive burst from NVA sanctuaries in Cambodia into South Vietnam’s central highlands, heading for another major city, Kontum.  From sanctuaries further south in Cambodia came General Giap’s biggest effort.  Three NVA divisions backed by hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces rumbled toward An Loc.  Opposing these 35,000 veteran troops were 7,500   South Vietnamese soldiers and a team of American advisors led by Colonel William Miller, all professional soldiers with a fierce determination to win the interminable war.

Swiftly overrunning ARVN units that their commander, Brigadier General Le Van Hung, unwisely insisted on leaving outside An Loc, the Communists began a bombardment of horrendous intensity.  During the next fifteen hours, more than 7,000 shells and rockets crashed into the city, driving its defenders and its trapped civilians underground.  At dawn the NVA launched an infantry attack, supported by tanks, on the city’s northern streets, panicking the South Vietnamese defenders.  For most of them, it was the first time they had confronted tanks.  Within hours, much of the northern section of An Loc was in enemy hands.

As the ARVN retreated, a member of the provincial militia, Pham Cuong Tuan, peered from the roof of an elementary school and realized that the tanks were far ahead of the infantry, operating virtually on their own.  Pham aimed his M-72 LAW (Light Anti-tank Weapon) at a tank coming down the street toward him.  The tank exploded into flames.  The good news whirled through An Loc:  LAWs kill tanks.  Within the hour, tank after isolated tank met a similar fate and the emboldened ARVN defenders began greeting the oncoming NVA infantry with blasts of machine gun and automatic rifle fire.

The NVA had failed to master the first principle of combined armor-infantry assault on a city: tanks need the infantry to protect them.  One tank crew was so certain they had an unbeatable weapon, they rolled all the way to the southern end of the city with their hatches open. An ARVN soldier with a LAW ended their joy ride.

At the same time, the American advisors injected into the battle a second crucial ingredient—powerful coordinated air strikes.  Cobra gunships from the Blue Max Squadron of the 1st Cavalry Division fired armor piercing HEAT rockets with deadly effect.  A column of twelve tanks coming down Highway 13 was paralyzed when Cobras blew up the lead tank and the last one in the line.  The forest on both sides of the road was too thick to allow the survivors to turn around, leaving them easy prey to tactical aircraft—A-6s, F-4s and A-37s—making constant sorties with the guidance of daring Forward Air Controllers (FACs) in light planes.

At least as important were the B-52 strikes, code-named Arc Light. Every strike brought three of the huge planes, each carrying over a hundred 500-pound bombs, over targets close to An Loc.  One strike caught an entire NVA battalion and its tanks as they approached the city and blew it to pieces.

In the division command bunker, Colonel Miller persuaded General Hung to shift ARVN ranger units from parts of the city not yet under attack and infiltrate them into the endangered northern section.  Tactical air strikes that came within yards of the defenders made this possible.  By the end of the day, every NVA tank that had broken into An Loc had been destroyed and the NVA infantry’s advance had stalled.  ARVN fighting spirit was repeatedly buoyed by the planes and hovering Cobra helicopters.  An unexpectedly robust version of Vietnamization was being forged in this ferocious struggle.

For the next two harrowing months, these same tactics prevailed again and again.  On April 22, when South Vietnamese rangers went over to the offensive and began clearing NVA units entrenched in the wreckage of the city’s northern streets, they were backed by one of America’s most awesome airborne weapons, the AC-130 Spectre gunship, whose 105mm cannon created nothing less than a rolling barrage behind which the ARVN advanced.

By the time the battle reached its climax, B-52 strikes had become amazingly precise.  As they approached the city, the big planes could quickly change targets and come to the rescue of a hard-pressed ARVN unit.  On May 11, the B-52s flew some thirty sorties, plastering the NVA with fifteen hundred 500-pound bombs.  By this time the NVA had lost all their T-54 main battle tanks and were using PT-76 light tanks.  A kind of climax was reached on May 12.  NVA tankmen leaped out of their machines and ran for nearby rubber trees, as the ARVN advanced and American planes hammered them.

It would take another month of fighting to clear NVA units from Route 13 and open the way for reinforcements from Saigon.  But the NVA’s will to fight had been broken at An Loc.  To the north they abandoned the city of Quang Tri and beat a similar retreat from Kontum in the Central Highlands.  By that time, virtually all General Giap’s tanks and artillery had been destroyed.  The fourteen divisions and twenty-six regiments he had thrown into the battle had suffered crippling casualties.  Giap was unceremoniously fired by the North Vietnamese Politburo.

“The South Vietnamese army [has] proved it could stand on its own two feet,” the amazed editors of Paris Match magazine wrote.  They compared An Loc to Verdun and Stalingrad.  President Nixon was re-elected in November, 1972 with over sixty percent of the popular vote.

On March 30, Federal District Judge John Sirica, who had presided at a trial of five men who had broken into the Democratic Party’s headquarters in the Watergate Apartments during the presidential campaign, read aloud in his courtroom a letter he had received from one of the convicted men.  He claimed he had been ordered to plead guilty to the break-in to protect high officials in the Nixon administration. Reporters raced to telephones.

That was the moment when South Vietnam’s abandonment by President Richard Nixon and the U.S. Congress began.  The president who had hailed victory at An Loc receded to a dim historical phantasm, replaced by a morose man who flailed in vain at Congress’s seizure of virtually total power over foreign policy.  The Watergate scandal became the cover behind which Congress banned any and all further U.S. military activity in South Vietnam.  Even more fatal was their reduction of American economic aid to the vanishing point.  The impact on the ARVN’s morale and ability to fight was catastrophic.  Meanwhile, the Soviet Union re-supplied and re-equipped the NVA with the latest tanks and artillery.

In 1974, Richard Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment for his role in the Watergate Scandal.  Appointed as his replacement was Gerald Ford, Republican minority leader of the House of Representatives, a president with neither power nor prestige.

The endgame began in March 1975, almost exactly two years after General Giap launched his assault on An Loc.  Overwhelming NVA attacks drove the ARVN out of the Central Highlands.  Frantic attempts to regroup and save the southern half of the country collapsed.  In fifty-five days, NVA tanks rolled into Saigon.  “Our friends are dying!”  cried a desperate President Ford.  No one paid the slightest attention to him.

It was the beginning of a long agony for those who had sided with the Americans.  Many leaders, including General Hung, the ARVN commander at An Loc, committed suicide.  Over a million people were sentenced to prisons and work camps.  Others became pathetic “boat people”, prey to pirates and the vagaries of the weather as they sought refuge in other countries.  Their nation, the Republic of Vietnam, ceased to exist.  With it vanished the memory of the victory at An Loc.

Can we prevent a similar massacre of our friends in Afghanistan and Iraq when American forces withdraw?  The outburst of violence in Iraq only days after our departure is ominous, to say the least.  Will Iran—and perhaps China—seize the opportunity to help inflict humiliation on the United States?  South Vietnam’s tragic fate should make us resolve to prevent another terrible blot on America’s honor.        

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