THE BATTLE FOR THE BORDER CAMPS
May 5th: On 5 May, the Ranger camp of Polei Kleng came under intense enemy artillery fire. The rounds were impacting in a tight pattern within the perimeter. Enemy forces had closed in around the camp and were placing accurate small arms fire on the defensive positions. The defenders reported tanks approaching from the north. A forward air controller (FAC) working in the area also observed the tanks but lost sight of them when they moved into a wooded area. Elements from the air cavalry were called in, once again, to locate the tanks. In addition, the airborne TOW aircraft had been called in to engage the tanks. These two NUH-1B helicopters were the only aircraft in the world equipped with the TOW system and great caution was exercised in employing them. Only one TOW aircraft went out at a time and escorted by a team of two AH-1G Cobra gunships from the 361st AWC and a UH-1H that was the command and control (C&C) aircraft. The airborne TOW aircraft used the call sign "Hawk's Claw." Shortly after the helicopters arrived in the area, a steady stream of Air Force F-4 attack aircraft began arriving over the target area.
The gunner on the TOW aircraft spotted two of the tanks, which appeared to be painted black. He acquired one of them in his sights but elected not to fire when a helicopter from the air cavalry troop flew into his field of vision. Later, the targets were spotted several times, but, each time, the gunner was unable to acquire the targets early enough in his approach to engage them because of the thick jungle canopy in the area. TACAIR, both U.S. and Vietnamese, dropped bombs on the suspected target locations in an attempt to blow away the jungle cover so that the "Hawk's Claw" could get a clear shot. F-4's and VNAF A1-E aircraft struck the area; however, the tanks were not visible. Several secondary explosions and what appeared to be oil based fires indicated that the air strikes might have destroyed at least one of the tanks. As the aircraft orbited the camp, a 23mm antiaircraft gun as well as numerous 51calibur (cal.) machine guns and small arms fire sporadically engaged them. All aircraft were forced out of the area early in the evening due to weather. The ordeal by fire for the camp continued throughout the night. Intense artillery fire scored direct hits on the command bunker and other defensive positions in the compound. Many of these structures were damaged to the point that the defenders were forced to seek cover in individual foxholes as the enemy moved his assault troops to within 100 to 200 meters of the camp.
May 6th: Late in the afternoon of May 6th, as intense fighting continued, the decision was made by Mr. Vann and General Hill to pull out the two U. S. advisors. This was a difficult decision in light of the fact that Polei Kleng was located on one of the main enemy avenues of approach into the city of Kontum. Many of the camp defenders had become casualties, and there was a shortage of supplies, especially water. It was decided to extract the two U.S. advisors in the evening when it was dark enough to afford some concealment for the light observation helicopter (LOH) OH-6 from the cavalry troop that would make the extraction. Just at dusk the LOH flew into the camp through a hail of enemy fire and successfully extracted the U.S. advisors. It had been the plan to replace the ARVN camp commander, however, the VNAF pilot of the UH-1 carrying the new commander refused to fly into the camp.
Another dramatic event took place on the 6th of May. A FAC, flying in support of the Polei Kleng operation received a radio call from "Gladiator 715." This aircraft had been shot down on April 24th south of Dak To II carrying the U.S. advisors who had been rescued at Tan Canh by John Paul Vann. It had been reported that there were no survivors because the aircraft (UH-1H) had exploded on impact. The FAC established contact with a small group of survivors from the crash, lead by the crew chief, Spec/4 Lea, who had managed to both stabilize the wounded and evade capture. A team from H troop 17 CAV was immediately dispatched to try to locate them. At first a trap was suspected because no one could believe there was any possibility of survivors from the crash. (When a helicopter got shot down, the crew chief and gunner often tried to jump clear before impact. If able, they would then go back to the aircraft to attempt a rescue of the pilots. This was a plan that rarely worked.) After locating the small party on the ground and insuring that they were, in fact, U.S. personnel, an LOH went in and picked up two survivors. They were accompanied by a group of ARVN soldiers and Montagnards who grabbed the aircraft when it landed and almost pulled it out of the air. Although these Montagnards had been essential to the survival of Lea and the others, it was impossible to airlift everyone involved out of the area at that time. This was a painful choice. Some of the aircraft in the area started receiving fire, so the U.S. personnel were the only ones recovered. These men told of three other badly wounded survivors located in the vicinity of the crash site. A "slick" (UH-1) from H/7/17th CAV landed in the reported location and recovered the three injured men. They reported that some ARVN soldiers who were in the area had helped them. It was also reported that a large number of these troops were wandering around in the hills south of Dak To, probably survivors from Tan Canh, Dak To, and the FSBs on Rocket Ridge. A group of Montagnards had provided food and other assistance to include an old PRC-25 radio. It was with this radio that Spec/4 Lea finally made contact with the FAC.
May 7th: This was one bright point in an otherwise dismal picture. Polei Kleng took several ground probes during the night. Enemy attacks by fire continued throughout the day on May 7th. Most of the camp was destroyed and all the defenders were forced underground into bunkers and foxholes.
It was reported that the camp commander and other key officers had attempted to escape from the camp during the night by way of a tunnel, however, it collapsed during the heavy shelling. The ARVN S-3 (operations officer) organized the defenders and generally took control of the situation. Mr. Vann spent a great deal of time flying over the besieged camp trying to offer assistance and encouragement to the defenders. On several occasions he attempted to have his counterpart, Gen. Dzu, talk to the commander; however, the camp commander was too shaken to talk to anyone.
Late in the afternoon of May 7th, a very serious problem arose when one of the Montagnard battalions, the 71st, located at the Ben Het border camp, apparently mutinied. They shot one of their commanders and seized several Vietnamese officers as hostages. They threatened to shoot them all unless aircraft were made available the next day to transport them to Pleiku so that they could spend some time with their families. The dissident troops held a portion of the compound while the other battalion, still loyal, held the rest. Mr. Vann immediately flew out to the camp and worked out an agreement between the Montagnards and Vietnamese.
A plan was drawn up to airlift the mutinous battalion out of the camp the next day. This seemed to appease those troops and, for the moment, the situation stabilized. During the night Ben Het came under intense attacks by fire, and large numbers of enemy troops were observed to the northwest of the camp.
May 8th: On May 8th, the enemy continued to put heavy fire into both Ben Het and Polei Kleng. The situation of Polei Kleng improved somewhat when an ARVN captain, who spoke fairly good English, virtually assumed command of the situation. He was promoted to the rank of major by General Dzu and put in command. At Polei Kleng, one of the most serious problems facing the defenders was their critical shortage of water. A plan was devised to airdrop 3,000 pound loads of water from CH-47 helicopters, into the camp before sunrise. Colonel John A. Todd organized and led the mission; however, it was aborted due to poor weather in the vicinity of the camp. Unfortunately, this added to an already difficult situation within the camp.
May 9th: This young commander of Polei Kleng estimated that 1,000 rounds of 130mm artillery had hit the camp during the night of May 8th and early morning of May 9th. It seemed apparent that the enemy was about to stage a final push against the ranger camp. Reports vary on the size of the attacking force, however, it is estimated that it was regimental size and supported by an unknown number of tanks. The defenders fired a 106mm recoilless rifle at the tanks but missed. Allegedly, small arms fire became too intense to even use the M-72 Light Antitank Weapons (LAW). Approximately 350 defenders (including some of their dependents) moved out of the camp to the south, leaving an unknown number of wounded behind. At 1700 hours there were reports of tanks leaving the area to the west and that 180 of the defenders were 6 km west of Kontum city. As of 1800 hours, 250 of the camp's defenders had joined with friendly units. In response to the loss of Polei Kleng, the ARVN airlifted a battalion from the 45th Regiment (23rd Division) into a blocking position 12 km west of Kontum city. The enemy antiaircraft fire was very heavy in the vicinity of Polei Kleng and resulted in a VNAF A1-E being shot down 3km northwest of the camp.
In response to the reported tank attack at Polei Kleng, the "Hawk's Claw" was launched at about 0645 from Camp Holloway. Typically, the "Hawk's Claw" team was on strip alert at Camp Holloway. After arriving on station and not being able to locate suitable targets, the package was diverted to Ben Het.
At Ben Het, the revolt of the previous day had subsided and all personnel within the camp turned their attention to the defense of their positions. One of the Vietnamese held captive by the mutinous unit was released so that he could coordinate the defense.
On the morning of May 9th, Ben Het had also come under an intense combined arms assault. Prior to the attack, the NVA had sent dogs through the defensive wire from the north to detonate antipersonnel mines, after which the infantry followed. The fighting intensified to close-quarters combat, with positions on the eastern perimeter trading hands several times. Late in the afternoon a small enemy force still occupied several bunkers within the camp. The defenders were able to destroy one tank at the main gate with an M-72 LAW. During the battle, an estimated 100 enemy troops were killed in the immediate vicinity of the camp. Due to the low clouds, TACAIR was not able to work; however, our TOW helicopter was able to acquire and destroy several tanks, as they were not as well hidden during the actual attack on the camp.
During the early morning, a decision was made to send in a slick from the 57th Assault Helicopter Company (AHC), the Gladiators, to re-supply the defenders with M-72 LAWs. The aircraft was escorted by two AH-1G cobra gunships from the 361st Arial Weapons Company (AWC), the Pink Panthers. Although all of the aircraft received hits, the drop was successful; however, while escorting the slick out of the camp, one of the gunships received multiple hits and crashed several hundred meters southeast of the camp where it exploded shortly after impact. One of the pilots, Captain Bill Reeder, was observed falling out of the aircraft just before it exploded. Bill was badly injured and was barely able to crawl away from the aircraft. After numerous air strikes, an LOH from the cavalry was able to locate and pick up the front seat pilot; however, Captain Reeder was not seen again. (It was learned later that he had become a POW. Bill later provided this account of the event- "My back was badly broken and I was wounded in the ankle. I recall exiting the aircraft with great difficulty, and my feet being tangled by something for a time before I was able to get/fall free of the wreckage. I do not recall much after that, except a sense of laying semi-conscious not that far from the wreck. I recall a sense of great heat and the sound of ammunition cooking off as I passed in and out of consciousness. It was some time before I could gain any movement of my arms and legs, and was then only able to crawl for the next several hours.") Another account of this event is available in Mark Truhan's Memories Book entry The Battle of Ben Het - May 1972.
May 10th and 11th: After an intense firefight, the attack on Ben Het was successfully beaten off, with the enemy taking very heavy losses. The situation was relatively stable at Ben Het on May 10th, and by 0900 hours May 11th, the defenders had eliminated the enemy still inside the camp and secured the entire perimeter. During the fighting, four bunkers and some of the perimeter wire had been destroyed, so the remaining troops took to repairing the fortifications, as another attack seemed likely.
It appeared that the NVA considered the two border camps of Polei Kleng and Ben Het important enough to expend a great deal of resources against them. Although Polei Kleng was lost, the cost to the enemy in men, equipment, and most of all, time, was a major advantage to the defenders of Kontum City, especially the 23rd ARVN Division. Preparations for the defense of Kontum were proceeding at a rapid pace, but time was the critical factor. The question was whether the defense would be well enough organized and prepared to survive the attack everyone knew was soon to come.
The battle for the border camps was significant to the defense of Kontum for a number of reasons. First, it delayed the main attack on the city. Secondly, the resources expended on these well-fortified camps would not be easily replaced by the NVA in time for the attack on the city. Third, and probably most important, was the fact that the successful defense of Ben Het was the first really positive action since the disaster at Tan Canh. The fact had been established that the enemy could be stopped. On May 11th, MGEN Nguyen Van Toan replaced the Vietnamese II Corps commander, LTGEN Ngo Dzu. General Dzu departed smiling and apparently quite happy, remarking that he had been fired but at least he had not lost any of the province capitols. General Toan made a favorable impression. His reputation as "both a fighter and a lover," sparked Mr. Vann to remark that if the General didn't do one, he wouldn't do the other. Mr. Vann had high hopes that things would improve for the city of Kontum and the defense of the Central Highlands. The staff had not been replaced and was still very weak. Mr. Vann recommended strongly that General Toan use his personal influence to get some topnotch people from Saigon to replace the staff of LTGEN Dzu.
A matter of serious concern was that the briefings and other information presented to the Corps Commander about troop movements and estimates bore no discernible resemblance to the actual facts. The daily staff update for the Commanding General was known as the "fairy tale hour." This lack of accurate information from the ARVN leadership was exactly the same problem faced by the advisors for the 22nd Division. Much of the reports on troop activities and locations were not accurate and lead to a false picture of the situation on the ground. This was very frustrating to the U.S. advisors and created major problems in planning air strikes.
Kontum airfield continued to receive daily attacks by rocket and artillery fire. A special note of praise should go to the courageous tower operators at the airfield and the Ground Control Approach (GCA) operators who continued to man their positions, even when hardened veterans were ducking for cover. Though the defensive preparations were proceeding at a feverish pitch, it was essential to have the airfield open and operating. Most of the supplies were being delivered to Kontum by Air Force C-130 cargo aircraft, operating at night, and often in poor weather conditions.
The decision had been made to laager the cavalry troop and the Hawk's Claw at Kontum airfield. This presented some problems in that the airfield received sporadic ABFs throughout the day. It was believed, however, that the high degree of risk was warranted. Having the aircraft on standby at the airfield saved a great deal of flight time, or "blade time." During this period, with increasing enemy fire, several aircraft were damaged but, fortunately, no crewmembers were killed.
The role of helicopters, both in the battle of Kontum, and the Vietnam War in general, cannot be overstated. All of the U.S. advisors praised the aviation support they received and often gave special mention to the U.S. air cavalry, H troop 17 CAV. The air cavalry's performance during the Battle of Kontum was extraordinary, by anyone's definition. Also the tremendous fire support provided by the U.S. Air Force, especially the B-52 strikes, has often been described as the "key" factor in the battle.
On May 11, the new II Corps Commander, MGEN Toan, spent the night in Kontum City. He visited several positions and then met with the 23rd Division Commander and his staff. He told them that there would be no retreat from Kontum City. Early on the morning of the 12th, he conducted inspections of units and forward positions, and was highly critical of most positions. The single biggest criticism of the soldiers' positions was that they had not dug their fighting positions deep enough to protect them from tanks -- a problem that had to be checked on daily.
May 12th: On May 12th, while conducting a visual reconnaissance, one of the cavalry LOHs, piloted by Lieutenant Smith, located a T-54 tank. Unfortunately, the tank fired his main gun at the aircraft along with his machine gun. Although the LOH was not hit by fire from the main gun, the aircraft was shot down by small arms fire. Both crewmembers were successfully extracted but the aircraft was destroyed.
In response to the tank sighting, the TOW package was launched. The Hawk's Claw had considerable difficulty acquiring the target because of the jungle canopy and camouflage. Several observers from the cavalry verified the report that three T-54 tanks were in the area. After several unsuccessful passes by the TOW ship, two missiles were fired into bamboo, camouflaged clumps in the area where the tanks were hidden, with unknown results. TACAIR strikes were used in an attempt to blow away the camouflage. The camouflage was blown away from one tank, and it received a direct hit by a TOW missile. The tank erupted into flames and was still burning as of 1900 hours that night. Numerous attempts were made to hit the other tanks with TOW missiles; however, the gunner could not acquire the tanks. The dense jungle, and the camouflage employed by the enemy, made it very difficult to find the tanks. The area appeared to be a tank park or assembly position and was nominated for a B-52 ARC light strike that night.
TACAIR was used against the enemy anywhere he was found. There were over 50 U.S. TACAIR sorties and 28 VNAF sorties in the Kontum area on May 12th. In addition to the TACAIR, there were 25 ARC light strikes.
Much has been said about the VNAF aviation support, both helicopter (mostly UH-1) and TACAIR (mostly A1-E). I got to know several of the VNAF pilots and after the war, I became a close friend with a helicopter pilot who had escaped and become a refugee. Some of the helicopter pilots of an earlier time, such as the CH-34 "Kingbee" pilots "Cowboy" and "Mustachio" who had supported the SOG missions out of FOB 2, were legendary in their courage and skill. It is important to note that, unlike American soldiers, these pilots were not on a one-year tour. They continued to fly combat missions until they couldn't fly anymore. At Kontum, A1-E pilots took on 51 cals head-to-head and sometimes got shot down. It would be both a mistake and a disservice to this brave group of aviators, not to mention their contributions to the battle.
The northern approaches to Kontum City took on the appearance of the "carpet bombing" area for the breakout of St. Lo, in WWII. The resemblance stopped there, however, for the ARVN were not interested in breaking out, or taking the offensive, especially to the north. There have been many that have criticized the ARVN soldiers and leadership for their lack of aggressiveness and offensive spirit on the battlefield. This is not the place to go into a detailed discussion on this aspect of the war, but observations by some of the U.S. advisors provide an interesting perspective. The ARVN were trained to fight anti-guerrilla war, not a conventional battle against battle hardened, well equipped NVA division formations. The ARVN division commanders had never had an opportunity to command their units, as a division organization, until they were in the heat of battle. The ARVN soldier, on offensive operations, would stop and call for fire support as soon as they encountered enemy fire. They did not employ "fire and maneuver" tactics very successfully. However, if provided a good defensive position and adequate leadership and support, they would fight bravely and effectively. This lack of an aggressive spirit was not the American way, and often led to frustration for the advisors and criticism from the U.S. press.
The 44th Regiment was scheduled to arrive in the city on the night of May 12th. The 44th was reported to be one of the best ARVN regiments in the 23rd Division, and everyone was anxious to get the unit into position before the NVA launched the main attack. Although most officials were publicly voicing confidence that the city would hold, these were dark days and most harbored grave doubts as to the ARVN's ability to hold the city. Most of the governmental officials had evacuated the city, and population control was becoming a serious problem. The enemy cut the road south to Pleiku, QL14, and panic had set in with the people of Kontum. The near hysteria that existed with the civilians had had a negative effect on many of the defenders, especially the local RF/PF forces who were defending the entire southern perimeter of the city. Chinooks (CH-47's) from the 180th ASHC stationed at Camp Holloway, did an extraordinary job of carrying in supplies and carrying out refugees and wounded. Often the aircraft were forced to orbit the city until the shelling slowed enough for them to get into one of the landing zones (LZ). Crowd control in the LZs became such a problem that the armed police were forced, at times, to use brutal methods to control the hundreds of desperate people trying to leave to escape the advancing NVA.
During this period, the city of Kontum started to fill up with several hundred ARVN deserters. These men were mostly from the units of the 22nd Division who had deserted in the confusion of battle. ARVN authorities were reluctant to round these men up and return them to fighting units. In order to force the ARVN authorities to take action, a false report was released that NVA soldiers were in the city masquerading as ARVN soldiers in uniform. This had the desired effect.
May 13th: During the afternoon of May 13th, the great tank hunt continued. The LOH pilots of the cavalry troops continued their perilous work of hovering around suspected tank locations trying to get a visual fix on them. The air cavalry was the most important source of hard, timely intelligence, and the methods they used to get it were extremely hazardous, to say the least. This fact is attested to by the heavy losses they suffered in men and material during the months of March through June 1972 (See "Aircraft Losses" section on this site). Later in the day of May 13th, the cavalry located an armored personnel carrier (APC) and Hawk's Claw was launched to engage the target. The APC was hit and set ablaze. On one of the attacks by the Hawk's Claw, the pilot put the NUH-1B aircraft in a steep dive that nearly exceeded the safe flight envelope of the aircraft. The pilot had great difficulty in pulling out of his dive, and the TOW missile overshot the target. Although the NUH-1B helicopter was not the best platform for the TOW system, they were the only ones available in 1972.