Tuesday, May 23, 1972
Adviser: Reds At An Loc Didn't Get It Together
By Spec. 4 Allen Schaefer
Lt. Col. Edward B. Benedit, gaunt and visibly tired after his stay in the city the Communists said they would take in three days, said Sunday that the NVA, despite cautious planning, failed to make the right move at the proper time to topple the provincial capital 60 miles north of Saigon.
Airlifted out of An Loc Saturday, the senior American adviser to the 5th ARVN Div. said there were three critical phases of the siege when the Communists appeared to have the upper hand, but that at no time did he think the city was going to fall.
One of the most crucial periods was from the 10th to the 14th of April when South Vietnamese defenders withstood intensive enemy ground attacks. Benedit said the greatest number of ARVN casualties came during the initial attack on An Loc.
As of Saturday, according to the 40-year-old Army officer from Greencove Springs, Fla., ARVN troops had not lost any ground for five days and were in good spirits after hearing that elements of the 21st Div. had pushed to within a mile of the city.
Advisers there late Friday adjusted artillery fire from batteries in Tan Khai, five miles south of An Loc.
"It's hard to recognize that there is a city anymore," said Benedit. "To say that it is battered is a gross understatement."
He said South Vietnamese units, including elements of the 5th and 18th Div., Rangers and provincial forces, occupy slightly more than half of the city on the southern sector of high ground.
Benedit described An Loc as littered with rubble, dangling parachutes from air drops and charred military and civilian vehicles. There are skeletal remains of houses where NVA squads have holed up in basement bunkers.
"Progress is measured in bunkers and houses," he said. "We call in a tactical air strike on a house and kill the NVA as they come out. Sometimes bombs are dropped as close as 25 feet to friendly troops. The U.S. Air Force has done an outstanding job."
Benedit said Communist gunners fired an average of 2,000 shells into South Vietnamese positions daily and sometimes as many as 8,000. Every ground attack was prepped by artillery barrages.
Antiaircraft and artillery fire fluctuated daily, and Communists continually moved their gun positions. Benedit estimated 100 Red artillery pieces were in place around the city.
"Time went by very rapidly. We were either working or sleeping," he said. Benedit, and some of the other Americans there lived in a 20-by-60-foot bunker that is mostly underground and has heavy overhead cover.
Benedit said Sunday his greatest pleasure was being able to sit out in the sun after more than a month in a dark, damp bunker.
The diet of An Loc's defenders is plain but nourishing: rice and canned pork. There is enough brackish water to drink and shave, Benedit said, but a shower was never possible.
Resupply was a problem on many occasions. However, in the last month U.S. Air Force C130s have been able to maintain sufficient quantities of ammunition, food and medical items, employing a "high velocity" drop system.
Braving a wide assortment of antiaircraft fire that included 23, 51 and 57mm guns in the early part of the siege, the Air Force tried every method of resupply, the adviser said.
"The day before I left there was an air drop of food, and it was left in the area for a few hours. That was a very good sign. When supplies first started getting through they were grabbed up as soon as they hit the ground."
Civilians in the city, who made numerous attempts to flee but were turned back repeatedly by North Vietnamese to the south, have been getting food by air drop as well, coordinated through provincial officials at An Loc, Benedit said.
Although he could not estimate how man noncombatants were in the city, he said their number was "substantial."
American air power continues to be an important factor in the battle for An Loc. Even though it rained twice, the city was never socked-in for a full day and daylight tactical air strikes and nightly gunship missions have been dealing the Communists deadly blows, Benedit said.
Communist tanks did not pose a threat to the city because the armor did not have the support of infantry troops, and its deployment was not well coordinated with assaults, according to Benedit.
He credited the M72 "LAW," an antitank rocket similar to the World War II bazooka, but smaller and much more powerful, with many kills.
"The first tank knocked out with the LAW was a considerable morale factor for the troops at An Loc," Benedit said, adding that there were no "live" tanks in An Loc when he left.
The South Vietnamese troops did an excellent job of defending the city, he said. The wounded recovered rapidly and were able to man defensive perimeters when they were released from the field hospital. Yet the ARVN forces are fatigued, if not shell-shocked, he said.
He said the South Vietnamese have taken substantial casualties in the fight for the city which President Nguyen Van Thieu has ordered held at all cost. But for every casualty, there were four dead Communists in the close-in fighting, the adviser estimated.
Benedit termed the North Vietnamese a tenacious enemy who would stand by gun positions and fire at approaching F4 Phantoms diving on them with canisters of napalm. Although the NVA push has eased in the last two weeks there is no sign that the enemy has started to pull back.
"We have hurt them a lot, but what remains is a big unknown."
Benedit was lifted out of An Loc by an American helicopter that swooped in and out.
"I used to think a roller coaster ride was hairy until that flight out of An Loc. I'll never take exception to an aviator's flight pay anymore."
"Adviser: Reds at An Loc Didn't Get It Together", by Spec. 4 Allen Schaefer, published in the Pacific Stars and Stripes Tuesday, May 23, 1972 and reprinted for European and Pacific Stars and Stripes, a Department of Defense publication copyright, 2002 European and Pacific Stars and Stripes.
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