BATTLE FOR THE 22nd DIVISION HEADQUARTERS AT TAN CANH
The most glaring weakness in the overall ARVN defensive plan was the vulnerability of the 22nd Division command post located at Tan Canh. This relatively small compound was located on a small hill southwest of the town of Tan Canh.
The ARVN forces had 155mm and 105mm howitzers at the base as well as four M-41 tanks from the 22nd Division's 14th Armored Cavalry Regiment. Located within the compound were a large number of support troops and approximately one battalion from the 42nd Regiment. The base lacked defense in depth and was located on relatively low ground. There were no significant forces to the north to counter a serious threat from that direction.
The 22nd Division headquarters located at Tan Canh had received sporadic artillery fire throughout the month of April. The intensity of these artillery attacks intensified until they reached more than 1,000 rounds per day. On the 23rd of April there were clear signs that an attack on the Division headquarters was imminent. Surface to surface wire guided missiles were used by NVA forces to destroy the ARVN tanks located within the compound and also to destroy the Division command bunker. By the evening of the 23rd, the situation at Tan Canh was grave. The only remaining antitank defenses rested primarily on light antitank weapons (M72 LAW) and air support. The 22nd Division command post had been reestablished in the 42nd Regiment TOC, but the morale of the ARVN Division commander, Colonel Duc Dat, and his staff, was very poor.
Late in the evening of April 23rd, there were reports that enemy tanks were approaching the Tan Canh area from the northwest. An Air Force C-130 "Specter" gunship was called to the scene and with its onboard night vision equipment was able to detect a column of tanks on the road north of Tan Canh. The gunship engaged the tanks with a 105mm cannon and reported hitting three tanks. The column continued its advance toward Tan Canh. There were two bridges between the approaching tanks and the 22nd Division headquarters that were being secured by Regional Force/Popular Force (RF/PF) troops. These RF/PF troops did not offer any significant resistance to the tanks nor did they destroy the bridges.
The tank column continued their approach during the early morning hours of April 24th. Some of the tanks, about 10, split off from the main column and moved into positions north of the 22nd Division headquarters compound, in order to provide direct fire support for the attack of the main body. Large numbers of infantry were observed moving into positions around the compound.
At about 0530 that morning, the tanks began their attack on the 22nd Division headquarters. The tanks approached through the fog with their lights on and firing their machine guns at positions along the perimeter. The tanks that had taken up firing positions earlier supported the attack with direct fire from their main guns. Large infantry formations assaulted the compound from the north. Unfortunately, many of the ARVN support troops located within the compound panicked and ran away from the attacking NVA forces. The exodus of these troops over the wire on the southern side of the compound spread a general sense of hopelessness among the remaining defenders. By 0600, the situation was critical. Fog and low clouds greatly restricted the effective employment of air support.
The Senior U.S. advisor to the 22nd ARVN Division, Colonel Kaplan, made the decision to evacuate the American advisory team once it became evident that the compound was about to be overrun. His decision to leave the compound was supported by the Senior U.S. Advisor for Military Region II, John Paul Vann.
The destruction of the 22nd ARVN Division headquarters on the April 24th was a shock to the entire II Corps Headquarters. The Division ceased being an effective fighting unit, and the only things that stood between the NVA and Kontum City were a few airborne units located on the highway, QL 14, north of Kontum City.