This account of the fall of Pleiku and the Central Highlands to the North Vietnamese military in March, 1975, is an excerpt from a full summary of the war entitled, Vietnam: Cease Fire To Capitulation, by Capt. William E. Le Gro (1985). It is used here with the permission of Ric Hoffman, SFC (Ret.).
Chapter 15 - The Central Highlands, March 1975
Senior General Van Tien Dung was the principal architect of North Vietnam's final offensive against South Vietnam. In his account of "The Great Spring Victory" he described the planning of the offensive (FBIS Daily Report: Asia and Pacific, Vol. IV, No. 110, Sup. 38, pp. 6-10):
. . . during the 20 days of the conference the Political Bureau's assessment of the situation and its discussions were increasingly by the obvious week-by-week achievement of major strategic objectives. . . . While the Political Bureau was meeting, great news came from the south: the main force units in eastern Nam Bo [roughly conterminous with South Vietnam's Military Region 3], in cooperation with the provincial forces, had attacked and liberated Phuoc Binh City and all of Phuoc Long Province.
On 8 January 1975, two days after the Phuoc Long victory, Comrade Le Duan concluded the discussions. The situation is now clear to everybody. We are now determined to fulfill the 2 year plan.
Le Duan went on: Striking a strategic blow in 1975, Nam Bo will have to create an interrelated and interdependent position throughout the region, bring military pressure closer to Saigon, annihilate as many enemy main-force units as possible and create conditions for localities to deploy forces when opportunities arise.
In the Mekong delta region military pressure must be brought closer to My Tho. We have agreed that this year the attack on the Central Highlands will begin. He pointed to a map behind him and said: Attacks must be unleashed toward Ban Me Thuot and Tuy Hoa. The Fifth Region will have to form a liberated area from Binh Dinh Province northward, and the Tri-Thien forces will have to control an area from Hue to Da Nang.
While we discussed the 1975 strategic combat plan, another very important question was raised: Where to establish the main battlefield?
After considering the RVNAF strength, mobility and deployments, the relative strategic value of each major region, and the strength and mobility of the NVA, "the conferees unanimously approved the General Staffs draft plan which chose the Central Highlands as the main battlefield in the large-scale, widespread 1975 offensive."
According to General Dung, North Vietnamese leaders did not expect total victory in 1975. The major, country-wide offensive they were planning for early 1975 was to prepare the way for a "general offensive" that would finish the task in 1976. Nevertheless, they anticipated the possibility of "opportunities" to "liberate" South Vietnam "early or late in 1975."
General Dung reported that on 9 January, one day after the conference adjourned, the Central Military Party Committee convened to prepare military plans to support the conference resolution. It was here that Ban Me Thuot was selected as the first objective and main effort of the Central Highlands campaign.
The conference had just started when Comrade Le Duc Tho arrived unannounced. He opened the door, entered and joined us in the conference. Later on we knew that the Political Bureau was somewhat troubled because the idea of an attack on Ban Me Thuot had not been clearly outlined in the combat plan; therefore, it sent Comrade Tho to join us and present his idea that such an attack was essential. He said enthusiastically: "We must definitely raise the problem of liberating Ban Me Thuot and Duc Lap. It would be absurd if with almost five divisions in the Central Highlands we could not attack Ban Me Thuot." Comrade Vo Nguyen Giap, secretary of the Central Military Party Committee, concluded the conference by establishing the areas and targets of the offensive, the objectives of the campaign and the orders for deploying and using forces. He also suggested the fighting methods that should be applied, greatly stressing the principle of force, secrecy and surprise, and advised that it was necessary to deceive the enemy into concentration on defending areas north of the Central Highlands.
The Central Highlands campaign was code-named "Campaign 275." At that time on the Central Highlands front, Comrade Vu Lang, the front commander, left for the Ban Me Thuot area with some cadres to assess the situation. At the request of comrades Le Duan and Le Duc Tho, the Political Bureau sent me to the Central Highlands battlefield as a representative of the Political Bureau, the Central Military Party Committee and the High Command to take field command. . . . I told Comrade Tran Van Tra following the Political Bureau conference: "This time I will fight in the Central Highlands until the rainy season. Then I will go to Nam Bo to join you in studying the battlefield situation and making preparations for military activities in the 1975-76 dry season." . . . At this time in the Central Highlands we had the 320th, 10th and 968th divisions - divisions that had gained much combat experience on the Central Highlands battlefield. Toward the end of December 1974 the High Command decided to dispatch the 316th Division to this front.
Isolating the Battlefield
To capture Ban Me Thuot, NVA leadership in the B-3 Front - now personified in General Van Tien Dung - counted on surprise and overwhelming force. The element of surprise was to be enhanced by strong diversionary attacks in Kontum and Pleiku Provinces; once achieved, the advantage of mass, or the concentration of force, was to be prolonged by preventing the RVNAF from reinforcing Ban Me Thuot. The diversionary and supporting attacks began while the three NVA divisions that would take part in the Darlac-Quang Duc Campaign - the 10th, 316th, and 320 - were still converging on their initial objectives areas.
The opening guns of Campaign 275 sounded along Route 19 (QL-19), the lifeline to the highlands, in the early morning of 4 March. Simultaneous attacks closed the highway from the Mang Yang Pass in Pleiku Province to Binh Dinh Province. Enemy sappers blew Bridge 12 southeast of Binh Khe, in Binh Dinh, and infantry struck ARVN territorials on the high ground overwatching the An Khe Pass and the RF unit at the Route 3A (TL-3A) junction. Soon an artillery position supporting the 2d Battalion, 47th Infantry, north of Binh Khe was overrun. A strong attack by the 12th Regiment, 3d NVA Division, near the An Khe airfield was repulsed, while Phu Cat air base received a rocket attack and sustained light damage.
While Binh Dinh territorials and the 47th ARVN Regiment struggled to hold their positions against the withering NVA artillery, infantry, and sapper assaults, South Vietnam forces in Pleiku Province came under heavy rocket, mortar, and recoilless rifle fire along Route 19 from Le Trung, 15 kilometers east of Pleiku City, to the narrow defiles of the Mang Yang Pass. Fire Support Bases 92 (east of Le Trung), 93 (near Soui Doi), and 94 (north of Hill 3045), all came under bombardment, while a number of their outposts were overrun. Two bridges and a large culvert between FSBs 93 and 94 were destroyed by enemy sappers. General Phu, the II Corps commander, reacted by sending two battalions of the 4th Ranger Group to join elements of the 2d Armored Cavalry Brigade, then clearing parts of Route 19, to proceed as far as FSB 95 in Binh Dinh Province, just east of the Mang Yang Pass. But before the operation could get under way, Base 94 was overrun. Meanwhile, NVA rockets hit Pleiku air base; although the field remained operational, the maintenance area sustained heavy damage.
While the attacks along Route 19 were viewed by General Phu as strong indicators that the NVA main effort would be against Pleiku, the Communists also interdicted Route 21 (QL-21), the other major road to the highlands, which connected coastal Khanh Hoa Province with Ban Me Thuot. Sappers blew two bridges between the Darlac boundary and Khanh Duong in Khanh Hoa Province, and NVA infantry overran an ARVN territorial outpost close to the provincial boundary. The only two available roads to the highlands were closed; the battlefield of the Central Highlands had been isolated in 24 hours of concentrated assaults.
At II Corps headquarters, South Vietnamese officers debated where the enemy's main effort would take place. Colonel Trinh Tieu, the G-2, insisted that Ban Me Thuot would be the principal objective, with intermediate and supporting objectives at Buon Ho and Duc Lap. Based on indications that elements of the 10th and 320th Division had shifted south or had at least conducted reconnaissance in Quang Duc and Darlac Provinces, he told his commander that the attacks in Kontum, Pleiku, and on Route 19 were diversionary, designed primarily to hold the major RVNAF strength in place in Binh Dinh, Kontum, and Pleiku. General Phu nevertheless, believed Pleiku to be the main NVA objective. His reasoning was based on the weight of the current enemy attacks by fire against the 44th ARVN Infantry in Thanh An District of Pleiku and against the Rangers north of Kontum. Having only two regiments protecting the western approaches to Pleiku, he would not weaken this front to reinforce Ban Me Thuot where nothing significant had yet taken place.
Darlac and Quang Duc
Local Route 487 twisted through the forested highlands of southwestern Phu Bon Province between Cheo Reo, the capital, and Buon Blech, where it joined National Route 14 (QL-14) about 60 kilometers north of Ban Me Thuot. At this junction, also the district seat of Thuan Man in Phu Bon Province, the NVA on 8 March, struck the first direct blow of Campaign 275. Elements of the 9th Regiment, 320th NVA Division, attacked the subsector headquarters and the 23d Reconnaissance Company forcing a withdrawal. Meanwhile, the 45th ARVN Regiment on Route 14 near Thuan Man reported contact with enemy infantry. The fighting continued through the day, but Route 14 was permanently blocked by the 9th Regiment, 320th NVA Division.
On 9 March, the 10th NVA Division launched simultaneous attacks throughout Quang Duc Province. The assault against the Rangers at Kien Duc was repulsed, and the Quang Duc territorials at Duc Lap also held their positions. But south of Duc Lap, at the Dak Song crossroads, heavy artillery bombardment and infantry assaults drove the 2d Battalion, 53d ARVN Infantry Regiment, from its defenses. By noon it was overrun.
General Phu was now convinced that Darlac was the main battlefield and his forces there needed immediate reinforcement. He asked the JGS for an additional Ranger group but was turned down; the JGS had few reserves, and threats to Saigon and Tay Ninh were mounting. Failing to acquire additional combat power from outside the region, General Phu pulled the 72d and 96th Ranger Battalions, 21st Ranger Group, from the Chu Pao Pass and Kontum and flew them to Buon Ho; once there they boarded trucks for the 35-kilometer ride to Ban Me Thuot. He also ordered the 45th Reconnaissance Company at Ban Don to return to Ban Me Thuot.
According to General Dung's account, at 0200 Hanoi time on the morning of 10 March, the offensive on Ban Me Thuot was heralded by the fire from sapper units directed against the Hoa Binh [Phung Duc] and city airfields. Long-range artillery began destroying military targets in the city. From a point 40 kilometers from Ban Me Thuot, our tank unit started their engines, knocked down trees which had been cut halfway in advance, headed for Ban Me Thuot. On the Xre Poc [Krong] River, modern ferryboats were rapidly assembled, while tanks, armored vehicles, antiaircraft guns, and antitank guns formed queues to cross on the ferries. The mountains and forests of the Central Highlands were shaken by a fire storm.
In the early morning of 10 March 1975 heavy rockets and artillery fire fell on Ban Me Thuot, and mortar fire struck the airfield at Phung Duc to the east. The bombardment was followed by infantry and sapper assaults against the ammunition dump on local Route 1 west of the city; the 2d Company, 225th RF Battalion on Hill 559 northwest of the city, and the subsector headquarters at Phung Duc airfield. All attacks were repulsed, and enemy losses were heavy. Just before four that morning, the 3d Battalion, 53d ARVN Infantry, came under heavy attack at the airfield, and NVA tanks were sighted northwest of the city.
Meanwhile, attacks in Quang Duc Province continued as the 259th RF Battalion fought off enemy infantry on Route 12 between Dak Song and Duc Lap and the Rangers held their ground in Kien Duc and Gia Nghia. On 15 March the beleaguered defenders of Kien Duc, however, were finally overrun.
In Binh Dinh Province, General Niem, commanding the 22d Division, reinforced his 42d Infantry Regiment in Binh Khe District with the headquarters and two battalions of the 41st Infantry, but Route 19 was still cut at Le Trung and Binh Khe. Attacking Rangers were stalled at Bridge 31 between Fire Support Bases 93 and 94 in Pleiku Province. Although a heavy rocket attack on the airfield at Pleiku on 10 March closed down operations for several hours, Route 14 between Kontum and Pleiku remained open. A steady stream of traffic surged south through the Chu Pao Pass as the population of Kontum fled the daily rocketing of their city and the imminent threat of Communist invasion. The lines at the Air Vietnam terminal at Kontum flowed out into the streets as residents sought to buy tickets to Pleiku and points south. Highway 14 was closed on 10 March in southern Pleiku by enemy attacks on territorial outposts in the mountains close to the Darlac boundary.
By mid-morning on 10 March, major elements of the 320th NVA Division had penetrated Ban Me Thuot. The heaviest fighting was in the southern sector near the province chiefs residence, the sector headquarters, and the 23d Division command post. Five enemy tanks were destroyed or disabled near the command post, but one of the VNAF bombs intended for NVA armor demolished the sector headquarters, cutting off all communications. Two more tanks were destroyed near the city's airfield. The small ARVN garrison there fought back repeated NVA assaults and held on to the control tower, but General Phu's effort to fly two RF battalions from Ban Don to Ban Me Thuot was thwarted by heavy enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire. Both battalions were therefore diverted to Buon Ho, which also came under mortar attack on 10 March. Fighting at the airfield destroyed eight aircraft of the 6th Air Division, a CH47, one O-1, and six UH-1s. Four of the seven UH-1s belonging to the 2d Air Division were destroyed on the ground, but air crews managed to fly out three damaged helicopters under heavy fire. The sector ammunition storage site southwest of the city was overrun; 10,000 rounds of 105-mm ammunition were destroyed, and two 105-mm. howitzers were lost.
At the Phung Duc airfield, the 3d Battalion, 53d Infantry took two prisoners who identified the attackers as the 25th Independent Regiment and the 401st Sapper Battalion. Meanwhile, in Ban Me Thuot, the NVA was also taking prisoners. Two members of the ICCS, one Iranian and one Indonesian, had taken refuge with the only American official in Darlac, Paul Struharic, the Consul General's provincial representative. Eight other foreign civilians, missionaries, and their families were with Struharic when NVA soldiers broke into his house and seized them all. Although they were imprisoned in Duc Co, all were eventually released.
By the night of 10 March the NVA had a firm hold on the center of Ban Me Thuot, while the principal remaining ARVN infantry, cavalry, and territorials held positions east, west and south of the city. The 2d Company, 225th RF Battalion, remained on Hill 559, and the 4th Company, 242d RF Battalion still held the main ammunition dump. In a coffee plantation west of Ban Me Thuot, most of the 1st Battalion, 53d Infantry, and Headquarters and 3d Troop, 8th Armored Cavalry, defended their perimeter. The 4th Company, 243d RF Battalion, was dug in on Hill 491 to the south. Small units of the 53d Regiment and territorials were still fighting in the city, but the heaviest combat was at the Phung Duc airfield. There, the forward command post of the 23d ARVN Division fought along with the headquarters of its 53d Infantry, and the 3d Troop, 8th Armored Cavalry. Survivors of the sector headquarters were with some Ranger units west of the airfield.
Very heavy fighting continued on 11 March. ARVN defenders estimated 400 enemy killed, 50 weapons captured, and 13 tanks destroyed, and the 53d Infantry at the airfield reported that the NVA was using flame-throwers in the assault. Isolated pockets of resistance fought on, even though the province chief, Col. Nguyen Cong Luat, was captured.
In Pleiku, the 4th Ranger Group gained no ground on Route 19 in heavy fighting near Bridge 23 and Fire Support Base 93 as the 95B NVA Regiment counterattacked vigorously on 11-12 March. Fighting was widespread but light in the rest of Pleiku. The environs of the city were mortared, the II Corps headquarters sustained minor damage from a rocket attack, and three A-37 light bombers were destroyed along with fuel storage and a parts warehouse at Pleiku Air Base by 122-mm. rockets.
The Fall of Pleiku and The Ensuing Massacre