Sunday, 3 August 2014

Before The Cease-Fire

Lt-Colonel Tran Thien Hieu

Prior to the official cease-fire, both sides launched several attacks in attempts to snatch more land. To surprise the enemy all the Brigades and Battalions were left in place and only a light Field Staff, commanded by Colonel Nguyen Thanh Tri was organized. The attacking force was made up of two prongs, composed of four Marine Companies accompanied by two mixed Armour Battalions with M48, M41 and M113 Armoured Personnel Carriers.
The 3rd Artillery Battalion with companies I and K and four 155mm Howitzers were to give fire support. That was the first time my Battalion had Alpha and Bravo Command groups. I commanded Alpha Command Group. The trucks pulling the two 105mm Companies drove on the sand without difficulty, and reached their position at dusk. The 155mm Howitzers unfortunately became stuck in the sand close to the sea. I had to borrow an M113 APC to pull them out, finally bringing them into position at midnight. By then enemy had observed and seen our positions, and started firing their 130mm guns. Fortunately the short ones fell on sand dunes and the long ones hit sea. We looked forward to eating fish the next day !
Two Americans from the Naval Gunfire group came to organize for supporting artillery from their ships. According to the artillery overlay, the naval gunfire group was to spend 5,000 rounds, the Marine Artillery, 10,000 rounds for both the 105mm guns and the 155mm guns. In addition, nine B52 sorties were scheduled to bomb the Cua Viet area, the main target of the operation. Lang Son (Colonel Lan) had confided in me that there would be maximal use of artillery guns, whilst aircrafts were to be used on the odd occasion. The reason was that the Artillery could provide fire support to several advancing prongs simultaneously, whereas aircrafts could only provide support to only one prong, during which time, the Artillery would have to stop firing. I was to receive support from all companies of the 1st and 2nd Artillery Battalions, which were within range.
That night, all Artillery battalions fired to harrass the enemy, and to clear the way. Naval guns from a score of warships fired continuously. Thousands of explosions rained down on the Cua Viet area. Ho Chi Minh's “children” crawled deep into the sand to endure the artillery poundings. In the distance, B52 bombs thundered.
I thought to myself that with so many bombs and artillery shellings, our troops were bound to recapture Cua Viet by morning. At dawn, hearing the engines of the tank columns, I took a pair of binoculars and climbed on top of a sand dune. The sight was prodigiously gratifying. Dozens of tanks stormed forward in formation, guns ablazing. The accompanying Marines advanced rapidly in waves. With the first sun rays, I was in raptures at the sight of artillery smoke, explosions and flashes of gunfire. Fifteen minutes later, the tank column disappeared behind some sand dunes. I returned to TOC to follow their progress by radio and map advancements.
All reports were favourable. Several enemy strong holds were dislodged, and a number of POWs had been caught. About ten female Communists were captured, and numerous weapons were seized. All of a sudden, I heard swear words coming through the radio. 
“Why did you stop firing? Their machine guns are hindering our advance.”
“I am under heavy fire. Wait until it abates."
I hurriedly took the microphone. “Kinh Do, Ha Noi is calling. Please get out of the bunker - ignore the fire, and tell the artillerymen to take up firing positions! I'm coming right now.” Two minutes later, I heard the departing sound of our rounds.
“Rounds are firing, sir. If you heard, please answer.”
Coming out of the TOC bunker, I looked in the direction of the Artillery Companies which had been under enemy shelling. The enemy were counter firing along the sea-shore, so there was little effect on us. I mounted my jeep to visit all three companies. Our troops were all waiting expectantly for the order to cease-fire, scheduled at 8.00 am on the morrow. Personally, I did not know how things would turn out. But the cease-fire was still a long time away, and at that moment, the Marine units were still confronting the enemy, we were still providing fire support, and more ammunition was required from the rear supply station. Even if the cease fire did take place, it was crucial to have one fire unit at hand.
On entering the TOC again, I saw First Lieutenant Dung still monitoring the forward observers via radio. 
“We have two Artillery Companies. Four forward observers have requested permission fire support. I've given them a platoon each, but they are complaining that's not enough!” he said.
“Dung, go and have your lunch now. Let me call the 1st and 2nd Artillery Battalions for reinforcement.” I changed frequencies and called Doan Trong Cao, commander of the 1st Battalion. “Can Truong, Ha Noi calling... lend me a “son” of yours quickly.”
“Ha Noi, I'm giving you Alpha. They'll call you for orders.”
Switching back to the previous frequency, I heard from Company A: “Hanoi, Alpha is calling.”
“Alpha, Ha Noi is speaking... Go to position 2 to help 33. Is that clear?”
The morning's progress went very well, but by noon, the Communists started to resist fiercely along a large front. Our advances were severely hampered, and our chances to invade Cua Viet Base by the afternoon seemed dim.
Dung came in and told me some prisoners had just been brought back. Among them were some female Communists, who were behaving with much bravado. They were joking, laughing, and talking amongst themselves. We offered them Coca Cola, but they refused to drink the American drink. Canned food was rejected for the same reason. They chose stale rice and plain water instead. Looking at them, I agreed with Dung that the vile creatures were making fun of us. I then went for a nap, in expectation of the long night ahead.
It was already dark when I woke up. I could hear the Artillery providing fire support. There had been only a couple of aircraft sorties during the day, so there was an arduous night ahead for the Artillery men. The convoy of supplies had reached us, and there was plenty of ammunition for the night.
Because Cua Viet base had not been seized, the order to attack had not been changed. All forces continued to provide fierce support for the main column driving towards Cua Viet. As the illumination aircraft did not come, I requested flares via the American Naval Gun Liaison Officer. Looking northerly I saw the flares illuminate the sea about a kilometre from the shore. First Lieutenant Dung pulled the Liaison out of the bunker and requested correction of the coordinates. He apologized and expressed his annoyance through the radio to the guys in the warships. That night, the naval guns fired profusely, as if the U.S navy wanted to unload all of its cargo. The Marine Artillery also pounded the enemy continuosly, but forward observers continued to request fire support. Some of them were so high on smoke and enthusiasm that they requested exorbitant amounts of gunfire. Some requested 100 salvos - the equivalent of 600 rounds or the load of three GMC trucks. If the cease-fire was a sure thing, we would have happily pounded them with all of our remaining artillery, but unsure whether they would honor the cease-fire, we had to fire in moderation. We were not so stupid as to trust the Communists, and exhaust all our ammunition. Ever since the Communists crossed the 17th Parrallel, all Artillery Companies always had three basic loads of all kinds of ammunition ready for emergencies.
All Marine units were heavily engaged that night. Advancing was very important because on failing to do so, the enemy would surge forwards - which they did regularly. Our main objective, Cua Viet base was still not regained. As I looked out and saw the first sunrays, I realised that I had been up all night without realizing it. I was exhausted, and could barely keep my eyes opened. I was able to utter one sentence before I collapsed on to a canvas folding bed: 
“Dung, man the radio, if anything happens, wake me!”
At 8.00am on January 28th 1973, the Cease-fire came into effect. Major Hart, my adviser woke me up, and the first thing I saw was his sad expression. “It was time for us to part. Within ten minutes, a helicopter was to pick the naval fire group and I up. I hope you have a safe return to the USA.” I said as I held his hand tightly.
Handing his Marine knife to me, Hart said: “This is all I have for you as a souvenir. Please keep it.” The helicopter landed, picked up Hart, and the two naval officers and quickly flew towards the sea. Further out at sea, the American ships had turned their bows to the east. 
I realized that the battlefield was silent. Soldiers were looking about for rods to hoist our national flag. Hundreds of flags of all shapes and sizes propped up on top of the bunkers. At 8.15 am Dung called me. The forward observers requested fire because the enemy had already violated the cease-fire. They had sent more tanks to storm Cua Viet, and our troops were forced to flee. The Marine Division gave the order to fire. There had been barely 20 minutes of cease-fire. Artillery Company K stationed in the south reported that the enemy had raised a flag only 300m away, but were waving, instead of being aggressive. I directed First Lieutenant Vinh to lower two gun barrels ready for direct firing, just in case. A 50mm machine gun was to be levelled at them, whilst guard posts were to be reinforced.
At 10.00am on the same day, the Communists began to seize more land and capture more civilians. We were forced to dislodge them from positions behind the defensive line. At the Cua Viet front, NVA units ever so slowly approaching our troops. Receiving no firing orders from top officials, our men had to retreat. Finally, the Marines were forced to fire in order to keep the enemy away. Again the forward observers requested fire. After a sleepless night, artillery men had to load their guns again. The enemy fire was not as continuous as ours since their ammunition had not arrived on time. Our own stock had about ten thousand rounds, enough for at least a month.
The enemy pressure was so strong at Cua Viet that our troops had to withdraw gradually. Some NVA soldiers had even reached the area of Artillery Company I. I was intending to order a retreat when a forward observer asked for firepower. Looking at the map, I realized that he had been standing inside the enemy area, and that all friendly troops had retreated 1km southwards. I called him on the radio: “Anh Dung, Ha Noi is calling... why are you still there?”
“Fuck...! There are so many of them. Great Eagle, fire immediately for me the more the better...” The situation was very serious for our young brother in arms to have sworn like that. Without further ado, I ordered all three artillery companies to concentrate firepower to prevent the enemy from storming his batteries. The enemy stopped advancing, and his position later became the separation line dividing both sides.
That evening, I sadly watched the column of tanks that had so heroically advanced the day before. The intact ones were pulling the crippled ones home. It was a particularly depressing and gloomy spectacle.
The following morning, the Field Staff and the artillery companies retreated five kilometres to the south. Artillery Company K was positioned at the highest place. It was very uncomfortable to see the huge flag of the VC's National Front of Liberation, waving aloft. From where we were, I could clearly see the NVA men and women singing and waving. Three days later, I received orders to dislodge that particularly enemy post. Artillery Company K sent more than a hundred rounds of direct fire in their direction. I wondered if they had had time to escape or whether they had fulfilled their oath of "Born in the North, died in the South.”
Small skirmishes continued for another month to quash isolated enemy outposts that spotted the countryside. Later, I found out that there had been some backroom negotiations at the top levels to reduce bloodshed.
The Battle of Cua Viet was my last as an artillery man.In January1974, I was transferred to the position of Marine Division Senior Artillery Officer to replace Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Van Truoc who was demobilized. At the end of that year, I fell out of favour, and became assistant to Lieutenant Colonel Hay Chua at Division Inspection. I remember meeting Lieutenant General Nguyen Duc Thang the day before we lost our country. Like me, he had also fallen from grace. His advice was: “I don't think we should bother hanging around. I don't think we're needed.”
I did not participate in the last battles with the Marine Corps. In March 1975, the 2nd Artillery Battalion disintegrated at the same time as the 147th Brigade. Dat, who replace me as Marine Division Artillery Senior Officer, had to burn the guns of the 1st and the 3rd Battalions, in Da Nang. After April 30th 1975, most of the Marine Artillery officers were forced into concentration camps. Dang Ba Dat was amongst them, though he had had the chance to flee the country with the Division Headquarters. Myself and a few lower ranked officers were lucky enough to board a Naval ship headed for Con Son at 1.00am on April 30th 1975.
I once joked with my kids: “I did not loose the battle - I never lost any battle.” 
“So why did you have to flee?” they teased back. 
“Because I did not have the opportunity to partake in the last battle”. 
My grand son said: “Grandfather, you always win... you never lose.”

Virginia, October 1996.
Lt-Colonel Tran Thien Hieu

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