Sunday, 3 August 2014

Cua Viet

Captain Tran Van Loan

On 23-01-1973, the 2nd Marine Battalion officially replaced the 9th Battalion at Gia Dang 3, northeast of Quang Tri and 9km from Cua Viet. My Company 1 received the area from Company 3 of Battalion 9. This Company was commanded by Captain Doan Van Tinh of Class 22A Dalat Military Academy, which was a year above my class. The exchange of position occurred at night, because we did not want to be tasty prey for the NVA snipers or become targets for their mortars.
On 24-01-1973, my Company started making sudden raids upon the very thick network of NVA blocking cells which were arranged in triangles. These cells supported each other with AK-47s, B40s and mortars. In the evening of 25-01-1973, Group B of 1st Lieutenant Pham Ngoc Suong, utilised the "Stir in the east, attack in the west" tactic. Platoon 12 of 2nd Lieutenant Tran Gia Tang and Platoon 16 of 3rd Lieutenant Nguyen Kinh simultaneously charged and overran the enemy defensive line after volleys of the 105mm Howitzer rounds with "variable time fuses" or "delayed time fuses". Fifteen NVA were killed. In addition, eleven AK-47s, three B40s, a Hungarian sniper rifle and five cardboard boxes of dried food were seized. We had five slightly wounded. Only 3rd Lieutenant Nguyen Kinh needed a medevac.
At 7:00 on 27-01-1973, Special Task Force Tango suddenly crossed the departure line and stormed into Cua Viet. This Special Task Force Tango was commanded by Major Pham Van Tien, the Executive Officer of the 4th Marine Battalion.
It was composed of:
-  M48, M41, M113 tank Battalions of Tank Regiment 20
- Company 3 of 1st Lieutenant Mai Van Hieu (of Class 23 Dalat Military Academy)
-  Companyy 4 of 1st Lieutenant Duong Tan Tuoc (of Class 23 Dalat Military Academy)
Both Companies were from the 4th Battalion
Looking at the tanks rushing forward at full speed, I thought I was reviewing a film of the Allied forces landing in Normandy, France on 06-06-1944. Company 1 then advanced to search the battlefield. Due to the unexpected attack, the NVA had no timed to react and no way to retreat. They had no choice but to stay in their positions waiting for the time to surrender.
The search resulted in many captured prisoners and seized weapons of all kinds. Of the 60 prisoners, Company 1 of the 2nd Marine Battalion captured about 10. During the interrogation, the prisoners all said that they had been high school boys in Hanoi and Hai Phong. They were forced to stop studying and go south to occupy newly liberated areas. They were told that the Marines would immediately slit abdomens of prisoners for their livers to devour raw. Due to this fear, some of the young prisoners smeared their body with a red solution and faked death with their heads beneath the sand.
I was reporting to the Battalion headquarters and discussing the transfer prisoners and seized weapons when a big explosion was heard from the direction of Platoon 16. Third Lieutenant Ha The Don, platoon leader, reported that some NVA had faked a surrender and when the Marines stepped forward to disarm them, they let mines off, killing Corporal Le Sanh Thach and three others. I then radioed higher authorities stating that from then on, my company would not like to take anymore prisoners.
The fleet of tanks had passed. Now, the NVA 130mm artillery rounds were raining on my Company 1. It was also unknown where the NVA forward artillery scouts had been, however, they adjusted the coordinates very accurately. The first round exploded a hundred metres in front of me, the second a hundred metres behind me, and the third fifty metres to the right… "Beware! The NVA are adjusting their coordinates in framing, be careful of…" I did not have enough time to complete my sentence when a deafening explosion threw me five metres away. I sat up, my face and uniform was covered in dust. I saw 2nd Lieutenant Nguyen Tan Tai, the forward observer being wounded in the abdomen and lying immobile beside his two dead soldiers. My two RTOs were also wounded. One of them had multiple fractures to the leg and the other had half of his tongue cut away when a piece of 130mm round had pierced through a cheek.
The Battalion Headquarters thought I had been killed. No one knew I was carrying three radios (one to the battalion headquarters, one to the platoon and one for artillery) and was still directing my company to advance.
At 6:00pm on 27-01-1973, my company came close to the foot of hill 11 and Platoon 12 informed me that there had been a strong blocking cell there, extending to the sea shore. I ordered them to arrange a defensive line, put outposts in the distance and set up many claymore mines and grenades. Then I reported to the Battalion headquarters. It was 1st Lieutenant Tran Dinh Cong (Class 26 Thu Duc) who directed his Company 4 to arrive and replace my Company. My Company was to board a convoy in order to reinforce Cua Viet.
At 7:58am, that is only two minutes before the fixed time for a cease-fire (8:00am 28-01-1975), Special Tank Force Tango mastered the Navy Base Cua Viet after 25 hours of battle.
On 29-01-1973, seeing that the situation seemed tense and the VC could, at any moment, attack, Group B of the 9th Battalion, commanded by Major Pham Cang and a Company of Phan (Class 25 Thu Duc) arrived to reinforce my Company. In the afternoon, Group B received orders to move to another location.
On 30-01-1973, the situation became worse due to the probing attacks of the NVA. Company 2 of Captain Tu Duc Tho received an order to go with M41 Tank Battalion, Regiment 17 of Captain Nguyen Quang Trung to reinforce Special Force Tango at Cua Viet. When the Tank Battalion arrived at Hill 11, it was stopped by the NVA blocking cells. However, finally facing the powerful forces of those tanks, they had to let them go.
In the morning of 31-01-1973, the NVA used 130mm artillery, 122mm rockets and 107mm rockets to shell continuously on the Navy Base Cua Viet. Their tanks, accompanied by infantry, then attacked the Company 2 defensive line. Right at the first minute of the Tank battle, Captain Le Ba Nam (of Class 20 Thu Duc Military school) bravely commanded his M48 Tank Squadron to destroy a number of NVA T54 Tanks and PT76 tanks. Their formation was ruptured. However, other waves of NVA tanks appeared. They tried to annihilate our Special Force Tango.
The NVA firepower was so powerful while our fire supports were only based on three Artillery Battalions and a 155mm Artillery Company from I Corps Artillery Mobile Battalion 101. The VN Navy did appear in the sea but then lackadaisically sailed and then disappeared. There was no intervention from the VNAF! Why did the A37 and F5-E squadrons not come and refute the NVA's crude violations of the cease-fire?
After 24 hours of defending the base, Major Pham Van Tien had to decide by himself, to continue combat and at the same time withdraw to conserve the unit. This is because no one dared to speak out, except for the very passive attitude. It was obvious that they wanted the Four-Sides Committee to solve the violation! Major Tran Van Hop asked me to stop the withdrawal unit and together, establish a defensive line to block their chase. I disagreed with him because I believed that my Company alone was able to stop them. Platoon 12 of 2nd Lieutenant Tang fired the T54 tanks with M72 LAWs at the NVA first and caused a break in their column. They began to decelerate.
After the Special Force Tango had safely retreated to the back, Major Tran Van Hop ordered me to abandon my position and retreat 3km to the back. My Company then positioned near the 155mm Howitzer unit which had been counter-shelled and completely destroyed by the NVA artillery. It was likely that the 2nd Battalion Commander had feared that he might lose me.
In the morning of 01-02-1973, Captain Mai Van Hieu (of the same class with me in the Dalat Military Academy) led his Company 3 of the 4th Battalion to replace my Company.
My Company moved to Gia Dang 1 to protect Special Task Force Tango headquarters of Colonel Nguyen Thanh Tri. The remaining companies of the 2nd Battalion moved to the Division Headquarters at Huong Dien so that Companies 2 and 4 could be resupplied in manpower.
On the first day of the Lunar New Year, 1973, Brigadier General Bui The Lan arrived by helicopter at the Special Task Force Headquarters to wish and console the Task Force. Standing in the ranks, I heard the General speaking: "Although we were not strategically successful, we politically were!" Truly I would like to use this statement as to share my communion and sentiment with more sadness than joy with Major Pham Van Tien, a senior and a courageous, respectable commander of mine.

Captain Tran Van Loan

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