Operation Cua Viet 1973
Major Pham Van Tien
Whilst I was the executive officer of the 2nd Marine Battalion, I received a transfer to become the Executive Officer of the 4th Marine Battalion in mid November 1972 while the two units were carrying out operations. I replaced Captain Phuoc, while Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Dang Tong replaced Lieutenant Colonel Tran Xuan Quang as Battalion Commander. This was a sudden change that was not particularly of interest to me. My superiors had thoroughly pondered, before making the decision. I did not like having my routine changed, especially when I had to leave my beloved 2nd Battalion. I had had so many memories with 2nd Battalion, which I had joined straight after my graduation from the military academy. I liked the Marines in my platoon, and had gone through so much with them. We had shared joy, sadness, and dangers.
But orders were orders. The 4th Marine Battalion had been at the front line at Long Quang, in the north east, close to Gia Dang sea shore. Having suffered continuous losses, its fighting morale was not very optimistic. Our duty was to normalize its condition. Having over-come some reservations at the beginning, I found no difficulties in getting used to the unit.
The enemy persisted with their continuous artillery on the unit's position. In revenge, Marine Artillery counter-shelled with all their might. Even as the monsoon raged about them, the “Killer Sharks” of the 4th Battalion were always ready in their trenches and foxholes for the enemy. The defensive system and personnel were rearranged and reinforced. We were always with the Marines at the front lines, discussing with Company Commanders about hypothetical scenarios.
When the enemy attacked again, the "Killer Sharks” exacted a victory thanks to good preparation and the support of the Marine Artillery, Armour reinforcements, and a healthy morale. Forty enemy weapons were seized and numerous NVA bodies littered the unit position.
The 4th Marine Battalion was then moved to Huong Dien for R & R. Captain Duong Cong Pho, who was from the 5th Marine Battalion had just finished the Company Commander course. He replaced First Lieutenant Xuan as 1st Company Commander. Captain Nguyen Tri Nam of the Marine Training Centre became Chief of S3. The pre-existing Company Commanders were:
Captain Ngo Huu Duc, of the 2nd Company
First Lieutenant Mai Van Hieu of the 3rd Company.
First Lieutenant Duong Tan Tuoc of the 4th Company
First Lieutenant Tran Kim Tai, of the Command and service company.
Every one of them were graduates from Da Lat National Military Academy, except Tai, who was from the Thu Duc Military School for Reserve Officers. They were young, brave bachelors who were ready to dedicate themselves to the unit and to the subordinate Marines.
Lieutenant Colonel Tong and I were also from the Da Lat Military Academy. We had had several good times fighting side by side.
Now the 4th Battalion was ordered to start another operation to recover Cua Viet. This was a special operation, aimed at using the military to support political ventures. In addition to their normal fighting equipment, each soldier had to carry five small national flags ready to plant on occupied ground. I had been involved in Operation LamSon 719, in Operation Song Than 1972 to Recapture Quang Tri, but all of these operations were protracted, depending on the situation and the terrain. But this time, it was real Blitz. It was dictated by an international treaty. Our time was limited and each second counted. We had only 25 hours - between 7.00am on the 27th of January 1973, to 8.00 am on the 28th of January 1973. All units were supposed to invade as much land as possible on the white sand dunes that were invested with enemy strong holds, booby traps and land mines.
Special Task Force “Tango” commanded by the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Division, Colonel Nguyen Thanh Tri, was composed of:
1. The Main Force consisting of :
The 2nd Marine Battalion
The 4th Marine Battalion
Three companies of the 9th Marine Battalion
One Company of the 5th Marine Battalion.
2. Supporting Units
All three Marine Artillery Battalions
The 20th Armour Squadron.
Being executive officer of the 4th Marine Battalion, I was to co-ordinate with Major Hoang Kieu, Executive Officer of the Armour Battalion at the line of departure. The main target was to recover the naval base the ARVN had had to leave in 1972, at the mouth of the Hieu Giang River Mouth. (The Hieu Giang River flowed between Dong Ha and the sea). The displacement of the base was 12km away from our own position.
Marine Artillery raked the target 30 minutes before the time of departure. M48, M41 tanks with their extremely strong firepower and accompanying troops simultaneously stormed forwards. For the first time in the history of the Marines, we used human wave tactics to attack the enemy.
Caught by surprise, the enemy ran for their lives. Numerous NVA soldiers surrendered. After a few hours, we captured sixty NVA, complete with weapons. On the left flank, to the west, the 2nd Marine Battalion was still moving but were slow because they were having difficulties in crossing dangerous areas of barren land. Defeated in the first hours, the enemy quickly regrouped a regiment. Behind them were T54 and T59 tanks to counter atttack. Some of our M48s and M41s were hit by heat seeking AT3 missiles. A few wounded Marines had to be evacuated.
At 8.00pm on the same day, we had only swallowed half the stretch, suffering from remarkably heavy losses. I was directed to move back to the rear with Captain Duc, the 2nd Company Commander to await further orders, while the 3rd and the 4th Companies were left to occupy the newly occupied forces. The Special Task Force sent the 2nd Company of Captain Tu Duc Tho and the 4th Company of Captain Tran Dinh Cong, both from the 2nd Marine Battalion to come under my command. I was to co-ordinate with the remaining battalions of the 20th Armour Squadron.
The new plan was also a combined Armour-Marine attack. The force advanced northwards along the coast, not at all afraid of any resistance. This was a very daring and risky attempt because our left flank was completely unprotected. That was to be a surprise. We stormed forwards. The enemy never suspected our plans. Thus they did not know how to react. At exactly 7.58 am on the 28th of January, only two minutes before the cease-fire was to come into effect, our forces mastered the situation.
Captain Xuan and Captain Le Nam, the two Squadron Commanders, and the Marines had carried out their tasks well. Thousands of national flags flew in the wind above the sky of Cua Viet.
On the enemy side, flags of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam were also planted. For the first time that month, the sun shone. The sky was clear and the sunrays warmed my face. The waves seemed to applaud the peace.
Soldiers on both sides forgot the order of “No Contact” and hugged each other, cheering the peace. There was to be no more of the cruel, vicious and protracted war. They offered each other cigarettes, cooled rice, dried biscuits, and even signed autographs as souvenirs of the days on the battlefields. But there were also people who cried for their brothers in arms who were killed yesterday and in the early hours of the morning. A Treaty signed in Paris, more than half the world awy, was affecting us now. The gun fire had stopped.
But an order came through warning us to resupply, prepare medevac, re-equip as soon as possible, and to maintain a vigilent lookout.
The bloodthirsty Communists were reknown for aggreeing to a cease-fire, only to attack and take advantage of the agreement. They had done that in the Mau Than Tet offensive, and in other situations as well. They always violated whatever they signed, and we had learnt the hard way never to believe them. The order against fraternization was enforced. The enemy also seemed to share the same view, because they suddenly disappeared.
Not long after, they set up a system of megaphones sending out propaganda and accusing us of violating the Cease-fire. The situation became tenser and tenser as the afternoon progressed. At 9.00pm of the same day, the enemy gathered troops to besiege Captain Tu Duc Tho's 2nd Company. Under their increasing presence, the unit had to withdraw out of the naval base which we had occupied in the morning. To conserve the fighting unit, while awaiting intervention from the cease-fire control committee, orders were given to the unit to withdraw back to the Task Force Headquarters, near the sea shore and close to the river mouth.
The enemy started shelling again and broke the Cease-fire. We received orders to launch a defence without supports. Marine Artillery Companies were ready to fire but received no orders to do so. South Vietnamese Navy (VMM) ships were offshore but did not intervene.
Early in the morning of the 31st of March, after more than three days and nights of shellings, we felt like a boxer all tied up and forced to endure the enemy's onslaught.
It became apparent that waiting for the arrival of the Cease-fire from the international control committee was pointless. The Communist contigent of the committee would never accept anything unfavourable to Communism. We, the freedom fighters, who believed in justice, were again the victims of dirty politics. It was illogical that we were forced to sign a treaty that acknowledged the demands of armed robbers. It was ridiculous that in addition to the North, they could claim isolated areas around the country - creating a leopard skin geography. The enemy was free at all fronts to expand into our territories - from the north, the west and the south. We were besieged from all quarters by VC exuding from pockets of territories that all of a sudden was theirs. The only side free of them was the east - where the sea was.
On the last night, Colonel Nguyen Thanh Tri, the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Division who had directly commanded the operation contacted us continuously via radio. He was worried that we would be overrun by a large scale attack. But being the “Crazy Buffaloes” and the “Killer Sharks”, representatives of the ARVN's mightiest corps, we would never have allowed that to happen. However, our endurance did depend on the supporting firepowers at the rear, and reinforcements.
We continued to wait for further orders, but none came. Three difficult problems had to somehow be dealt with:
1. More than a third of the tanks had been destroyed by the enemy artillery, and were nothing more than immobile masses of steel.
2. Lack of drinking water, food and ammunition.
3. Numerous wounded soldiers and the dead of the Marines needed medevac.
As we had foreseen, enemy tanks and infantry started to storm our defensive lines not long after. The platoon outpost of the 4th Company/ 2nd Marine Battalion had to withdraw to the 2nd Defensive line.
Captain Le Nam of the Armour Battalion personally destroyed two T59 tanks which were approaching our position. All our strong firepowers were concentrated at the enemy. Eventually Captain Nam suggested that we withdraw - he was prepared to be court marshalled for desertion if necessary. With that, all the remaining tanks led by him withdrew. Many of us fortunately survived to return, but there was no greater pain than having to leave our slain Marine brothers-in-arms, who had fought so courageously and had obeyed their superiors to the end.
We should never forget to honour and thank all the "Sea Tigers" who died in the battle, and all the ARVN troops who fought bravely in the war for freedom in South Vietnam.
Arlington, Texas. January 1997
Major Pham Van Tien