Phuoc-Long, The wound that never heal
The battle of Phuoc Long is more dangerous and difficult than the battle of Binh-Long, An Loc in 1972. Our mission is to defend this city, we will present in this town and fight against the VC until our last breath. The order from our comander need to be obeyed and this mission need to be accomplished. Our victory from An-Loc in 1972 that brought our troup as the well known in whole country. The poem from the teacher who wrote on the Graves Stones of the the 81st Airborne Rangers soldiers who sacrificed their life to keep An-Loc town from fallen under VCs pressure forces.
An Loc victory, marking the historical land
81st Ranger Airborne had sacrificed their life for Freedom stand.
Colonel Phan van Huan, commander of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group spoke to the troop before the 81st Airborne Ranger departure to Phuoc Long.
The Vietnam War ended 26 years ago, a quarter of the century has gone. In the memories of the battle of Phuoc Long in the past, all the soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Viet-Nam whose were there at the battle line, it became the wound that never healed.
By the end of 1974, the 81st Airborne Ranger Group was ordered to join the battle at the Black Virgin Mountain (Nui Ba Den) in Tay Ninh, northwest of Saigon. The mission was to stake out the enemy who were hiding in the caves in which the artillery and air bombing have been unsuccessful in rooting them out, and to protect the communication center of the join Allies located at the top of the mountain. This communication center is a relay post for many ARVN units in the III corp. The operation was progressing smoothly until the night of May 1st 1975.
At the headquarter of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group at Trang Lon, Tay Ninh, which was formerly the Special Forces camp, many officers were working and some resting after a long hard day. Suddenly, the emergency communication line lit up an urgent call for Colonel Huan, the Group Commander. The officers nearby observed the tesion change in his face as he listened intently to the mumbling command through the receiver. After hung up the phone then he approached an S3 officer.
In a steady subdued tone he ordered, "Withdraw all of our recon teams from the mountain by tomorrow; we have been reassigned to join a new battle."
Everyone in the room froze upon hearing this unexpected turn of events. To penetrate and position that many recon troops deep into the enemy hostile zone is already a very difficult task, but to withdraw all of them to safety within one day was a bigger challenge. Despite the fact, the orders were carried out without casualty.
By the afternoon of January 2nd 1975, the main body of troops and all of the reconnaissance teams of the 81st Airborne Ranger were airlifted by the Chinnook helicopters to the new base camp at Suoi Mau (Bloody Stream), Bien Hoa. The 813th Company was stay at Tay Ninh to continue their duty with the Allies Forces.
Within an hour after arriving in Suoi Mau Headquarter, a newly formed special unit, the Tactical Operation Headquarters, commanded by Lt. Colonel Vu Xuan Thong, his assistant Major Nguyen Son, and 300 skilled Airborne Rangers was already in formation ready for a special assignment. I was the Medical officer assigned to this group. Colonel Huan, the commander of the 81st Group made a quick inspection, shook the hand of soldiers, and led them into the briefing room, where a large battle map of the Phuoc-Long town was display.
As Major Tho the Section 3 opertation officer swept across the landscape of Phuoc Long with a pointer, our eyes were blurred by the overwhelming red dots representing enemy forces. Blue dots marking friendly forces seemed to be swallowed by this ocean of enemy lines. Phuoc Long is surrounded! The firebase at Ba Ra Mountain had fallen into enemy hands. Phuoc Long was dying in the enemy cancer, desperate for the saving hands of the 81st.
At Phuoc Long enemy forces surrounding the city out-numbered and out-matched the Souths defensive forces; its inventory included three divisions totaling more than 30,000 ground troops, one armored battalion, one artillery regiment, and one anti-air missile regiment (SA-7).
The attack aimed to overtake Phuoc Long started on December 13th 1974; the North Vietnamese forces had launched a series of attacks on many districts around the province. On December 14th 1974, they overran the district of Duc Phong, Bo Duc and Bunard, and on December 21st they seized Song Be airfield. On December 26th, the 7th division of NVA captured the district of Don Luan. The last district of Phuoc Long is their target. On December 30th, the South Vietnamese Army Forces counter-attacked to retake the firebase at Ba Ra Mountain. They destroyed sixteen enemy tanks (T-54). On January 1st 1975, the North Vietnamese Army forces launched two waves of attacks. With tanks and artilleries support they marched into the city of Phuoc Long, but were pushed back by the defensive forces of the Army of Republic of Viet-Nam. At the Ba Ra Mountain firebase, the battle was in favor of the enemy. Phuoc Long was in jeopardy.
December 2nd 1975, President Thieu called an emergency meeting of his military staff at the Presidents Palace to review the situation at Phuoc Long. They voted against a plan to send in the 1st ARVN division, Airborne Division, or Marine division to rescue Phuoc Long because the ARVN was incapable of mobilizing such a large force so quickly. In fact, the entire reaction force unit was bogged down in I Corps. Finally, it came down to an unusual decision to send the unit of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group to the desperate battle to rescue Phuoc Long.
According to the plan, the Tactical Operation Headquarters of the 81st Airborne Ranger including a special trained company equipped with a 90mm recoiless riflles, two companies, the 811th and 814th, totaling 300 men, would be airlifted to Phuoc Long. Within ten days, the remainder of the group, more than 2,500 troopers, will join them for a show down.
January 3rd 1975, the North Vietnamese Forces stepped up their attack; they bombarded the city of Phuoc Long with more than 3000 rounds of artillery.
5:00 hour, January 3rd 1975, Airborne Rangers were transported to Long Binh airfield.
8:00 hour, January 3rd, the first airlifts took the troops to Phuoc Long. About an hour later, they circled in the sky above Phuoc Long, but failed to land under enemy attack from the ground. The rescue forces had to return to Long Binh.
The morning of January 4th, the rescue units to Phuoc Long were delayed because weather conditions and the lack of air support for the operation. Two Generals and many high-ranking officers came to Long Binh airfield to encourage and order the helicopter crews to fly in the very poor conditions. About 12:00 hour, the soldiers of the 81st were lifted off to the hell at Phuoc Long.
The first wave of infiltration led by Lt. Colonel Vu Xuan Thong landed safely east of Daklung Bridge; they immediately linked up with the local forces to form the defensive line at the province building. The second wave led by Major Nguyen Son was not that luck; they were welcomed by hundreds of rocket rounds at the landing zone. Many Airborne Rangers were downed. At the same time, the first group that took the defense at the Police Station was under heavy attack by tank and ground forces. M-72 rocket launchers could not stop the tank (T-54). The tanks would stall for a moment when hit, then lunge forward again with their big guns cutting down the troops in their path. The enemy had learned a lesson from the battle at An Loc in 1972. They reinforced their tanks with more steel to protect the tank from being destroyed by anti-tank weapons.
Under heavy enemy attack, a group of the 81st Airborne was pulled back to Dak-lung bridge, a crowd of civilians following them seeking protection. Many of them fell and the screaming under the heavy of VC artilleries depart from Ba Ra Mountain firebase. Others fell silently as F-5 jet fighters poured bombs and black smoke on their heads from the sky above; black clouds of smoke hid the human massacre.
The enemy intended to crush the 81st at the moment of their presenting at Phuoc Long. But we pushed them back. After withdrawing their tanks and ground forces, the enemy bombarded the city with a rain of rockets; there must have been a thousand rounds poured in a small area of the defensive forces. They pinned us down for many hours under heavy of artillery. No one dared make a move. The medical bunker located next to the province building was crowded with dead bodies, wounded soldiers and civilians.
Late in the afternoon of the 4th January 1975, the enemy launched another ground attack directly at the headquarters of the defensive forces. The 81st had to engage in hand-to-hand combat; Lt. Colonel Thong fought against them with hand grenades and killed an enemy group when they penetrated his defensive line. We also destroyed one of their four T-54 tanks. Once again, we succeeded in pushing them back, but we sustained heavy casualty. All of the M-72 anti-tank weapons were used up. Medical supplies that were supposed to last for ten days were quickly running out. The medics had to use even telephone wire trends to saw up the wounds of soldiers. Re-supply and reinforcement were a must. Our request was being review by the military high command. Phuoc Long could not wait any longer!
Night slowly fell. Within a few hours of landing in Phuoc Long, the 81st had been under heavy attack twice. Wounded soldiers and injured civilians filled a small medical bunker; many of them were bleeding to death for lack of urgent medical supplies. Captain Thu ordered Lt. Phuoc to prepare for retreat. Panic arose. Civilians in the bunkers moaned and cried, begging to come along. Lt. Phuoc had to calm them down by giving his word. Everybody nervously waited for the time to come. The night slowly went by with no new order.
5:00 hour January 5th 1975, the enemy launched another wave of nonstop artillery attacks. All day long rockets landed in the dead zone of the city, but there was no tank or ground attack. At nightfall, the 81st stepped up their security along the defensive line to prepare for the situation that they might be over run by the enemy. There was still no word of reinforcement or retreat. The situation was tense; everybody stayed alert all night.
At dawn of January 6th 1975, the enemy bombarded the city again for a few hours. The sound of artillery disengaging grew louder as the enemy got closer. Then, the grinding noise of the tanks could be heard. Everybody readied themselves in combat position. The carnage started again as the tanks approached: there was explosion everywhere, soldiers and civilians falling to the ground as shells and bullets ripped through them; it was a horrific scene.
In horror, Captain Thu appeared at the entrance of the medical bunker and yelled for retreat. As planned, the special trained company for protection accompanied the medical group. All of the soldiers who could walk came along, all of the serious wounded soldiers were carried on stretchers. This group withdrew from a different route than the 811th and 814th companies
After pulling out from the city toward Dak-lung River, Lt. Colonel Thong tried to re-group in an attempt to re-take the city. He did not succeed. The enemy immediately surrounded the 81st. With less than a few hundred men, Lt. Colonel Thong led his troop to break thru the enemy line in a bloody battle at Daklung River. Enemy machine guns and rockets rapidly fired at them from the other branch of the river to cut them down one by one, turning the river red. The 81st managed to break through and disappear in Phuoc Long Jungle.
I9:00 hour, January 6th 1975, Phuoc Long had completely fallen.
Colonel Huan, the Commander of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group, flew over the jungle of Phuoc Long for many hours looking for any survivor who had evacuated from Phuoc Long. Less than 100 of his brave soldiers were rescued. Lt. Phuoc, chief of medic (who wrote this article) had been captured along with six other officers from the 81st Tactical Operation Headquarter at about midnight of the 6th January 1975. After the prisoners were tortured through many brutal interrogations, they were then transferred along Ho Chi Minh trail to a prison in North Vietnam for more than seven years.
The fate of Phuoc Long foreshadowed the fall of South Vietnam. Without strong military and political leader support how could a few committed soldiers save the cause of an entire country?
Lt. Dam Huu Phuoc
Tactical Operation Headquarter
81st Airborne Ranger Group
Dia Chi Lien Lac/ Contact:
Gia Dinh 81/BCD
P.O. Box 1220