Lam Son 719 is probably one of the most misunderstood or misinterpreted operations of the entire Viet Nam War.
I have created a brief (9 pages plus pictures - sorry) synopsis of the operation so that I could better understand the broad picture. It is too long for one post, so I will have to make multiple posts.
As early as 1967 U.S. planners had planned a ground offensive against Laos to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail but had determined that 5 to 7 U.S. – ARVN divisions would be needed. Because the troops were not available and the political climate was never favorable, the idea was put on the back burner but kept simmering.
On December 8, 1970, the plan was re-examined because intelligence was following a PAVN logistical build-up in southeastern Laos. The Vietnamization process along with the gradual reduction of U.S. troops was threatened. The plan became known as Dewey Canyon II (the movement of U.S. supporting troops to the border)/ Lam Son 719 (the ARVN controlled incursion) and had two options: if the North Vietnamese fell back under the attack as they did in Cambodia, then the ARVN would move down the Trail destroying everything they came across. If the North Vietnamese put up resistance then the ARVN was to cause as much damage as possible and conduct a fighting withdrawal back into South Vietnam.
Somehow the 5 -7 division estimate was overlooked because in February, 1971, only three ARVN divisions would be involved– the 1st Airborne Division, the 1st Infantry Division, and the Marine Division, supported by the 1st Ranger Group, the 1st Armored Brigade and the 5th Regiment of the 2cnd Division – some of the best troops the ARVN had. What was overlooked was that Hanoi had deployed an entire army corps (70B) made up of the 9th, 19th, 29th and 39th infantry regiments backed up by the 208th, 304th, 320th and 324th Divisions as well as the 202cnd armored regiment. The corps was well equipped with 19 or 20 air defense battalions with 23mm, 37mm and 57mm. Hanoi’s plan was to smash the offensive and then counterattack along Route 9 towards Tchepone.
The Dewey Canyon II part of the operation began when a task force from the 1st Bde of 5th Mech consisting of elements of the 1st Battalion, 61st Infantry (Mechanized), the 1st Battalion, 77th Armor, the 3d Squadron, 5th Cavalry, and Troop A, 4th Squadron, 12th Cavalry left Quang Tri at 0400 29 January with the mission of establishing logistical bases, keeping Route QL-9 open to the border and covering the withdrawal of the South Vietnamese. By nightfall the task force rolled into Fire Support Base Vandergrift. Because Route 9 was known to be in such a poor state of repair, at midnight Troop A, 3rd Squadron, 5th Cavalry and two engineer companies led out on foot following a bulldozer with headlights blazing. When a damaged bridge or other obstacle was encountered, a few cavalrymen and engineers were left behind while the rest of the task force moved on. The next morning, the cavalry troop vehicles moved out and joined the group on foot and arrived at Khe Sanh at 1400 on 1 February. With Highway 9 opened from Vandergrift to Khe Sanh, the road was opened all the way to the border by elements of the 1st Squadron, 1st Cav the following day.
(Khe Sanh, March, 1971
Following close behind the 5th Mech task force were four battalions of the US 108th Artillery Group. On 29 January, the 2cnd Battalion 94th (175mm/8in) Artillery arrived at LZ Vandergrift along with the 5th Battalion (155mm SP) 4th Artillery. The Battalions were escorted by 1/44th Dusters and Quad 50’s with two Dusters assigned to each firing battery, with the Quads and a searchlight going to battalion headquarters. 1/44th was assigned for convoy and perimeter duty. On 1 February, the 8th Battalion (175mm/8in) 4th Artillery moved through FSB Vandergrift to a position on the Khe Sanh Plains that was given the name Firebase Flexible. The 5/4 artillery moved to the old Special Forces camp at Lang Vei.
On 4 February, the 2/94 artillery also moved to Lang Vei. A Battery (8 inch) was moved south and located on a forward slope where they had unobstructed coverage of Highway 9 into Laos. The battalion was given a new mission of general support for ARVN I Corps artillery with priority fires to the 1st ARVN Airborne Division. In this capacity on 8 February, the first day of Lam Son 719 A Battery fired a prep on LZ Yellow and B Battery fired on LZ Blue. B & C Batteries with 175 mm guns could shoot an additional 5 kilometers into Laos then the 8 inch guns of A Battery, even though A Battery was located eleven kilometers further west then B & C Batteries. That evening at 2000 A Battery received the first of many incoming rounds they would experience in the next few weeks. 8/4 Artillery occupied positions from Lang Vei north at Ta Bet and Halfway Point as general support for the area north of Highway 9.
There was a big sign at the border, “NO US PERSONNEL BEYOND THIS POINT.” The sign, of course, had no relevance for those flying over it. But because no Americans would cross the border on the ground, then the U.S. advisors would remain in South Vietnam and the ARVN would have to do their own co-ordinating of supporting fires, helicopters and air support. Never been done before. Even though the planning for Dewey Canyon II and Lam Son 719 was a carefully guarded secret and only a few individuals knew what was really being planned, all written plans had to be translated and there were enough communist sympathizers among the translators to provide Hanoi with complete sets of documentation as quickly as it was delivered to South Vietnamese and US Army commanders.
At 1000 on 8 February M-41 tanks and M-113 APCs of the lead elements of the RVN 1st Armor Brigade, the 11th and 17th Cavalry Regiments (fewer then 17 M-41 tanks between them) crossed the border into Laos. Lam Son 719 had begun as the two units, accompanied by two South Vietnamese airborne battalions, moved 9 kilometers down Highway 9. Intelligence reports had indicated that the terrain along Route 9 in Laos was favorable for armored vehicles. The reality was that Highway 9 was a neglected forty-year-old, single-lane road, with high shoulders on both sides and no maneuver room. As the units moved forward they were surprised to find the entire area was cratered by bombs and long overgrown with dense grass and bamboo. The cav units had to stay on the road.
Route QL9 near LZ BRAVO
Here politics had raised its ugly head. Because U.S. low level recon had been forbidden until just one hour before the first airmobile assaults, the condition of the roads would be a complete surprise. All five available air cavalry troops had been consolidated under the control of the U.S. 2d Squadron, 17th Cavalry with the task of locating and destroying antiaircraft weapons, finding enemy concentrations, and carrying out reconnaissance and security missions, including the rescue of air crews downed in Laos. To give them complete autonomy, they were placed under the control of XXIV Corps. Thus, there was no early recon of roads and no recon of North Vietnamese antiaircraft positions, leaving the air cavalry to screening the landing zones just before the assaults. The air cav troops performed magnificently. The rule of no Americans on the ground in Laos included the Blues of the air cavalry, so they were replaced with the Hac Bao of the ARVN 1st Inf Div, an arrangement that was satisfactory in all respects.
Two views of the ARVN 1st Armored Bde moving toward LZ ALPHA
1st Aviation Brigade was reluctant to have too many of its assets transferred to the 101st Airborne Division because the two battalions available were scheduled to stand down and one of the battalions (the 223rd) was a fixed wing battalion, not a combat assault battalion, and needed a quick conversion to a CAB. Quickly, 1st Aviation Bde pulled detachments with helicopter S-3 and S-4 experience and sent them to the 223rd.
Assault helicopter companies had been moved from as far away as Ninh Hoa and there was a concern that the NVA might believe that the country had been stripped of aviation assets, so the powers that be added an entire layer of call signs on top of the aviation call signs that had always been used. “Dolphin 26” was now “boats 26.” Gunship units stubbornly stuck to their old call signs which made them easier to identify. UHF communications were limited because the battalion hq’s were located at Quang Tri. This was resolved when battalion forward locations were established at Khe Sanh. From about the middle of February on, the weather became a factor when many of the LZ’s were socked in until noon or later.
While the 1st Armored Bde was struggling down Highway 9, helicopters under control of the 223rd and 158th Aviation Battalions were crossing into Laos loaded with ARVN troops. Three battalions of the 3d Regt, 1st ARVN Inf Div air assaulted into FBs HOTEL and BLUE south of Route 9. Two battalions of the 1st ARVN Abn Div air assaulted into LZ 30 and LZ 31 north of Route 9. The 21st ARVN Ranger battalion was air assaulted into LZ RANGER SOUTH. 105mm batteries quickly followed and were landed on LZs HOTEL, 30 and 31 by Chinooks.
As the first troops consolidated their positions on the LZ’s, the air cavalry moved out to reconnoiter the front and flanks, seeking landing areas and destroying antiaircraft positions. But the demand for gunships became heavy as units on the ground encountered NVA troops. In the air cavalry, emphasis shifted to locating enemy troop concentrations and indirect fire weapons that posed an immediate threat to South Vietnamese forces. Thus, long-range reconnaissance was sacrificed for fire support. The air cavalry screened the 1st Armor Brigade's advance along Route 9 all the way to Aloui, which the brigade reached in the afternoon of 10 February. Within three days Vietnamese airmobile forces on the ridgelines to the north and south had moved abreast of Aloui.
On 12 February, the 39th Ranger Battalion was airlifted to a location named Ranger North, three km northeast of Ranger South. The two ranger battalions were northern flank security for FSB 30 and 31 protecting the north side of the main attack route down Highway 9. Headquarters of the 1st Ranger Group was located at Ta Bat, and artillery support from the 64th Artillery Bn (105 mm) was located at Phu Loc north of Khe Sanh. The area was made accessible by a secondary road, known as Red Devil Road that ran roughly parallel to Route 9, from Fire Support Base Elliott to Khe Sanh. Constructed by the 3d Squadron, 5th Cavalry, and elements of the 7th Engineer Battalion, Red Devil Road allowed the 3rd Squadron, 5th Cavalry to continue operations north of Khe Sanh until 7 April.
One of the Ranger LZ's, don't know if its north or south
The main thrust along Highway 9 made by the armored and airborne units halted at Aloui and waited for orders, but orders from I Corps and the Airborne Division conflicted The 1st Airborne Division was unable to keep the route open and heavy rains set in making the road impassable. The armor and airborne troops had to be resupplied by air and in their static position they became a target for intense enemy fire; losses in men and equipment mounted. Eventually a point was reached when the 1st Armor Brigade could not, if it had been ordered, move west of Aloui.
The U.S. 175 batteries were moved from Lang Vei to Lao Bao, a bulge in the border near where Highway 9 crossed. They were now farther west then any U.S. maneuver battalion and began coming under intense artillery fire from 122 and 152 mm guns. Counter battery radar was kept busy.
On 14 February, patrols from the 39th Ranger Battalion on Ranger North began making contact with PAVN forces. Artillery from the 64th Artillery at Phu Loc was called for support. By 1600 all the companies of the battalion were engaged and more artillery was called for, this time C/44th located on FSB 30 added its support. Under intense artillery fire, the NVA pulled back allowing the Rangers to consolidate their position. On the following day the Rangers engaged in aggressive patrolling and killed 43 NVA and captured two 37mm AA guns. This was ominous, it indicated a large unit in the area and that the PAVN intended to push the attack. In fact, three PAVN regiments were closing in on the Ranger positions.
The NVA maneuvered its large units until the 18th when again they attacked in strength. With strong artillery support, this time including 175mm from the 2/94th at Lao Bao, the Rangers held on. During the 19th and 20th the attacks continued until finally on the afternoon of the 20th there was no more contact with the artillery forward observers. The 39th had abandoned its positions and evaded back to Ranger South rather then surrender. For three days the air cav had not been able to penetrate the weather and resupply the 39th and had been only able to offer limited support. When air cav finally got to the LZ late on the 20th, they counted over 600 NVA bodies in the positions. The CO of the 2/17 Air Cavalry wrote, “We could not re-supply them for three days. When ammunition was about to run out, they got out of their positions, counter-attacked then continued to fight with captured weapons.” That night flares lit up the sky over Ranger South and in the morning the attacks started. For four days and nights the 21st Ranger Battalion and the remains of the 39th held their positions. Between NVA attacks, the LZ was bombarded with 122 mm rockets and artillery.
On the morning of the 25th, the Rangers were ordered to evacuate the LZ. Again the 64th and C/44th artillery were directed to maximize fire-support for the rangers. About 1000, a flight of helicopters escorted by four Cobra gun-ships extracted the Rangers and took them to FSB 30. Later, all but one company were evacuated to Phu Loc.
At the same time NVA pressure had begun to build at Ranger North, and the South Vietnamese command was debating whether to continue the drive west, pressure on FSB 31 was increasing. On the morning of 18 February it was obvious a full blown coordinated tank-infantry attack with supporting fire from artillery and rockets was underway. I Corps ordered the 17th Armored Cavalry north from Aloui to reinforce Landing Zone 31. The airborne division modified the order to stop south of the landing zone and wait to see if the site was overrun. Neither headquarters had eyes on the scene. As a result of the confusion, the 17th Armored Cavalry augmented with tanks from the 11th Armored Cavalry did not arrive at Landing Zone 31 until 19 February when some airborne units had already been pushed back.
In the first battle between North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese tanks, a tank in the 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, destroyed a North Vietnamese T54 tank. The South Vietnamese forces retook a portion of the landing zone by the end of the day. Six T54's and sixteen PT76's were destroyed, with none of the South Vietnamese M41's lost. Direct and indirect fire continued to pound the airborne troops, and finally, on the 25th the 17th Armored Cavalry Regiment and the Third Airborne Battalion were pushed off the landing zone to the south. 120 ARVN soldiers were trapped on the LZ and captured as well as the headquarters for the 3rd Bde of the Airborne Division.
After Landing Zone 31 fell, the airborne units were pulled out and the 17th Armored Cavalry was left on its own southeast of the LZ under heavy enemy pressure. A major attack at noon on 27 February was repulsed by the cavalry supported by tactical air and air cavalry gunships. Twelve PT76's and three T54's were destroyed at a cost of three armored cavalry assault vehicles. Still the cavalry remained in its location only to be attacked again on 1 March. This ended up being a night battle supported by South Vietnamese artillery, U.S. tactical air strikes, and cavalry gunships. Six B-52 arc light missions were used on tac air targets. Fifteen enemy tanks were destroyed at a cost of six armored cavalry assault vehicles.
The commander of the 1st Airborne Division failed to either support the 17th Armored Cavalry or to pull it back, in spite of recommendations from the American advisor of the armored brigade or the acting advisor of his division. On 3 March the Vietnamese Chief of Armor, after consulting with the I Corps commander, intervened by radio and ordered the 17th Cavalry south to more defensible ground under cover of air support from I Corps. By this time the cavalry was surrounded on three sides and would have to retreat through direct tank fire. The move succeeded and the cavalry eventually fought its way back to the 1st Brigade at Aloui.