John D. Howard, BG, USA

“They Were Good Ol’ Boys”
An Infantryman Remembers An Loc and the Air Force
Major John D. Howard, USA

On 25 May 1972, a U. S. Army sergeant, who was an adviser to a Vietnamese Ranger group was “med evac-ed” out of An Loc. On his arrival in Lai Khe treatment and transportation to the Third Field Hospital, he was queried on aspects of the fighting. When asked what he thought about the support received from the U.S. Air Force, he succinctly summed up what all the An Loc advisers felt: “…they’re good ol’boys!”

Few battles are recorded in the history of modern warfare where air power has played a more decisive role in the outcome than it did in the besieged provincial capital of An Loc in the early stages of the spring 1972 offensive by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). During a three-month period commencing in April, the United States Air Force provided the Vietnamese garrison and its handful of U.S. advisers with their major means of fire support, their primary source of resupply, and massive interdiction of enemy infiltration routes. This triad of support not only broke the NVA’s stranglehold on the once prosperous rubber-plantation town but also destroyed the better part of three divisions that would have been poised to move on Saigon, some 90 kilometers to the south, had An Loc fallen.

The attack on An Loc was only one aspect of General Vo Nguyen Giap’s strategy to gain Hanoi’s long-sought political ends in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). Unlike the Tet offensive of 1968, Giap chose not to use the Viet Cong (VC) insurgents as a main attack force or depend upon a peripheral strategy that necessitated a popular uprising in the south.1 Instead, he directed conventional attacks, emphasizing shock action and firepower, in Military Regions (MR) I, II, and III involving the commitment of practically North Vietnam’s regular forces.

These division-size elements, well balanced in armor, infantry, and artillery, were oriented toward the destruction of RYN’s armed forces. Apparently, the basis for the North’s action revolved around the assumption that Vietnamization was an abysmal failure and that the U.S. public was so averse to continued involvement in the war that President Nixon would be unable to bolster Nguyen Van Thieu’s government.2 The importance of the upcoming U.S. Presidential elections as an additional constraint on decision-making was not lost on the NVA planners. A similar situation had emerged in March 1968 when the North Vietnamese and the VC suffered a staggering military defeat but reaped untold political advantages from the enervation of Saigon’s chief ally. Now, given the maximum use of NVA military power and the political climate in the United States, the probability of success of the 1972 NGUYEN HUE offensive from Hanoi’s vantage point seemed very high.

Prelude to a Battle
An Loc, the governing seat of Binh Long Province, sat astride Highway 13 amid Vietnam’s most fertile stands of rubber trees. Because of its proximity to Cambodia and the nearby enemy base areas, its population of 15,000 had endured the rigors of war since the early 1960s. In February and early March of 1972, intelligence sources had identified three NVA divisions in the Cambodian Krek-Chup plantation

areas near the border of Tay Ninth and Binh Long Province. RVN Lieutenant General Minh, the III Corps commander, and his staff were sure that the enemy planned an attack of major proportions with these troops but could not determine the specific targets. The NVA tried to nurture suspicions that any thrust would be directed at Tay Ninth by mounting a major attack against an RVN army (ARVN) fire-base at Thien Ngon on Highway 22 on the night of 1-2 April. This action along a traditional invasion route drew attention away from Binh Long Province and covered the movement of three divisions out of their base areas and into assembly areas near their initial objectives.3

The 5th VC Division began the first phase of the MR III offensive by attacking the district town of Loc Ninh in the predawn hours of 5 April. By the afternoon, the ARVN resistance centered on two compounds at both ends of a small air-strip. Here a few U.S. advisers, all of whom were either killed or captured, kept the enemy at bay for the next two days through a combination of well-placed air strikes and AC-130 Spectre gunships. On 6 April, USAF fighters stopped at least three mass attacks on the compounds with what would later be known to even the Vietnamese as “shake and bake,” a combination of conventional bombs, cluster bombs (CBU), and napalm. The next day, sheer force of numbers took its toll. Notwithstanding superhuman efforts of the U.S. personnel on the ground, including Major General James F. Hollingsworth, commander of Third Regional Assistance Command (TRAC), and a considerable number of forward air controllers (FAC), the outposts were overwhelmed.4

Although the South Vietnamese suffered a blow at Loc Ninh, the trauma of that day set a precedent that would serve the ARVN well in future operations. It was evident that the leverage provided by U.S. air power in Binh Long Province would be a function of three factors: the skill of U.S. FAC’S from the 21st Tactical Air Support Squadron (TASS) and the many fighter pilots that would fly the missions; the continual presence of General Hollingsworth or his deputy, Brigadier General John R. McGiffert, to provide the command impetus for sustained support; and the U.S. Army advisers, who acted as the link between the ARVN and the USAF. Soon after the fall of Loc Ninh, TRAC’S Commanding General made the crucial decision to leave the advisers with their counterparts in An Loc. This action maintained the quick channel of communication between air and ground forces and allowed for on-the-spot adjustment of close strikes. During the two major attacks on the city, this contact became extremely important when some aircraft had only limited time on station and when others were putting ordnance as dose as twenty meters from friendly troops.

The Siege–Phase I
While the first twelve days of April were relatively stable, there were ominous signs of hard times ahead. On 6 April, the NVA Division succeeded in sealing off An Loc by establishing a major roadblock along Highway 13 north of Chon Thanh, putting the resupply onus on aviation assets. The logistical situation was further complicated by streams of refugees and military survivors from the Loc Ninh battle. The fighting in the northern district had engulfed Task Force 52, a two-battalion force between An Loc and Loc Ninh; approximately 600 of the original 1000 managed to reach the “safety” of An Loc.5 However,

any military stragglers were an asset and could be used to strengthen the town. Following a conference with his military advisers on 7 April, President Thieu decreed that An Loc would be held “at all costs,” and he allocated additional units to be used in its defense The 5th ARVN Division hastily assembled its forces in the town and was reinforced by the 3d Ranger Group. On the afternoon of 12 April, nine infantry battalions in various states of readiness were prepared to follow the President’s dictum.6

By this time, intelligence sources indicated that the NVA would make a determined effort to take An Loc very soon. Patrols on the previous days had reported increased contacts and the movement of large enemy forces into the area, while refugees and stragglers claimed they had seen many enemy tanks in the vicinity of the city. Within An Loc, there was a noticeable increase in enemy artillery fire and definite attempts to deny the ARVN use of aerial lines of communication (LOC).

Fortunately for the garrison, these indicators were properly evaluated by Generals James Hollingsworth and John McGiffert. On the afternoon of 12 April, they planned B-52 and tactical air strikes for the following day on suspected enemy troop locations and along probable avenues of attack. Soon after midnight, it became obvious that an attack of major proportions was imminent; reports of armor movement and increased shellings were coming from security forces around the perimeter. The impending attack brought a Spectre on station before dawn, but it could not readily acquire the signature of any large troop concentrations or armored vehicles; by first light, the mission was diverted to provide dose support for the forward defense positions where pressure was steadily building. The main attack was launched from the north at 0600 hours and consisted of an armor thrust, which drove the ARVN out of the northern half of the city. The defenders withdrew in good order in the face of numerical superiority, ably assisted by two factors: the USAF and VNAF air support and the NVA’s ineptness in initiating combined arms attacks.

As the enemy pressed forward, his momentum was shattered by well-executed air strikes that stripped the infantry from around the Russian-made T-54 and PT-76 tanks and isolated them without protection in the narrow city streets. While the B-52s, F-4s, and A-37s struck the infantry well forward of friendly positions and prevented other forces from exploiting the success in the northern sector, ARVN soldiers were able to attack the tanks with relative impunity.7 During the confusion, one North Vietnamese tank crew demonstrated that even the NVA has that small percentage of people that “don’t get the word.” Thinking that the town was secured, they rolled down the city’s main street with all hatches open, completely oblivious to the fact that the soldiers in the fighting positions were ARVN, not NVA. After they had moved all the way through the city, a member of the Territorial Forces retained enough presence of mind to knock out the tank with an M-72 LAW (light antitank weapon).

For the remainder of April 13th and the following day, the NVA resorted to heavy rocket and artillery fire on the city but could not mount another ground attack to exploit the foothold gained in the north. Although one attempt was on the 15th, tac air thwarted any further gains. General

McGiffert commented on the effectiveness of the B-52 strikes and the preplanned tac air sorties of the l3-15 April period: “I really believe that without these the city would have fallen because I think the infantry would have gotten in with the tanks.”8 Patrols later confirmed that more than 400 enemy dead were found following the battle, half of whom were killed by air (KBA).

Coincident with the heavy fighting was the Corps Commander’s attempt to reinforce the garrison with the 81st Airborne Ranger Group and the 1st Airborne Brigade’s mission was to secure the high ground southeast of the city. This plan was short-lived because the NVA felt it mandatory to make good on the promise to take An Loc before 20 April. Subjected to overwhelming attack on “Windy Hill” and Hill 169 on 16 April, the 1st Airborne Brigade withdrew into An Loc and assumed responsibility for the southern portion of the perimeter while the 81st Rangers were moved into the northern sector. On the night of 22 April, the 81st Rangers succeeded in eliminating some of the enemy lodgements in their new area. Their aggressive attack was supported by a PAVE AEGIS Spectre, whose 105-mm cannon ferreted the NVA out of the rubble of the destroyed buildings. Sergeant First Class Jesse Yerta, light weapons adviser to the group, employed the Spectre’s fire in the form of a rolling barrage. In order that the AC-130’s fire control officer would he able to keep the ordnance right in front of the friendly troops, Sergeant Yerta then accompanied an assault squad and, in addition to maintaining radio communications, fired scores of small pen flares to provide a beacon from which the gunship could offset its fire.9

Although An Loc had withstood the enemy’s first determined attempt at victory, Colonel William Miller, senior adviser to the 5th ARVN Division and the senior American in the city, assessed the situation as follows:

The division is tired and worn out; supplies minimal, casualties continue to mount. Wounded a major problem, mass burials for military and civilians; morale at a low ebb. In spite of incurring heavy losses from US air strikes, the enemy continues to persist10

The resupply of the garrison had been the exclusive responsibility of the U.S. Army and the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) prior to this 17 April report, but during the heavy fighting it had been sporadic at best. When a VNAF C-123 was lost on 19 April, aerial resupply became the sole domain of USAF C-130s. Initial efforts proved that this would be no easy task; the NVA had all avenues of approach covered with massive .51-caliber, 23-mm, 37-mm, and 57-mm fire and used an early-warning network of spotters, who notified the firing units of incoming aircraft. Daylight low-level runs drew heavy NVA fire, and two attempts made (18 April and 23-26 April) were justifiably terminated after severe aircraft damage and several losses. The interim experimentation with high-altitude low-opening (HALO) Systems resulted in less aircrew exposure but proved unsatisfactory due to parachute rigging malfunctions.

Colonel Andy Iosue, commander of the 374th Tactical Airlift Wing, instituted low-level night runs in order to skirt some of the problems encountered with other methods; these missions still encountered heavy ground fire and were further complicated by difficulty in recognizing the drop zone (DZ). Although it was marked with lights, the signals were easily masked by antiaircraft tracers, artillery flashes, and the fires in the city.11 On 3 May, Colonel Miller requested that these missions be scrapped since he felt the NVA was benefiting more by drops that went astray than was the ARVN through its recovery system.

The arrival of U.S. riggers at Tan Son Nhut Air Base prompted the return to HALO techniques and the use of high-velocity drogue chutes. Notwithstanding the restricted size of the DZ and the minimal area that was in friendly hands, the recovery rate rose significantly. As DZ’s were shifted to accommodate individual units, it was commonplace to recover all pallets. After calling for a resupply directly on its position, the 6th Airborne Battalion spent the better part of one afternoon running from sixteen 2000-pound bundles of “chicken boned,” claymore mines, and Uncle Ben’s instant rice.12

Recovery of food and ammunition was only one aspect of An Loc’s resupply operation. Once the bundles were gathered up, an equitable, orderly distribution system became paramount to continued success. During the first USAF attempts, some recovery efforts went unreported when men attempted to hoard pallets of food. Only after the Vietnamese commander placed Colonel Luong of the 1st Airborne Brigade in charge of the DZ and distribution did the logistical operations begin to function normally.

Problems in receipt and distribution of supplies were exacerbated by a lack of VNAF “med evac” missions, the ground commanders in An Loc and at III Corps having virtually no control over them. By 15 April, medical supplies were critically low, and sophisticated hospital facilities were nonexistent. So, without evacuation soldiers who were lightly wounded often had to have limbs amputated, and those who sustained serious wounds simply, could not be saved. On the few occasion when the VNAF helicopters did come into landing zone (LZ), they hovered four to five feet off the ground, allowing only the wounded who could walk and climb– the “olympic” wounded as one adviser called them–the opportunity to be evacuated. For litter cases even to the carried to the LZ was an exercise in futility. Tile lack of VNAF support for its ground forces was painfully illuminated by the U.S. helicopter insertions for medical evacuation and resupply of advisers. Finally, General Minh prevailed upon General Hollingsworth to execute a joint U.S.-Vietnamese evacuation mission under the command of a U.S. officer to show the VNAF how it was done. Although the operation was only partially successful, Colonel John Richardson of the 12th Combat Aviation Group set the example for the VNAF pilots, who, despite the active antiaircraft environment, succeeded in getting three or four ships a day thereafter into and out of AnLoc.13

The Siege–Phase II
By the end of the first week in May, the resumption of near-normal aerial resupply and some limited medical evacuation indicated the weaknesses in NVA strangulation and starvation tactics.

Although more than 1000 artillery rounds per day had been expended on the city for several weeks, there were no signs of capitulation. Undoubtedly, the NVA felt it was imperative to mount a major attack before the ARVN became much stronger. The thirteen battalions in An Loc: numbered 5100 men, but at least 1000 were wounded and ineffective.14 To the south, the 21st ARYN Division and the 3rd Airborne Brigade were attempting to reopen Highway 13 against stiff opposition from the 7th NVA Division. Although these units made little real progress in their attempts to relieve An Loc, their potential nevertheless concerned the NVA high command.15

By now, the NVA controlled all high ground around the city. The plan was to cut the city in two, then defeat each enclave in detail. In order to minimize the effect of the massive U.S. air support that had stymied the previous operation, anti-air weapons would be moved with the assaulting echelons to provide the necessary defensive “umbrella.”

As the time for attack drew closer, enemy activity in the form of probes and shellings increased, and, as General Hollingsworth had predicted, on the morning of 11 May “it hit the fan.”16 The assault began at 0530 hours with two spearheads of tanks and infantry in the main attacks from the northeast and the west. Although they became separated, they succeeded in making two significant penetrations of the perimeter in an attempt to link up in the center of the city. Fortunately for the defenders, execution of plans was not an NVA forte; the tank crews appeared to be disoriented, stopping frequently and moving slowly through the streets. All attacked without external fuel drums, and many ran out of gasoline before they had expended their ammunition. 17 This gave the ground commander, Brigadier General Le Van Hung, time to move the 5th Airborne Battalion into the gap between the two salients. The western salient was attacked by VNAF A-IE Skyraiders, but the northern penetration was too narrow for effective bombing. However, the more accurate Spectre gunships with 40-mm and l05-mm cannons silenced many of the tanks and gave the ARVN time to establish defensive positions to contain any further NVA advances. The defenses held, and the two penetrations proved to he the high-water mark of the North Vietnamese offensive in An Loc. (Figure 2)

While the ARVN fought tenaciously on the ground, the U.S. Air Force provided the weight that blunted the attack. This clout was obtained by General Hollingsworth, who had appealed to General Abrams for maximum B-52 and close air support allocations. Working from a broad spectrum of intelligence sources, he began his lobby efforts for USAF assets on 9 May. His endeavors reaped dividends because the big bombers started pounding the NVA as the attacks were initiated. One flight hit the enemy every 55 minutes for 30 hours; as Communist units were moved, the Strategic Air Command’s advance echelon (ADVON) at Tan Son Nhut provided the flexibility to make changes in the preplanned target “boxes” while the B-52s were en route to An Loc.18. Lieutenant Colonel Art Taylor, Senior Adviser to the 1st Airborne Brigade and an infantryman in the Korean War, later said that neither he nor the Vietnamese had ever seen a more awesome display of firepower.19

Complementing the use of B-52s in a close support role was the unparalleled assistance of tactical aircraft. On 11 May nearly 300 sorties were flown in the face of some of the heaviest antiaircraft fire ever faced in South Vietnam.20 Men on the ground were lavish in their praise of the FAC’S from the 21st TASS and the A-37 pilots from the 8th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) at Bien Hoa. On one occasion, Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Weed, the SOS squadron commander, made two passes at rooftop level through heavy enemy flak to destroy a T-54 tank that was threatening the 5th ARVN Division command post (CP).21 Stopping the NVA was not without its price: on 11 May alone, the clusters of enemy air defense weapons downed four Air Force and Army aircraft.

On the morning of 14 May, while attempting to assist in the reduction of the enemy holdings, SUNDOG 07 (i.e., First Lieutenant “Pep” McPhilips) received an on-the-ground orientation of the conditions in An Loc. A missile struck the tail boom of his Cessna 02 and forced him to bail out over the rubber trees south of the city. Because of the close proximity of enemy forces, the 5th Airborne Battalion nearly lost the footrace to get McPhilips ahead of the NVA. An extraction could not be arranged for several days, so he occupied the bunker of the 1st Airborne Brigade CP and was fully indoctrinated through “participation” training in the U.S. Army’s role in the defense. Later, in an appropriate ceremony, he was awarded the Vietnamese parachutist badge—novice level.

For the remainder of May, the situation evolved into attrition tactics, with both attacker and defender exhausted from their previous efforts. Except for one armor attack along Highway 13 from the south on 23 May, the NVA turned its attention toward continuing the isolation of the garrison by countering any relief columns. The 21st ARVN Division’s at-tempts to reopen the highway had become hopelessly bogged down despite considerable U.S. air support. Finally, in an attempt to break the stalemate, the reconstituted 6th Airborne Battalion conducted an airmobile assault into an LZ ten kilometers south of An Loc. Its mission was to link up with and reinforce the city’s defenders. After heavy fighting with the 7th NVA Division, contact was made with the 8th Airborne Battalion on the after-noon of 8 June.22 In the following days, l-48th ARVN Regiment and the 7th ARVN Regiment eliminated the last remnants of enemy forces in the western and northern sections of the city while reinforcement missions and medical evacuations began to be flown on a daily basis. By mid-June the defensive perimeter had been expanded to encompass most of the outlying hamlets and commanding terrain that surrounded the city. The strength of the garrison was now almost 7600, and though there was no formal proclamation of victory until later, the siege was broken.23

The keystone in the application of close air support in An Loc was the FAC’S, who provided a 24-hour-a-day watch over the battlefield; they were the unsung heroes of the campaign. Not only did they control all air strikes but also they regulated the use of the airspace and provided considerable visual reconnaissance. During the heaviest fighting, three FAC’S were in the air over An Loc at any one time. One, the “King” FAC, acted as the link between the Direct Air Support Center and the Senior Adviser in the 5th ARVN Division CP, while the other two handled the

actual direction and adjustment of the strike. The sound of the 02’s engines became a security blanket for the men on the ground. An unusual rapport developed between the advisers and the FAC’s, serving all in good stead during some of the trying days of April and May. This good will was particularly enhanced by reports from the FAC who spent a week in the city after being shot down. Most of the pilots volunteered to fly An Loc missions regularly instead of rotating to less taxing operations. Their knowledge of the area facilitated target location and strike adjustment, since reference could be made to terrain features or landmarks that were well known or had figured prominently in other fighting. Many advisers who had one or two previous tours in RVN were surprised to find that the FAC’s were considerably younger than those of the 1960s; certainly their professionalism and performance over An Loc belied their rank and age.

At a higher level, the battle for An Loc once again proved that while massive air support cannot hold terrain it can be the decisive factor in assisting those who have that mission. The NVA grossly miscalculated the havoc that could be brought to bear on its forces by gunships, bombers, and tactical air strikes; they also underestimated the Air Force’s ability to adjust to a rapidly changing environment. Although Hanoi’s divisions assembled a formidable array of air defense weapons, they failed to grasp the fact that air power is restricted but not negated by an active hostile environment. Coupled with judicious allocations decisions, the adaptability of the tactical airlift commanders, the FAC’s, SAC’S ADVON, and weapon systems such as the AC-130 prevented An Loc from being Giap’s 1972 “Dien Bien Phu” victory.

On 7 April, President Thieu ordered that An Loc be held at all costs–and with considerable help it was. By decree, it assumed a symbolic importance far beyond its military worth. And although it did not fall, it did not remain intact. The ARVN lost nearly 5400 men in the defense of Loc Ninh and An Loc, 2300 of whom were killed or missing; no one will ever know the NVA casualties.24 The battle was one of the few mid-intensity, conventional situations of any duration to arise out of the Vietnam war. It was fought with massed forces, intense firepower, and large quantities of sophisticated equipment. At the end, the objective of the fighting, the former commercial hub of the rubber industry, was a Guernica-like mural of the devastation of modern warfare. By summer of 1972, its population had shrunk to 250 civilians, and only a few buildings were left standing to dot the once picturesque landscape. No markers were emplaced to honor Vietnamese or Americans; the mute testimony to all that occurred in An Loc was the rubble, the graves, and the burned-out- hulks of combat vehicles.

Fort Sheridan, Illinois