Easter Offensive

Easter Offensive

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Easter Offensive
partof=the Vietnam War

caption=PAVN 130 mm artillery battery goes into action on the Kontum front
date= 30 March - 22 October 1972
place=Republic of Vietnam
result=Limited North Vietnamese victory
commander1=I Corps: Hoang Xuan Lam (replaced by Ngo Quang Truong)
II Corps: Ngo Dzu (replaced by Nguyen Van Toan)
III Corps: Nguyen Van Minh
commander2=Tri-Thien-Hue Region: Van Tien Dung
B-2 Front: Tran Van Tra
B-3 Front: Hoang Minh Thao
strength1=742,000 [Army:410,000 Air Force:50,000 Marines:14,000 RF:284,000 Total:742,000 Brigadier General James Lawton Collins, Jr., The Development and Training of the South Viet Namese Army (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1975), p. 151. ]
strength2=120,000 [Karnow, p. 640.]
casualties1=~10,000 killed, 33,000 wounded, 3,500 missing
[Marc Leepson & Helen Hannaford, "Dictionary of the Vietnam War". New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999, p. 115. Missing figure from Sorley, p. 339.]
casualties2=~40,000 killed, ~60,000 wounded or missing [For a comparison of casualty figures, see Lewis Sorley, "A Better War". New York: Harvest Books, 1999, Chapt. 20, fn. 49. Although North Vietnamese casualties were horrendus, the figure of 100,000 dead, often quoted in historical sources, is only an approximation. See Dale Andrade, "Trial by Fire". New York: Hippocrene Books, 1995, p. 531.]

The Easter Offensive, officially, the Nguyen Hue Offensive and also (Chiến dịch Xuân hè 1972 in Vietnamese) was a military campaign conducted by the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) against the armed forces of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and the United States between 30 March and 22 October 1972, during the Vietnam War. [Military operations are generally designated by the title attributed to them by the attacking force. During the Cold War this convention was disregarded. Thus the communist "General Offensive, General Uprising" of 1968 became known in the West as the Tet Offensive. Returning to the previous convention, the 1972 Spring offensive has returned to its correct designation.] This conventional invasion (the largest offensive operation since 300,000 Chinese "volunteers" had crossed the Yalu River into North Korea during the Korean War) was a radical departure from previous North Vietnamese offensives. Although not designed to win the war outright, North Vietnam hoped to gain as much territory and destroy as many units of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) as possible.

The allied high command had been expecting an attack sometime during 1972, but the size and ferocity of the assault caught the defenders off balance because the attackers struck on three fronts simultaneously with the bulk of the North Vietnamese army. This first attempt by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) to invade the south since the Tet Offensive of 1968 became characterized by conventional infantry/armor assaults backed by heavy artillery, with both sides fielding the latest in technological advances in weapons systems.

In the I Corps Tactical Zone, North Vietnamese forces overran South Vietnamese defensive positions in a month-long battle and captured Quang Tri city before moving south in an attempt to seize Hue. PAVN similarly eliminated frontier defense forces in II Corps and advanced to seize the provincial capital of Kontum, which would have opened the way to the sea, splitting South Vietnam in two. Northeast of Saigon in III Corps, the communists overran Loc Ninh and advanced to assault the capital of Binh Long Province at An Loc. The campaign can be divided into three distinct phases: April was a month of communist advances and allied withdrawals; May became a period of equilibrium; in June and July the South Vietnamese forces counterattacked, culminating in the recapture of Quang Tri City in September.

On all three fronts of the offensive, initial North Vietnamese successes were hampered by high casualties, inept tactics, and the increasing application of U.S. and South Vietnamese air power. One result of the offensive was the launching of Operation Linebacker, the first sustained bombing of North Vietnam by the U.S. since November 1968. Although South Vietnamese forces withstood their greatest trial thus far in the conflict, the North Vietnamese accomplished two important goals: they had gained valuable territory within South Vietnam from which to launch any future offensives, and they had obtained a better bargaining position at the peace negotiations being conducted in Paris.



In the wake of the failed South Vietnamese Operation Lam Son 719, the Hanoi leadership began discussing a possible offensive during the 19th Plenum of the Central Committee of the Lao Dong Party in early 1971. [David Fulgham & Terrence Maitland, "South Vietnam on Trial". Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1984, p. 122.] By December the Politburo had decided to launch a major offensive early in the following year. 1972 would be a U.S. presidential election year, and the possibility of affecting the outcome was enticing and there was increasing anti-war sentiment among the population and government of the U.S. [Dave R. Palmer, "Summons of the Trumpet". New York: Ballentine, 1978, pgs. 310-311.] With continuing American troop withdrawals, South Vietnamese forces were stretched to the breaking point along a border of more than 600 miles (1,000 km), and the poor performance of ARVN troops in the offensive into Laos promised an easy victory. This decision marked the end of three years of political infighting between two factions within the Politburo: those members grouped around Truong Chinh, who favored following the Chinese model of continued low-intensity guerrilla warfare and rebuilding the north; and the "southern firsters" centered around Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap and supported by First Party Secretary Le Duan (both of whom supported the Soviet model of big offensives). [Andrade, pgs. 36 & 37.] The failure of the Tet Offensive of 1968 had led to a downgrading of Giap's influence during the ensuing years, but the victory achieved over South Vietnamese forces during the Laotian incursion brought Giap's strategy back into the ascendant. [Andrade, pgs. 36 & 37.] As a result, Le Duan was given responsibility for the key planning decisions for the operation, but Giap never rose to his former prominence, dealing chiefly with logistical matters and the approval of operational planning. [Fulgham & Maitland, p. 122.] The officer entrusted with the actual conduct of the offensive was the PAVN chief of staff, General Van Tien Dung.

The central questions then became where and with what forces the offensive would be launched and what its goals were to be. Although North Vietnam had utilized the border regions of Laos and Cambodia as supply and manpower conduits for a decade and a half, it was quickly decided that the main thrust of the offensive would be launched across the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone that separated the two Vietnams. There the line of communication would be shortest and forces could be concentrated where "the enemy is weakest...violent attacks will disintegrate enemy forces...making it impossible for him to have enough troops to deploy elsewhere." [Fulgham & Maitland, p. 122.] This was an important consideration, since the northern thrust would serve to divert South Vietnam's attention and resources while two other attacks were also to be launched: one into the central highlands in order to cut the country in two; and another that would move east out of Cambodia to threaten Saigon.The offensive was given a title steeped in Vietnamese history. In 1773 the three Tay Son brothers (so-called because of the place of their origin) united a Vietnam divided by civil war and social unrest. The youngest brother, Nguyen Hue, then defeated an invading Chinese army on the outskirts of Hanoi in 1788.

Although the campaign eventually employed the equivalent of 14 divisions, winning the war outright was not part of North Vietnam's game plan. The goals were much more limited. There was the distinct possibility of destroying or at least crippling large elements of the ARVN; possibly deposing of South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu; convincing the U.S. as to the hopelessness of continued support to the South; and demonstrating the failure of Vietnamization. The prospect of seizing a South Vietnamese provincial capital, which could then be proclaimed as the seat of the Provisional Revolutionary Government, was also enticing. [Andrade, p. 43.] The attitude of the North Vietnamese leadership was illustrated in an article in a 1972 party journal: "It doesn't matter whether the war is promptly ended or prolonged...Both are opportunities to sow the seeds; all we have to do is to wait for the time to harvest the crop." [Fulgham & Maitland, p. 122.]

The northern leadership was taken aback during the summer of 1971 when an announcement was made that U.S. President Richard M. Nixon would visit the People's Republic of China on a diplomatic mission sometime before May 1972. The Chinese placated the suspicions of their ally by reassuring North Vietnam that even more military and economic aid would be forthcoming in 1972. The Soviet Union, perceiving the growing antagonism between the People's Republic and North Vietnam, sought to widen the rift by also agreeing to "additional aid without reimbursement" for North Vietnam's military forces. [At the time, it was assumed that the Soviet Union was supplying the bulk of North Vietnam's military needs, but of the $1.5 billion in military aid sent to North Vietnam between 1970-1972, two-thirds came from China.] [Fulgham & Maitland, p. 120.] These agreements led to a flood of equipment and supplies necessary for a modern, conventional army. This included 1,000 T-54 and Type-59 (a Chinese version of the T-54) medium and PT-76 light amphibious tanks; hundreds of anti-aircraft missiles, including the shoulder-fired, heat-seeking SA-7 Grail (called the Strela in the West); anti-tank missiles, including the wire-guided (AT-3 Sagger); and heavy-caliber, long-range artillery. To man the new equipment, 25,000 North Vietnamese troops received specialized training abroad, 80 percent of them in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. [For instance, more than 3,000 PAVN tank crews received training at the Soviet armor school in Odessa, in the USSR.] [Fulgham & Maitland, p. 120.]


During late 1971 U.S. and South Vietnamese intelligence estimates of communist intentions were mixed. An offensive was expected, but intelligence as to its timing, location, and size were confusing. The communists had mounted an offensive inside South Vietnam in 1968, but it was conducted mainly by the by southerners of the NLF, which had essentially been destroyed in the process. Without NLF support inside South Vietnam, a large-scale PAVN offensive was considered highly unlikely. A North Vietnamese thrust across the DMZ was also considered unlikely. Past infiltration and offensive operations had been conducted through and from Laotian and Cambodian territory, and besides, a DMZ offensive would be a blatant violation of the Geneva agreement that North Vietnam was adamant in defending.In December, intelligence began to firm up. PAVN units that had been supporting Khmer Rouge operations in Cambodia began returning to the border areas. In both Laos and Cambodia there was also an unusual expansion of infiltration. Within North Vietnam, there was a noticeable increase in military recruitment. In January, Defense Intelligence Agency officers briefed Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, stating that PAVN would attack sometime after the Tết holidays and that the offensive would make widespread use of armored forces. [Andrade, p. 27.] Laird was unconvinced, telling the United States Congress in late January that a large communist offensive "was not a serious possibility". [Andrade, p. 28.]

U.S. and South Vietnamese intelligence services had no clear consensus as to communist intentions. MACV, on the other hand, was suspicious. It sent several reconnaissance teams into the Mu Gia and Ban Karai pass areas, and they discovered a heavy buildup in PAVN forces and equipment. MACV then decided that the North Vietnamese were building up for an offensive in the central highlands and the northern provinces of South Vietnam. The brunt of any such attack would, however, have to be borne by South Vietnamese forces, since U.S. troop strength had been reduced to 69,000 troops, most of whom were in support roles, and that number was to be reduced to 27,000 by 30 November. [Bernard C. Nalty, "Air War Over South Vietnam". Washington DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2000, p. 348.]

The U.S. commander, General Creighton W. Abrams, was convinced an offensive was likely, if not imminent, but he was also convinced that the attack would begin during or near the Tet holidays at the beginning of the year. He notified Admiral Thomas Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the North Vietnamese might attempt to "duplicate the effects of the 1968 offensive, perhaps by a limited operation aimed less at inflicting defeat on the battlefield than in influencing American public opinion." [Nalty, p. 326.] The consensus at MACV, however, was that such an offensive would be launched against II Corps, in the Central Highlands. When the offensive did not occur, both he and his headquarters were ridiculed in the American press for crying wolf. [Andrade, p. 238] ["Life" magazine, 24 March 1972.] The moment of crisis seemed to have passed, and, by the end of March, allied forces that had been standing in readiness were returned to pacification efforts. [Palmer, p. 316.] U.S. Ambassador, Ellsworth Bunker, left for Nepal while General Abrams went to Thailand to spend the Easter holiday with his family. [Palmer, p. 316.] The ARVN units upon which the initial might of the North Vietnamese was to fall included the 1st and 3rd Infantry Divisions in Quang Tri and Thua Thien Provinces, and the 2nd Division, further south. This force was supplemented by two brigades of Marines (the 147th and 258th), the 51st Infantry Regiment, the 1st Ranger Group, and Regional and Popular Forces - approximately 30,000 men. [Andrade, p. 46.] The units were, however, fixed in static defensive positions and lacked adequate mobile reserves. [Andrade, p. 47.]

Bearing the initial brunt of the attack would be the 3rd Division, created in October 1971 and located in an arc of outposts near the DMZ to replace departing American troops. To create the new unit, the 1st Division (arguably ARVN's best unit) was stripped of its 2nd Regiment, and the 11th Armored Cavalry was brought up from the I Corps reserve. Both units were experienced, well-trained, equipped, and led. The 3rd Division's other two regiments, the 56th and 57th, however, were made up of recaptured deserters, men released from jail, and regional and provincial forces. [Andrade, p. 49. This contention was challenged by General Ngo Quang Truong as false in his "The Easter Offensive of 1972". Washington DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1984, p. 18.] It was led by cast-off officers and sergeants from other units. Like other ARVN units at this stage of the conflict, the division was suffering from a dearth of American advisors, who by then served only at regimental, brigade, and divisional headquarters.

Because of the general belief that the North Vietnamese would not violate the sacrosanct boundary, the unit was stationed in the relatively "safe" area directly below the DMZ. The division was commanded by newly-promoted Brigadier General Vu Van Giai, the former deputy commander of the 1st Division. The I Corps commander, Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam was an officer who epitomized the indecisiveness and ineffectiveness of Saigon's command structure, as had been discovered all too blatantly during Operation "Lam Son 719". [Andrade, p. 46.] Lam concentrated on administrative matters and left tactical decisions to his subordinate commanders. Considering the circumstances, this was a workable solution, but only so long as his division commanders encountered no major difficulties.

U.S. intelligence had been squabbling over a possible PAVN cross-DMZ attack during the months preceding the offensive. DIA analysts "cautiously" predicted such a contingency, while the CIA downplayed the possibility. The General Lam's American advisors agreed with his assessment that a blatant North Vietnamese violation of the Geneva accord was unlikely. [Andrade, pgs. 67 & 68.] When the weekend of Easter 1972 arrived, General Giai had planned to rotate the operational areas of his 56th Regiment (along the central DMZ) with the 2nd Regiment (around the artillery base at Camp Carrol in the west). Because of a truck shortage, however, the units were moved simultaneously and became hopelessly intermixed and disorganized. At 11:30 on 30 March, both unit's headquarters shut down their radios for the exchange of operational areas. [Andrade, p. 52.] With communications fragmented, its units entangled, and the weather bad enough to prevent aerial operations, the 3rd Division offered the massed PAVN forces to the north an irresistible target. [Fulgham & Maitland, p. 129.]


Northern collapse

The offensive began at noon on 30 March 1972, when an intense artillery barrage rained down on the northernmost ARVN outposts in Quang Tri Province. Two PAVN divisions (the 304th and 308th - approximately 30,000 troops) supported by more than 200 tanks then rolled over the Demilitarized Zone to attack I Corps, the five northernmost provinces of South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese 308th Division and two independent regiments assaulted the "ring of steel," the arc of ARVN firebases just south of the DMZ. From the west, the 334B PAVN Division, including an armoured regiment, moved out of Laos along Highway 9, past Khe Sanh, and into the Quang Tri River Valley. Significantly, allied intelligence had failed to predict either the scale of the offensive or the method of attack, giving PAVN "the inestimable benefit of shock effect, a crucial psychological edge over defenders who had expected something quite different." [Palmer, p. 317.] On 1 April, General Giai, ordered a withdrawal of the 3rd Division south of the Cua Viet River in order for his troops to reorganize. The following morning, ARVN armoured elements held off a PAVN attempt to cross the river at Dong Ha by destroying the bridge there. [Truong, p. 29.] The initial PAVN units were then joined by the 320B and 325C Divisions. Simultaneously, the 324B Division moved out of the A Shau Valley and advanced directly eastward toward Fire Bases Bastogne and Checkmate, which protected the old imperial capital of Hue from the west.

The North Vietnamese advance had been timed to coincide with the seasonal monsoon, whose 500-foot cloud ceilings negated many U.S. airstrikes. [This situation was exacerbated by the attempt to rescue Air Force pilot LtCol Iceal Hambleton ("Bat-21"), who had been shot down on the 2nd by a surface-to-air missile behind PAVN lines. During the 12-day attempt to rescue him, a no-bombing/no-shelling zone was imposed south and west of the Cam Lo River, a tragic decision for the 3rd Division. Andrade, pgs. 94-95.] PAVN advance elements also soon followed by antiaircraft units armed with new ZSU-57-2 tracked weapon platforms and man-portable, shoulder-fired Grail missiles, which made low-level bombing attacks hazardous. Camp Carrol, an artillery firebase halfway between the Laotian border and the coast, was the linchpin of the South Vietnamese northern and western defense line and was the strongest obstacle to the North Vietnamese before Quang Tri City. On 2 April Colonel Phan Van Dinh, commander of the 56th ARVN Regiment, surrendered the camp and his 1,500 troops with barely a shot being fired. [Truong, p. 30.] Later in the day, ARVN troops abandoned Mai Loc, the last western base. This allowed North Vietnamese forces to cross the Cam Lo bridge, 11 kilometers to the west of Dong Ha. PAVN then had almost unrestricted access to western Quang Tri Province north of the Thach Han River.

The PAVN advance was slowed by delaying actions for three weeks, and the South Vietnamese launched several counterattacks, but on the morning of 27 April, the North Vietnamese came on again, launching multi-pronged attacks against Dong Ha (which fell on the following day) and advancing to within 1.5 kilometers of Quang Tri City. General Giai had planned a staged withdrawal from the city to consolidate south of the Thach Han, but bewildered by conflicting orders from Lam and Giai, most ARVN formations splintered and then collapsed, conceding most of the province north of the city. [Truong, p. 38. See also Fulgham & Maitland, pgs. 145-147. For those units that did not fall apart, see ibid., p. 147. For Lam's culpability, see Andrade, p. 150.] On 29 April, Giai ordered a general retreat to the My Chanh River, thirteen kilometers to the south. U.S. military advisors in Quang Tri called for emergency helicopter extraction and, on 1 May, 132 survivors were evacuated from Quang Tri, including 80 U.S. soldiers.The exodus of ARVN forces was joined by tens of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians fleeing from the fighting. As the mass of humanity jostled and shoved its way south on Highway 1, it presented an inviting target for North Vietnamese artillerists. [Truong, pgs. 45 & 46.] They were soon joined by PAVN infantry, who moved by the flank to attack the column. ARVN units, with no leadership and all unit cohesion gone, could muster no defense. Meanwhile, to the west, Fire Support Bases Bastogne and Checkmate had fallen after staunch ARVN defense and massive B-52 strikes, which inflicted heavy casualties. [Sorley, p. 329.] On 21 April Abrams notified the U.S. Secretary of Defense that

In summary...the pressure is mounting and the battle has become brutal...the senior military leadership has begun to bend and in some cases to break. In adversity it is losing its will and cannot be depended upon to take the measures necessary to stand and fight. [Sorley, p. 330.]
Giai evacuated the last of his forces from Quang Tri City, which fell to PAVN forces on 2 May. That same day General Lam was summoned to Saigon for a meeting with President Nguyen Van Thieu. He was relieved of command of I Corps and replaced by Lieutenant General Ngo Quang Truong, commander of III Corps and one of the ablest ARVN generals. [Andrade, p. 171. Instead of sacking Lam for poor leadership, Thieu promoted the politically connected general to the Ministry of Defense.] Truong's mission was to defend the old imperial capital of Hue, minimize further losses, and retake captured territory. Although saddled with raw troops and constantly countermanded by his superiors, General Giai had conducted a reasonably good defense. Even Truong pleaded his case with Thieu, wanting to keep Giai in command of the 3rd Division. [Truong, pgs. 62 & 166.] It was in vain. Giai, who was to be made the scapegoat for the collapse, was tried for "desertion in the face of the enemy," and sentenced to five years in prison. [Fulgham & Maitland, p. 150.]

An Loc

The initial wave of the offensive was followed on 5 April by a PAVN advance out of Cambodia into Binh Long Province, northeast of Saigon. Its targets were the towns and airfields at Loc Ninh, Quan Loi, and An Loc. The possible initial goals of the offensive in III Corps remain unclear, but probably began as probes that, if successful, could be easily reinforced. [Andrade, p. 373.] The invasion was launched from Cambodian Base Area 708 by the B-2 Front's 5th PAVN/NLF Division and 203rd Armoured Regiment, which advanced down Highway 9 toward the border outpost of Loc Ninh. There, the 2,000 men of the ARVN 9th Regiment and a battalion of Rangers beat back five separate infantry/armor assaults before collapsing under the attack on 7 April. [Truong, p. 115.] The North Vietnamese then isolated the 25th ARVN Division in neighboring Tay Ninh Province by sending two regiments to attack its forward outposts.

Sensing that the provincial capital of An Loc would be the next target, the III Corps commander, Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Minh dispatched the 5th Division to hold the town. They were reinforced by two battalions of the Ranger Group (on 7 April) and by two additional infantry battalions (on 10 April and 11 April). [Truong, p. 116.] The 21st Infantry Division, which had been stationed in the Mekong Delta, was rushed to Chon Thanh to join a regiment of the 9th Infantry Division as a relief force. All forces in the area were placed under the command of Brigadier General Le Van Hung, commander of the 5th Division. [On 30 April 1975, Le Van Hung, "the hero of An Loc," committed suicide rather than surrender to victorious PAVN forces.]

The move was fortuitous for the South Vietnamese, since communist forces were indeed proceeding eastward toward An Loc. Simultaneously, the 7th PAVN Division bypassed the town and moved south along Highway 13 to block any relief effort launched from Chon Thanh. The communists had decided that An Loc, with its close proximity to Saigon, would be proclaimed as the capital of the Provisional Revolutionary Government, but even if they had been able to seize the town, they would never have been able to hold it. American air power would have made such an eventuality impossible. [Andrade, p. 373.] By 13 April, An Loc was surrounded and under a combined artillery, armored, and infantry attack by the 9th PAVN/NLF Division. North Vietnamese forces advanced on the town through a deluge rockets, bombs, and napalm delivered by U.S. and South Vietnamese aircraft supported by massed artillery, tank, and small arms fire. Inside the town, the contingent of U.S. advisors became essential to the defense, serving as a separate staff organizing fire and air support, logistics, and intelligence. Colonel William Miller, the senior U.S. advisor, was not happy with General Hung's continuous reluctance to launch counterattacks and his reliance on U.S. air power to defeat the North Vietnamese. His hesitation and lack of motivation prompted Miller to report that: "He is tired - unstable - irrational - irritable - inadvisable - and unapproachable." [Andrade, p. 439.]

The communist attacks persisted and PAVN forces eventually battered their way into the town, seizing the airfield and reducing the ARVN perimeter to about a square kilometer. During another assault on the 21st, PAVN tanks actually forced their way through the defense perimeter but were held at bay and then destroyed by anti-tank weapons and helicopter gunships. North Vietnamese infantry did, however, manage to seize most of the northern sector of the town, where they began digging in (often right across the street from the ARVN defenders). The initial shock of ARVN troops instilled by North Vietnamese armor was soon abated when they discovered that, because the supporting infantry failed to advance with the tanks, they became easy prey for anti-tank weapons. [Truong, p. 119.] On other occasions, the opposite would occur, with massed infantry assaults moving forward without armored support. This failure of tactical coordination was one of PAVN's prime weaknesses during the offensive, and one that the allies were quick to exploit.As a result of his failure to seize the town quickly, the commander of the 9th Division was officially reprimanded and local command was handed over the senior officer of the 5th PAVN/NLF Division. [Fulgham & Maitland, p. 153.] Besides the lack of coordination, the major difficulty for the North Vietnamese was the rain of ordnance delivered upon them by incessant air strikes, which further reduced manpower and made resupply difficult. After the failure of the assault on 21 April, the battle devolved into a siege, with the North Vietnamese pounding An Loc and its defenders with 1,200 to 2,000 mortar, rocket, and artillery rounds per day. [Maj A.J.C. Lavalle, "Air Power and the 1972 Spring Invasion". Washington DC: Office of Air force History, 1985, p. 86.] An Loc was completely surrounded and could only be resupplied by air, a situation made more difficult by the loss of the airfield. Resupply was accomplished, however, by 448 aerial missions which managed to deliver 2,693 tons of air-dropped food, medical supplies, and ammunition. [General William W. Momyer, "The Vietnamese Air Force". Washington DC: Office of Air Force History, 1975, p. 50.] From 22 April to 10 May the tactical situation remained stable at what the "Paris Match" was calling "a Verdun or a Stalingrad" in III Corps. ["Paris Match", 5 July 1972.] On the morning of 11 May, another North Vietnamese assault was launched after being preceded by an artillery bombardment that fired over 8,300 shells into a defense perimeter that had shrunk to a mere 1,000 by 1,500 yards before the day was over. [Andrade, p. 472.] PAVN forces again forced their way into An Loc, but the effort collapsed in the face of tremendous aerial attack which cost the North Vietnamese 40 tanks and over 800 men. [Momyer, p. 47.] The reasons for the failure were not hard to discern. Beginning at 05:30 that morning and continuing for the next 25 hours, the U.S. Air Force delivered a B-52 strike every 55 minutes to support the defense. [Fulgham & Maitland, p. 153.] For the next three days, each time PAVN troops assembled to resume the attack, the were bombed in their assembly areas.

A relief effort had been launched by the 21st ARVN Division, but it never arrived at An Loc. For three weeks the division crept northward along Highway 13 but it was held up by constant delaying actions by smaller PAVN forces. Although the division never reached its goal, it may have inadvertently saved the beleaguered city by eventually diverting almost all of the elements of the 7th PAVN Division from the fighting. The climactic attack on An Loc was launched on 14 May, when the North Vietnamese attacked directly into the teeth of the ARVN defense. The failed assault was described by Colonel Walt Ulmer, the 5th Division's senior advisor: "they were simply trying to pile on and pile on and pile on. They frittered away an awful lot of manpower." [Fulgham & Maitland, p. 154.]

Although North Vietnamese forces remained in the area and continued to shell An Loc heavily, the impetus of their offensive was over. By 12 June the last PAVN forces were driven from the city and its environs and over 1,000 ARVN wounded were evacuated. [Lavalle, p. 104.] Slowly, the decimated North Vietnamese units faded away to the north and west as others covered their withdrawal. On 18 June the headquarters of III Corps declared the siege to be over. The Saigon government claimed that 8,000 South Vietnamese had been killed or wounded at An Loc, approximately 1,000 of whom were civilians. American sources claimed that 25,000 PAVN or NLF troops had been killed during the action, although those numbers could never be confirmed. [Andrade, pgs. 499 & 500.] .


The objective PAVN forces during the third phase of the "Nguyen Hue Offensive" was to seize the cities of Kontum and Pleiku, thereby overrunning the Central Highlands. This would then open the possibility of proceeding east to the coastal plains, splitting South Vietnam in two. The highlands offensive was preceded by NLF diversionary operations that opened on 5 April in coastal Binh Dinh Province which aimed at closing Highway 1, seizing several ARVN firebases, and diverting South Vietnamese forces from operations further west. North Vietnamese forces, under the command of Lieutenant General Hoang Minh Thao, commander of the B-3 Front, included the 320th and 2nd PAVN Divisions in the highlands and the 3rd PAVN Division in the lowlands - approximately 50,000 men. [Andrade, p. 241.] Arrayed against them in II Corps were the ARVN 22nd and 23rd Divisions, two armored cavalry squadrons, and the 2nd Airborne Brigade, all under the command of Lieutenant General Ngo Dzu. It had become evident as early as January that the North Vietnamese were building up for offensive operations in the tri-border region and numerous B-52 strikes had been conducted in the area in hopes of slowing the build-up. ARVN forces had also been deployed forward toward the border in order to slow the PAVN advance and allow the application of airpower to deplete North Vietnamese manpower and logistics. [Andrade, p. 241.] The Binh Dinh offensive, however, threw General Dzu into a panic and almost convinced him to fall for the North Vietnamese ploy and divert his forces from the highlands.

John Paul Vann, director of the U.S. Second Regional Assistance Group, reassured Dzu that it was only a ruse and to remain ready for the main blow, which he was convinced would come from western Laos. [Andrade, p. 252.] John Vann, although a civilian, had been granted the unique authority to command all U.S. military advisors within his region. [A civilian official had never before in American history assumed the position of a general and commanded U.S. military forces in the field during wartime. Neil Sheehan, "A Bright Shining Lie". New York: Random House, 1988, p. 749. A retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel with ten years of experience in Vietnam, Vann had become notorious for his outspoken criticism of both his superiors and the U.S. conduct of the war after his arrival in South Vietnam in 1962, and had been forced to resign his Army commission. Almost a decade after leaving the U.S. military under a personal and professional cloud, Vann had risen to the equivalent rank of general.] Vann worked day and night, utilizing his extensive civilian and military contacts to channel U.S. support (especially air support) to the region. Major General John Hill, Dzu's senior military advisor, described Vann's extraordinary actions: "The rest of us organized around Vann's personal efforts and concentrated on getting the resources marshalled to take advantage of the leadership he was exerting with the Vietnamese." [Fulgham & Maitland, p. 156.] To counter the possible threat from the west, Dzu had deployed two regiments of the 22nd Division to Tan Canh and Dak To II and two armored squadrons to Ben Het. [The forward deployment of the division had actually been Vann's idea. Although Dzu would not always do as Vann wanted, he did so enough times for the more xenophobic members of his staff to mock him as "the slave of John Paul Vann." Sheehan, p. 759.] On 12 April, the 2nd PAVN Division, elements of the 203rd Tank Regiment, and several independent regiments of the B-3 Front attacked the outpost at Tan Canh and the nearby firebase at Dak To. When the ARVN armor moved out of Ben Het toward Dak To II, it was ambushed and eliminated. Overwhelmed, the South Vietnamese defense northwest of Kontum quickly disintegrated, placing the command of III Corps in a quandary. With the rest of the 22nd Division covering the coast, there were few forces left to defend the provincial capital of Kontum.

Inexplicaby, the North Vietnamese southern advance halted for three crucial weeks. While the northern crisis waned, however, General Dzu began to unravel, finding it increasingly difficult to make decisive decisions. Vann gave up all pretext of South Vietnamese command, took over himself, and openly issued orders. He placed responsibility for the defense of the city of Kontum on the shoulders of Ly Tong Ba, commander of the 23rd Division. [Andrade, p. 286. It was indicative of the ARVN command structure that Ba, a skilled and aggressive commander with few political connections, was the only divisional commander of such low rank.] Vann then utilized massive B-52 strikes to hold the North Vietnamese at arm's length and reduce their numbers while he managed to find additional troops with which to stabilize the situation.

By 14 May, North Vietnamese forces had reached Kontum and launched their main assault. The 320th PAVN Division, the 1st and 141st Regiments of the 2nd PAVN Division, and elements of the 203rd Tank Regiment attacked the city from the north, south, and west. By the time of the assault, the city mustered a defensive force that consisted of the 23rd Division and several Ranger groups. Their three-week delay cost the North Vietnamese dearly. By 14 May the worst of the fighting in I and II Corps was over and a majority of the B-52s were free to concentrate on the Central Highlands. [It was not uncommon for Vann to lobby hard to obtain 21 of the 25 B-52 flights coming into South Vietnam every day. Between 14 May and 7 June, approximately 300 B-52 strikes were conducted in the environs of Kontum. Sheehan, p. 783.] During the North Vietnamese attack, the positions of the 44th and 45th ARVN Regiments crumbled and were overrun, but a well-placed B-52 strike landed directly on the PAVN attackers at the point of the breakthrough. The next morning, when the South Vietnamese returned to their former positions unopposed, 400 bodies were discovered, along with seven destroyed tanks. [Andrade, p. 322.] At Vann's insistence, a personnel shake-up took place in III Corps when President Thieu replaced Dzu with Major General Nguyen Van Toan, whose outwardly confident and assertive nature was the complete opposite of Dzu's. [Toan, one of South Vietnam's most undistinguished officers, had been General Lam's assistant operations officer in I Corps during the opening phase of the offensive and had no wish to follow his former commander into ignominy. He assumed administrative control and conceded all command functions to Vann and Ba. Andrade, p. 313.] The actions at Kontum for the following two weeks became characterized by massed PAVN assaults that were lashed by B-52, tactical air, and helicopter gunship attacks. ARVN troops then counterattacked over the remains of the attacking wave. On 26 May, four North Vietnamese regiments supported by armored forces managed to punch a hole in the defense, but their advance was halted by U.S. helicopters firing new, tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided (TOW) missiles. During the following three days of fighting, 24 North Vietnamese T-54 tanks were destroyed by TOWs and the breach was sealed. [85 TOWs were fired in combat during the offensive, only ten of which were counted as misses. Andrade, p. 318.]

With the aid of the U.S. and South Vietnamese air forces and despite severe losses, ARVN managed to hold Kontum during the remainder of the battle. By early June, the North Vietnamese faded back to the west, leaving behind over 4,000 dead on the battlefield. [Andrade, p. 356.] It was estimated by U.S. intelligence that total PAVN casualties in the Central Highlands during the offensive totaled between 20,00 and 40,000 troops. [Andrade, p. 368. These figures were derived from Project CHECO's "Kontum: Battle for the Central Highlands," 27 October 1972, pgs. 88-89.] John Vann did not have time to savor his victory. While returning to Kontum from a briefing in Saigon on 9 June, he was killed in a helicopter crash. [Plaudits were showered upon Vann after his death. He had risen to become "the indispensable man" and "the heart and soul of the defense of Kontum." Andrade, p. 363. Even his enemy paid him a reverse tribute by exulting in his end, calling the death of "this outstanding chief advisor" "a stunning blow" against the U.S. and Saigon. Sheehan, p. 786.]

Air support, "Freedom Train", and "Linebacker"

The North Vietnamese had timed their offensive well by having it coincide with the end of the annual winter monsoon when low cloud cover and rain provided a blanket under which the offensive could proceed without interference by allied aerial attack. Air strikes were possible only by all-weather fighters or bombers, which could deliver their ordnance accurately through the cloud cover by radar direction or LORAN. [Nalty, p. 358.] These missions were conducted by aircraft assigned to the U.S. Seventh Air Force and Seventh/Thirteenth Air Force in South Vietnam and Thailand or by the U.S. Navy's Task Force 77, offshore in the South China Sea.Besides the weather the most serious problem facing the Americans was that the drawdown of U.S. forces during the previous four years had included valuable ground support aircraft and their maintenance crews. By the spring of 1973, the U.S. Air Force had only three squadrons of F-4 Phantoms and one of A-37 Dragonflys available in the Republic of Vietnam, a total of 76 aircraft. Another 114 fighter-bombers were stationed at various bases in Thailand. 83 B-52 Stratofortress heavy bombers were located at U-Tapao RTAFB and at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. [Earl H. Tilford, "Setup". Maxwell Air force Base AL: Air University Press, pgs. 223-224.] Task Force 77 had four carriers assigned to it, but only two, "Coral Sea" and "Hancock" were on station at the onset of the offensive. Their air wings totaled 140 strike aircraft. [John Morocco, "Rain of Fire". Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1984, p. 170.]

To rectify the aircraft shortage, from 7 April to 13 May 176 F-4s and 12 F-105 Thunderchiefs were transferred from air bases in the Republic of Korea and the continental U.S. to Thailand during Operation "Constant Guard" I-IV. [Lavalle, pgs. 19 & 23-26.] Between 5 February and 23 May, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) reinforced Guam during Operation "Bullet Shot" I-V with a further 124 bombers, bringing the total available in-theater to 209. [Tilford, p. 224. See also Lavalle, p. 27.] The Seventh Fleet was also beefed up by the addition of four aircraft carrier groups, including those of the "Kitty Hawk", "Constellation", "Midway", and "Saratoga". This made four carriers available at any one time to conduct aerial operations. [Lavalle, p. 17.] The South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) at this time consisted of nine squadrons of A-1 Skyraiders, A-37s, and F-5 Freedom Fighters, a total of 119 strike aircraft. There were also two squadrons of AC-47 or AC-119 fixed-wing gunships, totaling of 28 aircraft. [Nalty, p. 333.] The weather conditions made early ground support haphazard, and these difficulties were compounded by North Vietnamese anti-aircraft units, which advanced behind the front line elements. PAVN moved 85 and 100 mm radar-directed batteries south of the DMZ and, on 17 February, 81 SA-2 Guideline missiles were launched from the DMZ area, downing three F-4s. [Lavalle, p. 34.] This heralded the furthest southern advance of SA-2 units thus far during the conflict. This classic high-low anti-aircraft coverage made aerial attacks extremely hazardous, especially when it was enhanced by the new shoulder-fired Grail.

The loss of the northern firebases early in the offensive in I Corps made U.S. naval gunfire the primary source of artillery support in that area. U.S. Marine Corps gunfire observers were then assigned to fly with forward air controllers, providing coordinates for shore targets. [Lavalle, p. 46.] At the height of the offensive three U.S. cruisers and 38 destroyers were providing naval gunfire support. [Sorley, p. 326.] With clearing weather the number of aircraft sorties soard. Between April and June there were 18,000 combat sorties flown to support the ARVN defense, 45 percent by the U.S. Air Force, 30 percent by the Navy and Marine Corps, and 25 percent by the VNAF. B-52s flew an additional 2,724 sorties. Ten U.S. and six VNAF aircraft were lost to SAM or anti-aircraft fire. [Nalty, p. 369-370.]

On 4 April, reacting to the fierceness of the offensive, President Nixon authorized tactical airstrikes from the DMZ north to the 18th parallel, the southern panhandle of North Vietnam. This supply interdiction effort was the first systematic bombing carried out in North Vietnam proper since the end of Operation Rolling Thunder in November, 1968. Airstrikes north of the 20th parallel were authorized on 5 April under the cover name Operation "Freedom Train". [Tilford, p. 228.] The first B-52 strike of the new operation was conducted on the 10th. President Nixon then decided to up the ante by targeting Hanoi and Haiphong. Between 1 May and 30 June, B-52s, fighter-bombers, and fixed-wing gunships had carried out 18,000 sorties over North Vietnam and suffered 29 aircraft losses. [Michael Casey, Clark Dougan, Samuel Lispman, et al, "Flags into Battle". Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1987, p. 39.] On 8 May Nixon authorized the launching of Operation Pocket Money, the aerial mining of Haiphong and other North Vietnamese ports. Nixon had taken a gamble that Soviet Union, with which he was conducting negotiations for a strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT I), would withhold a negative reaction in return for improved relations with the West. He was correct. The People's Republic of China also muted any overt response to the escalatory measures for the same reason. Emboldened, Nixon decided to launch Operation "Linebacker" a systematic aerial assault on North Vietnam's transportation, storage, and air defense systems on 10 May. During "Linebacker", the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps lost 134 aircraft while their North Vietnamese opponents lost 54. [Tilford, p. 245.]

Hue and the counteroffensive

Hoping to break the stalemate that was developing on the northern front, Lieutenant General Tran Van Quang, commander of the B-4 Front, attacked west from the A Shau Valley toward Hue with the 324B Division. Spoiling attacks by the 1st ARVN Division, however, threw off the timetable. [Andrade, pgs. 181 & 182.] On 28 April the 29th and 803rd PAVN Regiments seized Firebase Bastogne, the strongest anchor on Hue's western flank. [Truong, p. 49.] This made Firebase Checkmate untenable, and it too was evacuated that night. This exposed Hue to a direct thrust along Route 547. On 2 May PAVN forces south of Hue tried to surround the city. [Andrade, p. 187.] The North Vietnamese also attempted to press their attack southward down Highway 1 and across the Thach Han to Hue, but, fortunately for the South Vietnamese, after Truong took command, the 1st and Marine Divisions were reinforced by the 2nd and 3rd Brigades of the Airborne Division (which now totaled three brigades), and the reorganized 1st Ranger Group, raising the ARVN manpower total to 35,000. [Truong, pgs. 56 & 57. See also Andrade, p. 190.] Also fortuitous was a one-week clearing of the weather, which allowed the application of massive U.S. bombing. The North Vietnamese advance was halted on 5 May.

By mid-May, Truong felt strong enough to go on the offensive in a series of limited attacks, feints, and raids codenamed "Song Than" (Tidal Wave) that were planned to throw the North Vietnamese off balance, enlarge the defensive perimeter around Hue, and deny the enemy time and space to maneuver. [Andrade, p. 198.] Between 15 and 20 May, Firebases Bastogne and Checkmate were recaptured. PAVN forces then launched another attempt to take the city on 21 May, losing 18 tanks and approximately 800 men in the process. On 25 May a second North Vietnamese assault managed to cross the river, but ARVN defenders put up ferocious resistance, forcing their enemy back across on the 29th. [Lavalle, pgs. 56-58.] This was the last serious assault on the defenses of Hue. Major General Frederick J. Kroesen, senior U.S. advisor in I Corps, believed that the fall of Quang Tri should have heralded the fall of Hue, but the North Vietnamese had not exploited their opportunity quickly enough. "That he failed completely to take advantage of the moment must be classed as another great blunder of the Quang Tri campaign." [Andrade, p. 176.] By mid-June, clearing weather allowed more accurate aerial bombardment and shelling from U.S. warships offshore. On the 14th, Truong briefed President Thieu and MACV on his planned counterattack to retake Quang Tri Province. Thieu was not convinced, preferring a smaller-scale operation. [Truong, p. 66.] The persistent Truong finally convinced the president, emphasizing that such an effort would be possible "employing the superior firepower of our American ally." [Nalty, p. 391.] Thieu finally approved the concept. Truong launched Operation "Lam Son 72" on 28 June. The 1st Division continued its westward push toward Laos while the Airborne and Marine Divisions, the 1st Ranger Group, and the 7th Armored Cavalry moved north to retake Quang Tri. The Airborne Division led the way and, utilizing airmobile end-runs and the North Vietnamese were slowly levered out of their defensive positions. [Truong, p. 65.] The division then advanced to the outskirts of Quang Tri City within ten days, but then President Thieu intervened in the operation. Truong had planned to bypass the city and push on quickly to the Cua Viet River, thereby isolating any PAVN defenders. [Truong, p. 67.] Thieu, however, now demanded that Quang Tri be taken immediately, seeing the city as "a symbol and a challenge" to his authority. [Truong, p. 89.]

It was not going to be an easy task for General Truong. The ARVN assault bogged down in the outskirts and the North Vietnamese, appraised of the plans for the offensive, moved the 304th and 208th Divisions to the west to avoid the U.S. airpower that was about to be unleashed upon Quang Tri. [Andrade, pgs. 211 & 213.] The defense of the city and its walled citadel was left to PAVN replacement units and militia. Recalled one participant: "The new recruits came in at dusk. They were dead by dawn...No one had time to check where they were from, or who was their commander." [Andrade, p. 213.] Others described the defense as a "senseless sacrifice" and referred to Quang Tri as "Hamburger City". [Andrade, p. 213.] On 11 July the ARVN Marine Division launched a heli-borne assault north and east of the city which would cut the last remaining road and force the North Vietnamese to reinforce and resupply across the Thach Han River, making them vulnerable to air strikes. After a vicious, three-day battle against the 48th Regiment of the 320B PAVN Division, North Vietnamese forces broke and withdrew. [Fulgham & Maitland, p. 178-180.]

During the month of July, American aircraft flew 5,461 tactical sorties and 2,054 B-52 strikes to support the counteroffensive. [Andrade, p. 212.] On 27 July, the ARVN Marine Division was ordered to relieve the Airborne units as the lead element in the battle. But progress was slow, consisting of vicious house-to-house fighting and incessant artillery barrages by both sides. On 8 September the assault to capture the heavily-defended citadel was launched and it was finally taken on 16 September. Truong's forces then advanced to the southern bank of the Thach Han River, where they halted, exhausted and depleted by heavy casualties and unable to push on to Dong Ha. [Almost one out of every four of the 8,000 ARVN Marines in the division had been killed or wounded during "Lam Son 72". Andrade, p. 226.]


At the conclusion of the ARVN counteroffensive, both sides were too exhausted to continue their efforts. Both sides, however, considered their efforts to have been successful. The South Vietnamese and Americans believed the policy of Vietnamization had been validated. [Palmer, p. 324.] The internal weaknesses of the South Vietnamese command structure, which had been rectified somewhat during the emergency, also reappeared once it had passed. During the operations, more than 25,000 South Vietnamese civilians had been killed and almost a million became refugees, 600,000 of whom were living in camps under government care. [Andrade, p. 529.] American casualties for all of 1972 totaled only 198, most of whom were killed during the offensive. [Andrade, p. 531.] Hanoi, which had committed 14 divisions and 26 independent regiments to the offensive (virtually its entire army), had suffered approximately 100,000 casualties and 450 tanks destroyed. [Andrade, p. 536.] In return, it had gained permanent control of half of the four northernmost provinces—Quang Tri, Thua Thien, Quang Nam, and Quang Tin—as well as the western fringes of the II and III Corps sectors (around ten percent of the country). The North Vietnamese leadership had made two grave miscalculations concerning the abilities of its enemies. The first was to underestimate the fighting ability of the ARVN, which by 1972 had become one of the best-equipped armies in the world; the second was a failure to grasp the destructiveness of American air power unleashed against an enemy that was now fighting a conventional battle. Combined with these strategic errors, PAVN commanders had also thrown away their local numerical superiority by making repeated frontal attacks into heavy defensive fire, and suffered massive casualties as a consequence. Hanoi, however, wasted no time in making use of what it had gained. The North Vietnamese immediately began to extend their supply corridors from Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam. The PAVN rapidly expanded port facilities at the captured town of Dong Ha, and within a year over 20 percent of the materiel destined for the southern battlefield was flowing across its docks. [Fulgham & Maitland, p. 183.]

In Paris the peace negotiations continued, but this time round, both sides were willing to make concessions. The chief American negotiator, Dr. Henry Kissinger, offered a cease-fire in place, recognition of the PRG by the Saigon government, and total American withdrawal from South Vietnam as incentives. These terms were actually enough to meet the criteria for victory that Hanoi's leaders had established before the offensive began. [Fulgham & Maitland, p.183.] The only obstacle to a settlement then became Nguyen Van Thieu, whose government would have to assent to any agreement. Due to Thieu's intransigence (and his demand that the U.S. not abandon his nation after any agreement) and new demands from Hanoi, the peace talks stalled in December. This led President Nixon to launch Operation Linebacker II, a bombing campaign aimed at North Vietnam's transportation network, especially around Hanoi and Haiphong. The Paris Peace Accords, signed in January 1973, confirmed that PAVN troops would remain in South Vietnam in the areas that they then occupied.

The U.S. ended its involvement in South Vietnam in April 1973. The North Vietnamese then launched their third general offensive (the Ho Chi Minh Campaign) in 1975, and toppled the Saigon government.



Published government documents

* Lavalle, Major A.J.C., ed. "Air Power and the 1972 Spring Invasion". Washington DC: Office of Air Force History, 1985.
* Momyer, General William W. "The Vietnamese Air Force, 1951-1975, An Analysis of its Role in Combat". Washington DC: Office of Air Force History, 1975.
* Nalty, Bernard C. "Air War Over South Vietnam: 1968-1975". Washington DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2000.
* Ngo, Lieutenant General Quang Truong, "The Easter offensive of 1972". Washington DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1980.

econdary sources

* Andrade, Dale. "Trial By Fire: The 1972 Easter Offensive, America's Last Vietnam Battle". New York: Hippocrene Books, 1995.
* Casey, Michael, Clark Dougan, Samuel Lipsman, et al., "Flags Into Battle". Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1987.
* Fulgham, David, Terrence Maitland, "et al." "South Vietnam on Trial: Mid-1970-1972". Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1984.
* Leepson, Marc and Helen Hannaford, "Webster's New World Dictionary of the Vietnam War". New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
* Palmer, Dave Richard, "Summons of the Trumpet: A History of the Vietnam War From A Military Man's Viewpoint". Novato CA: Presidio Press, 1999.
* Sheehan, Neil, "A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam". New York: Random House, 1988.
* Sorley, Lewis, "A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam". New York: Harvest Books, 1999.
* Turley, Colonel G.H. "The Easter Offensive". Novato CA: Presidio Press, 1985.

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