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a bastion of optimism throughout this period, reacted to the forecast by agreeing to a reduction in the size of its security force and by refusing to acknowlege the need for contingency evacuation plans. The conflicting opinions on the extent of the North Vietnamese Army's progress and its offensive capability persisted until the bitter end. Fourteen years later, Strickland proffered his opinion of the consequences of this argument, stating: "Conflicting GVN [Government of Vietnam] decisions at the start of the 1975 NVA offensive were rooted in the disastrous prediction of NVA failure."21
The failure never occurred because of exhaustive efforts by the North Vietnamese to remedy longstanding deficiencies in command and control. Developing new lines of communication became their "peacetime" mission and evidence of significant new construction reflected the priority attached to it. Beginning, not by coincidence, with the ceasefire and immediate freedom from U.S. air interdiction, the Communists built or improved a road network that ran from North Vietnam through the western reaches of the three northernmost regions in South Vietnam. East-west spurs from the main highway ran into the A Shau and Que Son valleys in the northern part of South Vietnam and into the Central Highlands. Aerial photographs in December 1974 revealed the extent of these improvements* In western Thua Thien Province, a mere trail two years prior had become a hard-surface, all-weather road. formerly a trek to South Vietnam on foot consumed 70 days, but now North Vietnamese Army trucks could carry a battalion from North Vietnam to Military Region 3 in less than three weeks. With NVA troops riding instead of walking a majority of the distance, the number of casualties from fatigue, malaria, and other diseases significantly decreased.22
Yet without a sufficient supply of petroleum products, the Communists' road network meant little. North Vietnam could not sustain a major offensive in South Vietnam without a guaranteed source of fuel. To satisfy this need and properly complement their improved LOCs, the NVA constructed an oil pipeline from North Vietnam extending almost to Phuoc Long Province in South Vietnam. The length of pipeline in South Vietnam totalled 280 miles, of which about 270 were constructed after, and in violation of, the ceasefire.23 General Van Tien Dung boasted of this accomplishment: "Alongside the strategic road to the east of Tuong Song range was a 5,000-kilometer-long oil pipeline which ran from Quang Tri through the Tay Nguyen and on to Loc Ninh. . . ."24
With the opening of the pipeline, the NVA no longer had to rely for petroleum, oil and lubricant (POL) on barrels laboriously man-handled into position and cached in the countryside. In addition to the supplies of petroleum which it was able to store in South Vietnam, the NVA by January of 1975 had stockpiled an estimated 65,000 tons of ammunition. One estimate projected that this amount of ammunition could support an operation of the intensity of the 1972 Easter Offensive for at least one year. The Communists now possessed sufficient fuel to put these "bullets" to good use. 25
By enhancing the means of transport which allowed an increase in the frequency of replenishment, the North Vietnamese Army almost doubled the number of artillery pieces and quadrupled the number of tanks it had in South Vietnam. Between January 1973 and January 1975, the enemy increased the number of artillery weapons in the South from 225 to an estimated 400. In armored firepower, the NVA expanded its force from an estimated 150 to approximately 600 100mm gun tanks including Soviet-built T-54s and Chinese Type 59s. Ominously indicating their intentions, the North Vietnamese also augmented their combat power by increasing the number of antiaircraft artillery (AAA) regiments in South Vietnam from 13 to 23. This threat included four battalions of the SA-2 surface-to-air missile, which they deployed in the northern part of South Vietnam, Just below the demilitarized zone, from Khe Sanh to Dong Ha. In addition to the SA-2s, the NVA emplaced radar-directed 85mm and 100mm AAA guns in Military Region l. The North Vietnamese also reintroduced sizeable quantities of the SA-7 (Grail), a man-transportable, shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missile which complemented its improved antiaircraft capability.26 Because of the higher altitude potential of this antiaircraft system, it became increasingly more hazardous and difficult for the South Vietnamese to fly dose air support missions, particularly in the northern provinces. Lieutenant Colonel Strickland recalled that during his tour (June 1973-74), "VNAF [South Vietnamese Air Force] close air support for the Vietnamese Marine Corps was virtually zero."27 With
*Lieutenant Colonel Strickland stated that the road's discovery was reported by VNMC LSB personnel a5 early as August 1973 at which time airborne hand-held photos were provided to the DAO, VNMC, and HQMC. Strickland Comments.
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