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size=5>CHAPTER 8

size=5>The Other Contingency

Marine

Security Guard Detachment, Da 'Nang-Military Region 2: N ha Trong-IIIMAF'and'the

NVA Onslaught 9th MAB and Task Force 7 6-The Brigade

 

Sun Tzu, the great Chinese philosopher on warfare, wrote in

500 BC: 'Generally, in war the best policy is to take a state intact; to ruin it

is inferior to this.''

As the final events unfolded in

Cambodia, many experts wondered if the same fate awaited South Vietnam. The

disaster which befell Military Region l had come as a surprise to many including

the Ford administration and Ambassador Martin who was in North Carolina

recuperating from dental surgery when the Communists' spring offensive began.

Even the consul general for Da Nang, Albert A. Francis, did not expect the

unraveling which followed Ban Me Thuot. The swiftness of the subsequent events

required his early return from Washington where he had been undergoing treatment

for a thyroid problem. His arrival in Saigon on 22 March was followed closely by

Martin's. The Ambassador was welcomed back by his staff at 0300, 28 March, after

a long flight from Andrews Air Force base on Air Force One. Two days later, the

NVA entered Da Nang, completing its conquest of all five northern provinces and

precipitating a mass exodus of the panicked population.2

Few had planned for such a debacle and

the chaotic panic which ensued. Most of the South Vietnamese leadership,

including President Thieu, thought the Vietnamese Armed Forces (RVNAF) could

successfully defend at least the MR l coastal region: Hue, Da Nang, and Chu Lai.

Lieutenant Colonel Charles A. Barstow,

a member of the DAO staff in 1973-74, in a personal letter to former Commandant

General Wallace M. Greene, Jr., captured the essence of South Vietnam's

post-Accords military strategy: conserve resources and whenever possible use

artillery and air* The Vietnamese seemed to emphasize an avoidance of

engagements with the enemy, a husbanding of forces and military equipment, all

in anticipation of the big battle during which, at just the right moment, they

would strike a fatal blow and defeat the enemy. The 'right time' never arrived,

but it scarcely mattered. Without a reserve division to move around the

battlefield as necessary, any South Vietnamese strategy was suspect.

As a result of the events in the

Central Highlands, and the need to implement his plan to save a truncated South

Vietnam, Thieu ordered the withdrawal of the Airborne Division from MR l. This

fateful decision set in motion an uncontrolled retreat from northern South

Vietnam and the collapse of MR l occurred without even a struggle. Both the

decision and the subsequent collapse were directly attributable to the South

Vietnamese Armed Forces' most glaring weakness, the absence of a strategic

reserve. This serious shortfall, identified in 1973 by Major General John E.

Murray, USA, forced Thieu's hand and in the end precipitated irreversible

problems that possibly could have been avoided had they been addressed when the

Defense Attache first raised his concerns. In his letter to General Greene,

Lieutenant Colonel Barstow wrote:

'I am concerned over the deployment of

troops and units. The Marine and Airborne Divisions, the country's two most

reliable and well-trained, are deployed in static positions in Quang Tri and

Thua Thien Provinces. Any breakthrough in Hue would mean no significant reserve

once the two best are overrun.'3

The decision to use the Airborne

Division to solve the strategic reserve problem contained a very important, but

false assumption: defense of I Corps had no relationship to the people living

there. I Corps Chief of Staff, Colonel Dang, said, 'This [withdrawal of the

Airborne Division] had three bad effects. It reduced our fighting strength; it

reduced the morale of our troops; and it hurt the morale of the population. It

upset the balance of forces.'4

The population trusted the forces that

had guarded them since the cease-fire in 1973, including the Marine brigades

north of Hue. When these units redeployed, the Vietnamese voted with their feet

on the wisdom of this strategy by beginning a mass exodus to Da Nang. According

to ARVN I Corps officers, '. . .

*Lieutenant Colonel Barstow wrote, 'My

initial impression, General, is that we are still suffering from the 'Whiz

Kids.' The [South Vietnamese] Army has been fed too much sophisticated equipment

without being properly trained as to its employment and maintenance. . . .

Further, it appears we have taught the Vietnamese to rely entirely on artillery

and air support, as they seldom close with the enemy.' Barstow Itr.





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