Page 73 (The Bitter End)Van Phu, ordered first one regiment and then another of the ARVN 23d Division to launch helicopter-borne counterattacks. The North Vietnamese anticipated this move and antiaircraft units were displaced forward in trail of the attacking tanks and infantry. Many of the troop-laden South Vietnamese helicopters were blasted from the sky. Those troops that did make it into the landing zones found themselves in a cone of fire delivered by five North Vietnamese artillery battalions. Once on the ground they ran headlong into a crowd of panicked, fleeing refugees who turned out to be their dependents. At this point, discipline broke down as many of the soldiers deserted their units and started to search for family members. As a result of this chaos, the fight was never a close one. By 18 March, the defeat of the 23d Division was complete."
While the fighting at Ban Me Thuot was in its final days, a momentous conference took place at Cam Ranh. On 14 March, President Thieu flew there to confer with the II Corps commander, General Pham Van Phu. Thieu told General Phu, the man who had sworn to fight to the last in the Central Highlands, about his plan to defend a truncated South Vietnam. Thieu ordered Phu to abandon the highlands and form a defensive perimeter around the populated areas in the coastal lowlands to include Ban Me Thout. His first priority would be to retake the Darlac capital. Phu, a former prisoner of war as a result of the French surrender at Dien Bien Phu, showed no signs of enthusiasm for recapturing Ban Me Thout or in carrying out the ordered redeployment. Instead, he negotiated and pleaded with President Thieu for the promotion of a Ranger colonel named Pham Van Tat. The reason for this became obvious the next day at Pleiku when the II Corps commander directed the new one-star and his own chief of staff, Colonel Le Khac Ly, to effect the withdrawal. Before General Phu and his entire II Corps staff retired by helicopter from Pleiku to Nha Trang, he told Colonel Ly, " 'We will plan to retake Ban Me Thout from there [Nha Trang].' "Just prior to boarding the helicopter, Phu ordered his deputy for operations. Brigadier General Tran Van Cam, to remain behind as well.12
With Highways 14 and 19 out of Pleiku blocked, Phu's plan called for his corps to make its retreat over long abandoned Interprovincial Route 7B using the element of surprise (General Dung's staff had briefed him that this highway was unusable and therefore not an option should the ARVN try to escape from the Communists' planned encirclement). Despite this advantage, Phu also knew that Route 7B had a number of unusable bridges, some of which were actually missing, and that the final portion of the 135-mile trek would be over terrain which contained numerous land mines. Still Phu believed this was the best choice and he planned to assign the Popular and Regional Force (PF and RF) units holding positions at Pleiku and responsibility for screening the convoy's movement along the escape route. The II Corps commander expected that this action would provide his soldiers enough time to reach the coast. Unfortunately (and possibly on purpose), no one told the PF and RF about the evacuation and consequently they did not cover a withdrawal of which they had no knowledge. General
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