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Phu's last-minute decision to leave behind Brigadier General Cam with vague instructions to "oversee" the withdrawal left Cam confused and angry. Unwilling to share command with newly promoted Pham Van Tat, General Cam jumped on a helicopter and flew to Tuy Hoa, virtually leaving the chief of staff in charge. When Colonel Ly inquired about Brigadier General Tat's whereabouts, he was told that Tat was rounding up Rangers at Kontum and that Ly was to proceed with the evacuation as planned with the 20th Combat Engineer Group leading and General Tat's Ranger Groups guarding the rear. Ly knew that once the withdrawal had begun, he would have little hope of concealing it from the NVA. By day's end on 16 March, the first day of the strategic retreat, the North Vietnamese knew full well the ARVN's intentions, and by the time the lead elements of the South Vietnamese column reached Cheo Reo (Phu Bon's province capital) on the evening of 18 March, the Communists responded with their own surprise. Units of the 520th Division began shelling the stalled column: rockets, mortars, and artillery fire rained down on the evacuating South Vietnamese. The II Corps engineers' unfinished bridge over the Ea Pa River, east of Cheo Reo, had halted the convoy which by now stretched back past the intersection of Route 7B and Highway 14, almost as far as Pleiku. In order to avoid disaster, Colonel Ly walked through the crowd and the line of Jammed vehicles to the command post in Cheo Reo (Hau Bon). He arrived just in time to deploy the 23d Ranger Group at Ban Bleik Pass, a strategic point just west of the capital. The Rangers stopped the NVA'S ground attack on the column's flank and while they held the critical pass, the engineers finished the bridge and Colonel Ly and the battalion commanders got the convoy moving again. That marked the end of the good news as General Phu then ordered Ly to depart Cheo Reo by helicopter. As one writer observed; "From the nineteenth, what leadership there was came from individual battalion and group commanders who led whatever nearby troops would still obey orders."13

NVA General Dung was flabbergasted by the turn of events, and his own words best describe his reaction: "But new if a whole main force army corps was fleeing at full tilt . . . then why? On whose orders? Had our two thunderbolts striking in the southern Tay Nguyen shaken the enemy troops so badly? . . . This was another very big strategic mistake on their part. If the order to pull the Second Army Corps out had been issued by the central government in Saigon, then the matter had surpassed the bounds of this campaign and had reached strategic proportions."14

General Phu was issuing his forces a death sentence, and General Dung was agreeing to serve as the executioner. Dung ordered all of his available forces to close on Route 7B for he planned not Just defeat, but annihilation.

Annihilation began on 21 March as the 520th Division overran the 23d Ranger Group at Cheo Reo and cut the convoy in half, trapping more than 160,000 civilians; the 4th and 25th Ranger Groups; and the survivors of the 23d Rangers. Phu ordered General Tat and the rear guard to escape overland through the jungle. Of the original 7,000 Rangers, 900 actually made it to Nha Trang, the new location of II Corps headquarters. During the retreat, II Corps lost 75 percent of its 20,000-troop strength and of the 5,000 soldiers remaining, none was ready to fight, let alone implement Thieu's plan to retake Ban Me Thout! The flood of evacuees, including thousands of dependents who had clogged the roads and slowed the withdrawal to a chaotic crawl, ended in desperation at Tuy Hoa as approximately 60,000 battered, starving people sought food, water, and refuge where none existed. "One of the most poorly executed withdrawals in the war, and certainly the most tragic, had ended."'5

Given only two days to prepare for what amounted to a massive withdrawal phased over four days, this retreat quickly turned into a rout as one senior leader after another disappeared from the scene of the action. By the third day, 18 March, the last hope for disciplined leadership, organizational control, and any hope of success disappeared with the unscheduled departure of the officer leading the convoy, Colonel Ly. Relentlessly, the Communists pursued this wounded, headless creature. The retreating, slow-moving ARVN column, hampered by the restrictive terrain and masses of civilians, soon became hopelessly disorganized and incapable of retreating in any kind of military manner. The North Vietnamese chased the South Vietnamese to the coast and in the process captured thousands of troops and tons of equipment which ARVN soldiers abandoned in their haste to escape. Improperly and ineptly executed, the withdrawal touched off a series of reactions which ultimately led to the general collapse of the northern and central regions. One author later wrote of the debacle, "The retreat from the highlands was the most drastic change on the Vietnamese military map in twenty years. In less than ten days, it yielded six entire provinces, a

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