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The Battle to Save South Vietnam

Thomas P. McKenna

Publication Year: 2011

In the spring of 1972, North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam in what became known as the Easter Offensive. Almost all of the American forces had already withdrawn from Vietnam except for a small group of American advisers to the South Vietnamese armed forces. The 23rd ARVN Infantry Division and its American advisers were sent to defend the provincial capital of Kontum in the Central Highlands. They were surrounded and attacked by three enemy divisions with heavy artillery and tanks but, with the help of air power, managed to successfully defend Kontum and prevent South Vietnam from being cut in half and defeated. Although much has been written about the Vietnam War, little of it addresses either the Easter Offensive or the Battle of Kontum. In Kontum: The Battle to Save South Vietnam, Thomas P. McKenna fills this gap, offering the only in-depth account available of this violent engagement. McKenna, a U.S. infantry lieutenant colonel assigned as a military adviser to the 23rd Division, participated in the battle of Kontum and combines his personal experiences with years of interviews and research from primary sources to describe the events leading up to the invasion and the battle itself. Kontum sheds new light on the actions of U.S. advisers in combat during the Vietnam War. McKenna’s book is not only an essential historical resource for America’s most controversial war but a personal story of valor and survival.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: Battles and Campaigns

Front cover

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pp. iv


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pp. vii-viii

List of Maps

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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xvi

From September 1971 to June 1972, I was a US Army infantry lieutenant colonel assigned as a military adviser to the Army of South Vietnam. As one of the participants in the Battle of Kontum, I have tried to describe what we endured there and what we accomplished without indulging in too much of what my grandmother called “tooting your own...

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Prologue: Kontum: Now and Then

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pp. 1-3

If you were to visit Kontum today, you would probably find a peace -the inhabitants would belong to the various ethnic minorities, the people the French called “Montagnards.” The main agricultural products would be coffee, tea, cassava, rubber, and lumber. This pleasant city has a gentle climate. It would be difficult to find any ...

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1. Autumn in the Highlands, 1971

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pp. 5-22

I went to war in a first-class seat on a chartered, civilian jumbo jet. It was September 1971, and I was an infantry lieutenant colonel going back to Vietnam for my second one-year tour there. The airplane was full of military personnel, and the officers were assigned seats in the first-class section. Sitting next...

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2. Fighting in Phu Nhon

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pp. 23-48

A steady stream of NVA soldiers and equipment was flowing toward us down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Staff Sergeant John L. Plaster was a Special Forces soldier in the Studies and Observations Group (SOG) running secret operations deep into Laos and Cambodia. In early October 1971, he was flying as a Covey rider (an airborne controller) with a forward air...

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3. A Hundred Tons of Bombs

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pp. 32-39

We resisted using tactical air strikes against any targets we could hit with our artillery. However, the ARVN artillery had some limitations. During the briefings that the high-ranking US officers visiting II Corps received, some of them complained about the ARVN artillery’s performance. These officers were invariably the ones who had served one or more previous tours in Vietnam with US units that had had an..

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4. The Looming Threat

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pp. 40-43

The heavily armed NVA was moving into position to attack us. During 1971, the Soviets sent 350 ships loaded with war material — a million tons of it — to North Vietnam.1 By 1972, they had replaced all the equipment previously lost by the NVA and VC. The NVA now had more tanks and heavy artillery...

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5. The Year of the Rat

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pp. 44-56

New Year’s Day! It was now 1972, the Year of the Rat in the Asian calendar. Around 140,000 American troops still remained in Vietnam, but only 20,000 of them were in combat units.1 In January, President Nixon announced the withdrawal of 70,000 more Americans to reduce total strength to no more than 69,000 by 1 May.2 Those cuts were soon translated...

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6. The North Vietnamese Invasion

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pp. 57-73

When the Communists would be able to launch their invasion depended in part on the weather. Enemy activity in the Highlands usually peaked from February to April because that was a period of good, dry weather not seriously affected by either monsoon cycle. The monsoon rains started in May, and they...

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7. Attacking in An Khe Pass

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pp. 74-81

Highway 14, the vital main supply route between Pleiku and Kontum, went through the Chu Pao Pass, a place the Americans called “Kontum Pass,” north of Pleiku and about ten kilometers south of Kontum. Chu Pao Mountain dominated the pass, and it was a natural fortress full of caves, making it easy to defend and diffi cult to assault. The Americans called it the “Rock Pile.” In early April, the 95B NVA Regiment seized...

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8. Our Firebases Fall

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pp. 82-94

Although the advisers were supposed to just advise and in fact had no command authority over the ARVN forces, John Paul Vann, a civilian US State Department Foreign Service officer, exempted himself from that rule and essentially assumed command of all the South Vietnamese forces...

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9. The Collapse at Tan Canh

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pp. 95-113

The ARVN 22nd Infantry Division was a large division with four rather than the usual three regiments and four rather than the usual three battalions in each regiment. In February 1972, the division commander was Major General Le Ngoc Trien, an officer who was tired, burned out, and actively lobbying for a new assignment. His deputy, Colonel Le Duc Dat...

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10. A Debacle at Dak To

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pp. 114-124

The ARVN base at Dak To II was five kilometers due west of Tan Canh. There was a small airstrip on slightly higher ground to the north and a steep mountain north of the airfield. The 22nd ARVN Division’s 47th Regiment defended this base. Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Brownlee Jr. was the regimental senior adviser. His deputy was Captain Charles...

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11. A New Team for the Defense

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pp. 125-143

Tan Canh and Dak To II were now held by the enemy, and the 71st and 95th Border Ranger Defense Battalions at Ben Het, the 90th at Dak Seang, and the 88th at Dak Pek were suddenly behind enemy lines. They could be resupplied only by air.1 Brigadier General John G. Hill Jr., Brigadier General Wear’s replacement, had graduated from West Point in 1946...

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12. Closing in on Kontum

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pp. 144-152

After Tan Canh and the outposts fell, John Paul Vann thought his reputation and his career were on the line. He had to win in Kontum or be sacked. That sort of pressure might have crushed a lesser man, but Vann rose to the challenge. It brought out his strengths as a commander, and he used his energy, drive, and personal...

Photo insert

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13. Cut Off and Surrounded

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pp. 153-165

Mr. Vann said that after the fall of Tan Canh and Dak To II the situation in Kontum was so serious and morale there was so low that if the NVA had brought 50 battery-powered tape recorders to play recordings of tank noises—grinding and clanking and motors revving up—over loudspeakers outside the city, the entire...

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14. Tanks Attacking!

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pp. 166-185

Early on 13 May, I flew from Pleiku to Kontum sitting on the floor which the air force loadmaster had tied down. The interior of the airplane was rigged for cargo delivery, so there were no seats, seatbelts, or other restraints. The number of passengers it carried may have set a record for C-141s. When almost 500 ARVN soldiers ...

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15. Struggling to Hold It Together

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pp. 186-207

At 1950 on 15 May, the incoming fire increased in caliber and volume. Our regiment’s front-line elements on the Round Hill were being hit with direct fire from the NVA tanks’ 100-mm main guns. At 2016, four to six T-54s were spotted about a kilometer to the northeast on the forward slope of a hill the other side of Highway ...

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16. "Brother, This Is Going to Be It!"

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pp. 208-216

The Washington Post reported on 27 May 1972, “Kontum, once a pleasant town with abundant fruit trees and gentle climate, has been abandoned by more than 80 percent of the 30,000 people who lived there before the offensive.”1 Under the headline...

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17. "You Are Going to Be Overrun!"

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pp. 217-230

Kontum was surrounded by around 5,000 enemy troops with tanks.1 We were being constantly pounded by intermittent artillery and rocket fi re, and at 0100 on 26 May the tempo picked up. As we lay on our cots in the CP bunker, Major Lovings looked at his watch and started counting. An enemy artillery round was hitting us every 30 seconds. Nearly a thousand...

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18. The Dirty Job of Killing

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pp. 231-237

Before dawn on 28 May, we were hit with around 400 rounds of mortar fire but the attacks by fire tapered off and there was no major ground attack against the 44th Regiment. During the day, about 100 large-caliber rounds hit inside the city. They were apparently... fi red indiscriminately rather than aimed at the airfi eld and other military targets. One round hit...

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19. All Over but the Shooting?

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pp. 238-244

Enemy activity tapered off on 29 May. The previous night was the and then hit with major ground assaults supported by tanks. However, the front line was still only 100 meters from our bunker door. The perimeter was being pulled in so it would be easier to defend and to prevent enemy infiltration. It seemed to be the smart thing ...

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20. Finishing the Job

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pp. 245-255

You will kill ten of our men and we will kill one of yours, and worked. The Arc Lights and tactical air killed tens of thousands of the enemy, destroyed their supplies, and broke up their attacks. plies. Colonel Rhotenberry and the other advisers did their jobs, and Brigadier General Ba and his 23rd Infantry Division had held. ...

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Epilogue: The End of the Fight

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pp. 256-267

Mr. Vann came to Kontum every day in early June, and every day he would complain to Colonel Rhotenberry about the NVA troops still in the city, “Hey, Rhot, haven’t you gotten this goddamned city cleared yet?” Starting around 2 June, the weather was bad enough to ground tactical air support. So the ARVN soldiers had to clear out the remaining enemy with more days of bunker-to-bunker fi ghting. Finally, the last...

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pp. 269-270

Special thanks go to Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) John G. Heslin, who launched his Battle of Kontum Web site (http://www.thebattleofkontum.com) on the 30th anniversary of the start of the Easter Offensive. Many of the people I interviewed found me through this Web site, and it serves as a continuing, growing collection of information and memories about the battle. His own book...


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pp. 271-276


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pp. 277-313

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 314-324


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pp. 325-344

E-ISBN-13: 9780813134017
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813133980

Page Count: 376
Illustrations: 29 b&w photos, 6 maps
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Battles and Campaigns