Battle of Kham Duc

Battle of Kham Duc
Part of the Vietnam War
KD CH-47 wreckage.jpg
The United States military lost nine aircraft during the Battle of Kham Duc, including this CH-47 Chinook that was shot down while attempting to land on the airfield
Date10–12 May 1968
Location
Khâm Đức, Quảng Tín Province (now Quảng Nam Province), South Vietnam
ResultNorth Vietnamese victory.
Belligerents
Flag of Vietnam.svg North Vietnam United States
 South Vietnam
 Australia
Commanders and leaders
Chu Huy Mân
Giáp Văn Cương[1]
United States William Westmoreland
Robert B. Nelson
Chris Silva
Burl W. McLaughlin[2]
Australia John White
Units involved

2nd Division

  • 21st Regiment
  • 1st 'Ba Gia' Regiment

23rd Infantry Division, 196th Light Infantry Brigade

5th Special Forces Group

  • Detachment A-105
  • 11th MSF Company
  • 12th MSF Company
70th Engineer Battalion
Battery D, 2nd Battalion, 13th Marine Regiment
Strength
2,500[1]:106United States 900[3]
Australia 3 AATTV advisors
South Vietnam ~500 CIDG soldiers and 272 civilians.[2]:4
Casualties and losses
U.S. claim: 345 killed[4]United States 13 killed
30 missing
2 captured
9 aircraft shot down
South Vietnam 10 killed
95 missing[5]
102 captured[6]
~150 civilians killed

The Battle of Kham Duc was a major battle of the Vietnam War (in Vietnam the "American War"). The event occurred in Khâm Đức, now district capital of Phước Sơn District, then in Quảng Tín Province (now part of Quảng Nam Province, South Vietnam), from 10–12 May 1968. During the Tet Offensive of 1968, the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) 2nd Division tried to capture Đà Nẵng, but they were defeated in the Battle of Lo Giang by elements of the U.S. 1st Marine Division, the 23rd Infantry Division (Americal). PAVN General Chu Huy Mân decided to disengage from the fight in the outskirts of the city, and pull the 2nd Division into the mountains where they could rest, rebuild, and prepare for the next major operation. Khâm Đức, a small district in the north of Quảng Tín, was chosen as the next target for the 2nd Division. Following their defeat at Đà Nẵng, U.S. military intelligence agencies in I Corps Tactical Zone were confused by the movements of the 2nd Division, because they could not track down the unit.

During March and April, U.S. military intelligence began to detect elements of the PAVN 2nd Division moving towards Khâm Đức, but their opponent's true intentions were largely unknown. In response to what could be a major attack, General William Westmoreland decided to build up the defenses of the Khâm Đức Special Forces, by sending in U.S. Army engineers to upgrade the local airstrip for sustained use by large transport aircraft, as well as airlifting weapons and ammunition for the U.S.-led Detachment A-105. Australian-led 11th Mobile Strike Force (MSF) Company was ordered to take up positions in Ngok Tavak (Ngok Ta Vak), an outpost serving Khâm Đức, to boost allied intelligence-gathering capabilities in the area. However, unbeknownst to the United States and other allied forces, the Viet Cong (VC) 1st Regiment had been watching the build-up around Khâm Đức for some time, and were preparing to initiate the assault by taking out Ngok Tavak.

In the early hours of 10 May, elements of the VC 1st Regiment attacked Ngok Tavak, and they successfully overran much of the outpost. By dawn, the 11th MSF Company was devastated, but they later received reinforcements from the 12th Mobile Strike Force Company. Despite having received assurances that further reinforcements would arrive to relieve the outpost, the commander of the 11th MSF Company decided to evacuate his troops and move towards Khâm Đức. By that time, however, the PAVN had already turned their attention to the main target at Khâm Đức, and they only left behind some local force units to destroy allied reinforcements. Meanwhile, elements of the Americal Division had been airlifted into Khâm Đức as part of Operation Golden Valley, to bolster the strength of the Special Forces Camp there. On the morning of 11 May, the PAVN 2nd Division surrounded Khâm Đức, and they gradually forced U.S.-led forces into their bases after several outposts were overrun. Westmoreland then ordered Khâm Đức to be evacuated, so the 834th Air Division was told to make an all-out effort to extract all the people in Khâm Đức, both military and civilian. By the time the evacuation was completed, nine U.S. military aircraft had been shot down, including two C-130s. On 12 May, the PAVN were in complete control of Khâm Đức.

Background

1968 marked a decisive turning point in the history of the Vietnam War. Towards the end of January, regular units of the PAVN and the VC initiated large-scale attacks on Saigon and all 34 provincial cities of South Vietnam. Several major towns, villages, and allied military installations throughout the country were also attacked during the same period. In doing so, the PAVN and VC violated the Tết holiday truce, which had enabled South Vietnamese military personnel to go on leave.[2]:1 The combined PAVN/VC forces were able to achieve the element of surprise, but despite some early victories, they could only sustain their offensive for a few days, or in the case of the Battle of Huế several weeks, before being ejected with heavy losses.[2]:1

In I Corps the PAVN had mixed successes against allied military forces. On 7 February 1968, PAVN infantry armed with satchel charges, tear gas, and flamethrowers, and reinforced with Soviet-made PT-76 amphibious tanks, successfully seized the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp.[1]:18 At Khe Sanh Combat Base, located about 7 kilometers (4.3 mi) east of Lang Vei, the U.S. 26th Marine Regiment was able to hold their ground against a multi-division PAVN assault. During the siege U.S. Air Force (USAF), Navy, and Marine fighter-bombers dropped 40,000 tonnes of bombs on PAVN positions, while B-52 bombers unleashed more than 60,000 tonnes of ordnance on areas where the PAVN were believed to have concentrated their forces.[2]:1

In the same period, the PAVN 2nd Division under the command of General Giáp Văn Cương clashed with elements of the 1st Marine Division, the Americal Division and the South Korean Marine Brigade in their attempts to capture Đà Nẵng.[1]:6 However the PAVN were defeated in the Battle of Lo Giang. After 9 February, the PAVN 2nd Division seemed to be withdrawing from the battlefield, so Lieutenant General Robert E. Cushman Jr. Commander of III Marine Amphibious Force ordered his troops to continue their attacks on the retreating forces.[1]:7 In the aftermath of the battle for Đà Nẵng, U.S. military commanders in I Corps held different views on the fighting ability of the PAVN 2nd Division. Americal Division commander Major-General Samuel W. Koster claimed losses sustained by the PAVN 2nd Division had "impaired its future effectiveness", after his units killed more than 1,000 PAVN soldiers in the month of January alone. In contrast, 1st Marine Division commander Major-General Donn J. Robertson told his superiors that the 2nd Division may have several uncommitted units they could deploy for future operations.[1]:7

Whether the PAVN 2nd Division had been rendered ineffective or not was uncertain, as U.S. military intelligence did not know the whereabouts of the enemy unit or their intentions.[1]:9 Since January 1968, the PAVN had been fighting continuously with U.S. and other allied military forces in I Corps, so their resupply capabilities were overstretched, and their soldiers were not given the opportunity to rest before the Tet Offensive.[1]:44 Thus, following the failed attack on Đà Nẵng, PAVN General Chu Huy Mân, Commander of Military Region 5, made the decision to pull the 2nd Division into the mountains where they could rest, resupply, and integrate their replacement manpower before going on the offensive again. Mân ordered Cương to split the 2nd Division into two fighting arms; one regiment would tie down the Americans in the Quế Son Valley, while the rest of the division would withdraw to their base areas near Laos, to link up with the 70th Transport Regiment. Then, their next target would be Khâm Đức and the surrounding areas; Mân told his senior officers that they would attack Khâm Đức to force an American retreat.[1]:45

Khâm Đức was situated in the northern section of Quảng Tín Province, South Vietnam, in I Corps Tactical Zone. It sat beside National Highway 14, which paralleled the international border with Laos, and it was surrounded by high mountains on all sides.[2]:2 The Special Forces Camp was named after the main village which was located about 800 meters (2,600 ft) to the northeast, and was constructed about mid-way along a 6,000-foot (1,800 m) asphalt runway. Before his assassination, President Ngô Đình Diệm had used Khâm Đức as a hunting lodge, so an airfield was constructed there for Diệm's use. The Khâm Đức Special Forces Camp was under the responsibility of Detachment A-105, U.S. Army 5th Special Forces Group; the camp functioned as a training centre for Civilian Irregular Defense Group program (CIDG) personnel, reconnaissance of enemy movements, and combat operations.[2]:2[1]:31 The village had 272 inhabitants, most of whom were dependents of the South Vietnamese and Montagnard CIDG soldiers. Ngok Tavak, located about 7 kilometers (4.3 mi) southwest of Khâm Đức, was an observation outpost for Detachment A-105. Following the loss of Lang Vei, Khâm Đức was the last remaining Special Forces camp adjacent to the Ho Chi Minh Trail in I Corps.[7]

Map of Khâm Đức and Ngok Tavak.
This C-130 aircraft was photographed while airlifting supplies into Khâm Đức during April 1968; eventually the aircraft would play a major role in extracting all military and civilian personnel

From their base area positioned between Highway 14 and the Đăk Mi river, elements of the PAVN 2nd Division were planning for their attack on Khâm Đức and the surrounding outposts. The VC's 1st Ba Gia Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Nguyễn Văn Trí, was given the task of initiating the attack, including sweeping aside the small outpost of Ngok Tavak (Ngok Ta Vak).[1]:45 However, before the plan of attack was finalized, the VC remained hidden as to avoid detection by the South Vietnamese and their American allies. Consequently, during that period the GK.31 Anti-Aircraft Battalion was prohibited from opening fire on U.S. reconnaissance aircraft that flew over their area.[1]:45 At the same time, the GK.40 Engineer Battalion was told to conduct training on their new equipment, such as satchel charges, tear gas, and flamethrowers, before the deadline of early May 1968. The VC 1st Regiment Headquarters also made their preparations for the initial attack, by regularly sending out Local Force Montagnard units to conduct reconnaissance patrols around Ngok Tavak in order to observe enemy activities in the area.[1]:46

Throughout March and April, allied intelligence was baffled by the movements of the units belonging to the PAVN 2nd Division, and that was reflected in the information obtained by U.S. military forces. For example, the U.S. 1st Marine Division reported that the enemy's 2nd Division Headquarters, the 3rd Regiment, the 21st Regiment, and the VC's 1st Regiment were within the vicinity of Khâm Đức, Thượng Đức, and Hội An, respectively.[1]:24 In contrast, information released by the U.S. 27th Marine Regiment showed the presence of the 3rd and 21st Regiments near Go Noi Island, whereas the 2nd Division Headquarters was reported to be in the Quế Sơn Valley. Despite the lack of accurate information, allied intelligence generally agreed the PAVN might begin attacking isolated outposts and units as their next course of action.[1]:25 Subsequently, on 4 May 1968, the Americal Division made amendments to their Golden Valley Plan, the plan for the relief and reinforcements of CIDG camps, to enable the deployment of the 1st Battalion, 46th Infantry Regiment, 196th Light Infantry Brigade to support Khâm Đức.[1]:26

To counter a possible major PAVN attack, the U.S. military began taking steps to reinforce Khâm Đức. Starting on 9 April, the U.S. 70th Engineer Battalion was flown in from Pleiku, about 160 kilometers (99 mi) to the south, to repair and upgrade the airfield for sustained use by C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. By 8 May, the USAF had airlifted about 400 tonnes of cargo into Khâm Đức, including two bulldozers, by a C-124 Globemaster.[1]:57[8] In addition, 33 U.S. Marines from Battery D, 2nd Battalion, 13th Marine Regiment were also deployed to support the defenders at Ngok Tavak. From 16 April, the Marines artillerymen used Khâm Đức as a staging area where they could assemble their entire detachment, which included two 105mm howitzers, ammunition, and supplies.[1]:54 On 4 May, 33 Marines, along with 35,380 kilograms (78,000 lb) of equipment and supplies, were lifted into Ngok Tavak by helicopters.[1]:55 Meanwhile, towards the end of April, the VC 1st Regiment received orders to leave their base and take positions in the valley on the western side of Ngok Tavak, and wait there until the attack signal was given. The 40th Battalion, commanded by Major Đặng Ngọc Mai, spearheaded the assault.[1]:48

The outpost of Ngok Tavak was manned by the 11th Mobile Strike Force Company since March 1968. Earlier in the year, Company C, 5th Special Forces Group in Đà Nẵng came up with a plan to supplement the intelligence agencies in the Khâm Đức area, by deploying a Mike Force Company to operate south of the Special Forces Camp; subsequently, the 11th MSF Company was selected for the task.[1]:34 The unit was led by three members of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV): Captain John White and Warrant Officers Frank Lucas and Don Cameron. The Australian-led unit included eight U.S. Special Forces and 173 South Vietnamese and Nùng CIDG soldiers, and they were joined by the Marines artillerymen on 4 May. Since their arrival, White and his men had set up camp on top of the hill feature in Ngok Tavak. They also made improvements to the camp's defensive perimeter, which included an old minefield left by the French. Despite their preparations, in the days leading up to the battle, the unit was plagued by a number of problems with their defense.[1]:59

Even though the Marine artillerymen of the 2/13th Marines were supposed to support the Ngok Tavak garrison, their arrival created significant logistical issues for Captain White. Due to the poor condition of the road that connected Ngok Tavak and Khâm Đức, where most of the ammunition was stocked, the Marines had to rely on transport aircraft to bring in ammunition supplies. However, due to high demand and scarce resources, the U.S. 1st Marine Aircraft Wing simply did not have the flexibility to provide the support required by the soldiers at Ngok Tavak. Furthermore, only 31% of the Marines' heavy-lift aircraft was available for operations.[1]:56 The lack of logistical support was exemplified by the manner in which the 105mm howitzers were deployed; when the Marines arrived at Ngok Tavak, White ordered the Marine detachment to place their howitzers on a downhill position outside the camp's perimeter, as the hill-top position was still covered by trees, making the position of the howitzers a non-ideal location for security.[1]:59

In an effort to bolster the strength of White's 11th MSF Company, Shungel sent a mortar platoon of about 35 Montagnard CIDG out from Khâm Đức to reinforce the small garrison at Ngok Tavak during the last days of April.[1]:61 It was intended that the Montagnards would provide local security for the garrison, when the 11th MSF Company was out on patrol. Mistrust developed between White's men and the Montagnard soldiers, because the latter was known to contain VC infiltrators.[1]:62 On 28 April, elements of the PAVN 2nd Division received a message which stated that 'scouts' were ready to cause confusion and disruption in the allies' defensive plan around Khâm Đức.[1]:48 The Montagnards were placed outside the camp's perimeter, where they roamed freely inside the Marines' area during the days before and after the arrival of the howitzers. On 9 May, the Montagnards decided to return to Khâm Đức, but shortly afterwards they turned back to Ngok Tavak, claiming they had been ambushed by an unknown enemy unit. White and his Nung soldiers were skeptical about the claim, as they believed the story about an ambush was a lie and that no real fighting had occurred. As a result, White insisted that the Montagnards stay outside his perimeter.[1]:62–3

From early May, the VC's 1st Regiment began to tighten its noose around the Ngok Tavak position. On 6 May, a platoon-sized patrol from Ngok Tavak made contact with VC units about 1 kilometer (0.62 mi) south of the garrison. On the evening of 7 May, enemy soldiers were believed to have set off trip flares, which prompted the Nung soldiers to hurl grenades at the perimeter.[1]:63 On 8 May, White ordered the Marines to pull their artillery guns inside the defensive perimeter, so they could better defend their position from the top of the 738-meter (2,421 ft)-high hill feature. The Marines spent the entire evening of 8 May taking the first howitzer completely apart in order to take it up the hill.[1]:64 That night, enemy soldiers set off trip flares and again the Nung soldiers threw grenades in response. On 9 May, Captain Chris Silva flew to Ngok Tavak to discuss the reliability of his troops with his Australian counterpart, but was prevented from returning to Khâm Đức due to poor weather.[1]:74 On that day, the second howitzer was dragged into the garrison, so the Nungs and Marines both guarded the perimeter of Ngok Tavak. Infantry protection was provided by the 1st and 2nd Nung platoons, which held the eastern side of the garrison, while the suspect Montagnard CIDG soldiers guarded the eastern entrance. Overlooking them were some Marines of Battery D, 2nd Battalion.[1]:65

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