Battle of Ong Thanh

Battle of Ong Thanh
Part of the Vietnam War
Clark Welch Oct. 16.jpg
First Lieutenant Clark Welch (far right) described the actions of 16 October to the senior officers of the 1st Infantry Division
Date17 October 1967
Location
ResultViet Cong victory
Belligerents
 United StatesFNL Flag.svg Viet Cong
Commanders and leaders
Terry de la Mesa Allen, Jr. Vo Minh Triet
Nguyen Van Lam
Units involved
2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment

9th Division

  • 271st Regiment
  • Rear Service Group 83
  • C1 Company
Strength
142–155[1]US estimate: 600-1,400[1]
Casualties and losses
64 killed
75 wounded
2 missing[1]:36
Unknown: 22 bodies seen, 2 bodies recovered[2]

The Battle of Ong Thanh was fought at the stream of that name (Ông Thành) on the morning of 17 October 1967, in Chơn Thành District, at the time part of Bình Dương Province, South Vietnam, today in Bình Phước Province.

During the first few months of 1967, the Viet Cong (VC) absorbed heavy losses as a result of large-scale search and destroy missions conducted by the United States Army, and it prompted North Vietnamese leaders to review their war strategy in South Vietnam. In light of the setbacks which People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and VC forces had experienced early in 1967, PAVN General Trần Văn Trà suggested that PAVN and VC forces could still be victorious if they inflicted as many casualties as possible on U.S. military units, hoping that the Americans would conclude that the war was too costly and withdraw from Vietnam. Thus, towards mid-1967, the VC 7th and 9th Divisions returned to the battlefield again, with the objective of inflicting casualties on U.S. military formations in III Corps. On June 12, the U.S. 1st Infantry Division launched Operation Billings to destroy elements of the VC 9th Division, which had built-up strength around northern Phước Vĩnh. When the operation concluded on June 26, the 1st Infantry Division had lost 57 killed while the VC had lost 347 killed. Then in September, following a string of attacks on allied military installations by VC and PAVN troops, Major General John H. Hay decided to temporarily stop conducting large-scale operations until the true intentions of PAVN/VC forces were known. Towards October, the VC 271st Regiment marched into the Long Nguyen Secret Zone, to rest and refit for their next major operation. To disrupt the VC's resting period, General Hay launched Operation Shenandoah II to clear a section of Highway 13 which stretched from Chơn Thành to Lộc Ninh.

Starting from 28 September, elements of the 1st Infantry Division were air-lifted into positions around Long Nguyen, but again only few contacts were made with the VC. However, on 16 October, the 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment found a major VC bunker system located south of their night defensive position near the Ong Thanh Stream, and a short fire fight broke out. To avoid fighting a long battle, the commander of the 2nd Battalion decided to pull back, and made preparations for a frontal assault on the next day. On the morning of 17 October, two rifle companies of the 2nd Battalion returned to the bunker system they had found the previous day, but they were defeated by the VC 271st Regiment which had set up an ambush in anticipation of the American attack.

Background

In the first half of 1967, United States military forces in Vietnam had inflicted losses on the VC, both in terms of infrastructure and manpower, through major ground operations such as Cedar Falls, Junction City and Manhattan. For North Vietnamese military leaders such as Generals Võ Nguyên Giáp and Nguyễn Chí Thanh, the operations carried out by the Americans in South Vietnam had been disastrous for their forces. Furthermore, the military situation in North Vietnam also prompted North Vietnamese leaders to question their war strategy.[3] In 1967 the United States expanded their Rolling Thunder bombing campaign, which enabled American airpower to destroy rather than just threaten Hanoi's limited industrial infrastructure. Consequently, North Vietnamese leaders feared that if the Red River dikes were targeted by the Americans, Hanoi and the surrounding farmlands would be flooded.[3] At the same time, the North Vietnamese government was afraid the VC may split in order to accommodate a resolution with the Saigon government, because the U.S.-backed government in the South was showing no sign of collapse.[3]

Despite the unfavorable developments in South Vietnam, PAVN General Trần Văn Trà believed North Vietnam could still win the war if they pursued a strategy of attrition.[3] In other words, the PAVN/VC would have to fight on for as long as possible, until the United States recognized that the war was unwinnable and would disengage from the conflict in Vietnam. To achieve that objective at the tactical level, Tra argued that PAVN and VC forces would have to destroy American military units, and cause as many casualties as possible until they got tired and left.[3]:66 Indeed, towards mid-1967 General Thanh, who had the VC 7th and 9th Division at his disposal, was out to do just that. In June, U.S. military forces in III Corps began to detect the build-up of VC troops in northern Phước Vĩnh located War Zone D.[4] To stop a major enemy attack on Phước Vĩnh, Major General John H. Hay—commander of the 1st Infantry Division launched Operation Billings with the objective of trapping three VC battalions in War Zone D.[4][5] On June 26, Operation Billings concluded, the Americans killed 347 VC and captured one, at a cost of 57 U.S. dead and 197 wounded.[5]:211

In August, the VC were back in action again; this time the 165th Regiment of the 7th Division targeted the Tong Le Chon Special Forces Camp, located southeast of the 1st Infantry Division's area of operations. Just after midnight on 7 August, the 165th Regiment attacked Tong Le Chon and was able to penetrate the Camp, but was forced to flee after an ammunition bunker exploded. That night the VC assaulted the base several times more, but on each occasion they were repelled by artillery fire and close air-support.[4]:347 By September, the scale of VC and PAVN activities in III Corps had perplexed the U.S. commanders of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. In the meantime, however, Hay decided to put an end to large-scale operations which had proven to be unproductive, until the enemy's real intentions were known. Instead, Hay continued to commit his 2nd Brigade to pacification efforts in southern Bình Dương Province, while the 3rd Brigade provided protection for engineers clearing Highway 13.[4]:346

Following various engagements with the U.S. 1st Infantry Division during the previous months, Colonel Vo Minh Triet, commander of the VC 271st Regiment, was ordered to move his troops into an area known as the Long Nguyen Secret Zone, which was situated between National Highway 13 and the Michelin Rubber Plantation. It was located about 56 kilometers (35 mi) northwest of Saigon, in Bình Dương Province. There, Triet's regiment was supposed to receive troop replacements and food supplies, to prepare for a major offensive against an unspecified target in War Zone D.[4]:349 In previous years, the VC 9th Division had often used the month of September and October to rest and prepare for their winter-spring offensives, and 1967 was no different. For that reason Hay was determined to disrupt the VC's resting period by launching Operation Shenandoah II, with the objective of clearing Highway 13 from Chon Thanh to Loc Ninh.[4]:349

Colonel Võ Minh Triết led the 271st Regiment in the Battle of Ong Thanh.

On September 29, Hay ordered Colonel George E. Newman—commander of the 1st Brigade—to place the 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment and the 1/28th Infantry Regiment, in the northern portion of Long Nguyen. On the next day, Colonel Frank E. Blazey, commander of the 3rd Brigade, was ordered to deploy the 2/2nd Infantry and the 2/28th Infantry to the southern half of the area.[4]:349 In the early stages of Shenandoah II, U.S. forces only made a few contacts with the VC. On 2 October, an ARVN unit operating east of Highway 13 near Chon Thanh made significant contact with a large VC formation and absorbed heavy casualties.[4]:350 Enemy documents obtained by the ARVN indicated they had clashed with a battalion-sized unit from the VC 272nd Regiment, sent to attack Chon Thanh in order to cover the movement of the 271st Regiment into the Long Nguyen area.[4]:350 Early in October, the 271st Regiment had arrived in Long Nguyen but they could not obtain their much-needed food supplies, as a result of allied search-and-destroy operations which had created significant food shortages for VC units in the region.[4]:350

Triet then marched his starving soldiers southward toward the Ong Thanh Stream to link up with Rear Service Group 83, but local VC units also lacked adequate food supplies of their own, so the 271st Regiment was forced to wait in the area for the arrival of rice and other essential supplies.[2]:27 Meanwhile, on 4 October 1/2nd Infantry made contact with a company-sized VC formation about 9 kilometers (5.6 mi) south-west of Chon Thanh, and claimed to have killed 12 enemy soldiers.[4]:350 To pursue the retreating VC formation, Lt. Col. Richard E. Cavazos, commander of the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, was instructed to conduct an air-assault into a clearing located about 2 kilometers (1.2 mi) west of 1/2nd Infantry, in order to block enemy troops. 1/18th Infantry landed unopposed, and they immediately set up their standard field position with wire entanglements to protect the base.[4]:349 On 6 October, the 1/18th Infantry position was subjected to VC mortar bombardment; even though the shells had caused little damage, Cavazos believed it was part of the VC's final preparations for a major ground attack later that evening.[4]:350

Lieutenant Colonel Terry Allen Jr. (center) and Sergeant Major Francis Dowling (right) were both killed on October 17, 1967.

At around 6:00 pm the rain began to fall and the VC started attacking the 1/18th Infantry's position from different directions, but Cavazos' men were able to hold their ground, with the support of artillery and mortar fire. By 12:00 am the fight was over, and U.S. casualties were 5 killed and 4 wounded. Three weeks later a captured VC soldier from the 2nd Battalion, 271st Regiment, revealed that his unit lost 59 soldiers killed and 56 wounded, in battle with Cavazos' battalion.[4]:351 On 8 October, Hay pulled 1/2nd Infantry back to Phuoc Vinh to act as the division's reaction force. Lieutenant Colonel Terry D. Allen—commander of the 2/28th Infantry—was then ordered to depart from Lai Khê with three of his rifle companies (A, B and D) and air-lifted into a site about 21 kilometers (13 mi) northwest of Chon Thanh village, and 3 kilometers (1.9 mi) north-west of 1/18th Infantry. Company C was detached from Allen's 2/28th Infantry to protect the supporting 15th Field Artillery Regiment.[1]:34

Two days later, 1/2nd Infantry was deployed into new blocking positions, as VC units were believed to be moving toward the Michelin Rubber Plantation. On October 11, 2 companies of 1/18th Infantry went on a northward probe, and they were immediately attacked by the VC. While under heavy fire, Cavazos ordered the lead company to pull back behind a perimeter formed by the second company. As the lead company fell back, artillery and air support were called in to pummel the VC's attacking formation. When the battle was over, 21 VC were found dead, whereas U.S. casualties for the day were 1 killed and 4 wounded. Shortly afterwards, 1/18th Infantry pulled back to Phuoc Vinh for rest and refitting.[4]:352 By mid-October, Hay believed the VC 271st Regiment had suffered a major defeat and was ready to withdraw from the Long Nguyen Secret Zone, so he was ready to terminate Shenandoah II, however increased VC activity near the Ong Thanh Stream, where the 1st Brigade made most of its contacts, had indicated otherwise.[4]:353–354

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