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August/September 2003
FEATURE ARTICLE
   
 

The NVA's Operation Dien Bien Phu: The 1969 Siege of Ben Het

BY JOHN PRADOS


In May 1969 Americans were listening to Tommy James and the Shondells' "Crimson and Clover'' and Credence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising.'' Battle deaths in Vietnam passed the record set in the Korean War early in April. Then came Operation Apache Snow, the costly assault on the mountain that became known as Hamburger Hill. As often happened, another battle, a forgotten one, took place at the same time in the Central Highlands.

In their account covering this period of the war, the official historians of the Joint Chiefs of Staff conclude that the forgotten battle, not Hamburger Hill, was the most important thing happening in South Vietnam at that moment. The Highlands fight took place in Kontum Province around the Special Forces camps at Dak To and Ben Het, primarily the latter. This is the story of that battle.

Northwest of Kontum City a group of Special Forces camps sat astride the trails the North Vietnamese used to move troops and supplies from the Ho Chi Minh Trail into the Highlands. Dak To stood on Route 14, at the foot of a ridgeline on which some of the camps had been located. In 1967 it was the site of a major battle by U. S. troops. Later, the high ground attained similar status as "Rocket Ridge'' during 1970's Dak Seang battle. Ben Het was located about ten miles west of Dak To, at the head of Road 579.

A pretty solid camp, Ben Het had been constructed in 1968. It had begun life as a base camp for the Army's 4th Infantry Division. Its main position was where Road 579 ascended a hill. There were satellite strong points on smaller hills to the north and west. There was an airstrip outside the perimeter, but it could not be used when the camp was under attack.

The Americans had several batteries of artillery under LTC Kenneth R. Bailey, some quad-mount anti-aircraft guns in a ground defense role, M-48 tanks, and reinforcing companies of Civilian Indigenous Defense Group (CIDG) strikers from the camps at Dak Pek and Mang Buk. Units of the 4th Division regularly patrolled within its area of operations.

The sector remained quiet until February 23, 1969, when North Vietnamese guns and mortars suddenly began shelling the defense complex. Ben Het was within howitzer range of the North Vietnamese bastion known as Base Area 609. Some of those guns, in an innovation of this war, were mounted on rails that ran into caves, into which they retracted after firing and were protected by metal blast doors.

The defenders improved their cover and put patrols into the surrounding terrain. Contacts were sporadic but the shelling continued. Fighter-bombers attacked Base Area 609 on February 24 and 25, but without stopping the Vietnamese artillerymen. MACV Commander Gen. Creighton W. Abrams wanted to commit B-52 bombers, but could not get permission from Washington.

Beginning on February 24, the Seventh Air Force began to divert its C-7 air transports bound for Ben Het to Pleiku. The situation was ominous for Special Forces Detachment A-244. Maj. Jerry White was acting commander; the team leader was Capt. Louis P. Kingsley.

For days there were probes and more shelling. On the night of March 3 came a real attack with heavy shelling - 639 rounds. Worse, there were NVA tanks. Ten PT-76 armored vehicles led the North Vietnamese attack, the first actual employment of armor in combat by the North Vietnamese since Lang Vei during the Khe Sanh campaign, a little more than a year before.

Maj. White had a maneuver of his own. The defenders moved to break up the attack by ambushing it short of its goal, with a company of CIDG and two platoons of Mobile Strike Force Nungs placed almost a kilometer outside the wire and ready to pounce. First Lt. Michael D. Linnane, A-244's executive officer, leading the spoiling force, reported tank noises. The Americans with him included Green Beret weapons specialist Richard V. Grier and medic Robert F. Umphlett.

One of the first North Vietnamese tanks was stopped by a rocket, another by a 90mm shell from an American tank. An unidentified vehicle hit a mine. About that time, the battlefield came under fire from an AC-47 "Spooky'' gunship, which White had requested as early as 9:30 p.m. Thirty air sorties also were flown in support of Ben Het that night.

"The firefight continued and then they started hitting us with everything they had,'' Linnane said. In their effort to overrun Ben Het, the NVA resorted to tear gas shortly before another assault around midnight. But the Americans, Vietnamese Special Forces, and CIDG strikers held without difficulty. At least one of the U.S. tanks, on the west hill strongpoint, was damaged in the battle, which ended with daylight. Losses included two Americans and a South Vietnamese soldier killed.

The allied command reacted quickly. The next day LTC Andrew J. Marquis, Special Forces B-detachment leader for Kontum province, who was responsible for much of the Central Highlands, sent in the balance of his 1st Mobile Strike Force battalion to conduct sweeps around Ben Het. Marquis, according to Capt. George Dooley, B-24 staff officer, was a martinet who regularly threatened to relieve officers under his command. The camp commander at Ben Het was under considerable pressure. But there was no breaking what quickly became a siege, with the camp hit by thirty or more shells a day for weeks on end.

The garrison of 1,200 troops remained in danger. In mid-March the CIDG reinforcement companies from other Special Forces camps decided they wanted out and began to walk out the camp gate. Green Berets convinced them to stay, but only long enough for the Americans to bring in transport and get them home en masse. Col. Marquis's reaction is not known but probably was pyrotechnic.

During this time the Nixon administration began its secret B-52 raids on Cambodia, code-named Operation Menu. Base Area 609 was one of the targets (called "Dessert'') and received its share of heavy bombardment. But the Arc Light strikes were of limited value. Special Forces writer Dalton Kast was visiting Ben Het to gather material for the branch's magazine when an attack on Ben Het began as B-52 bombs were still falling. Brig. Gen. J.S. Timothy, deputy senior adviser to II Corps during this period, recorded instances in his end-of-tour report in which North Vietnamese units moved just before Arc Light strikes approached, suggesting that the B-3 Front's intelligence on the Americans was very good.

Since January 1969, the Seventh Air Force had implemented new rules of engagement in the Ben Het sector permitting strikes without clearance from the South Vietnamese province chief, based on coordination with the local ground commander. This freed the fighter-bombers from many restrictions and they ranged the area widely. The gunships, AC-47s, and AC-119s averaged about two sorties a night overhead. Ark Light struck targets in Base Area 609 and on both sides of the border.

The North Vietnamese nevertheless kept up a constant harassment. Their efforts to shut down the road from Kontum to Pleiku were thwarted at least twice by lightning interventions by the ARVN 3rd Armored Cavalry Squadron. Through March and into April, the NVA hit the Special Forces camp with about three dozen shells a day, at odd times during the day and night. The Green Berets benefited from an unusual early warning system. A-244's mascot, a dog named "War,'' invariably ran into the tactical operations center to take cover whenever there was incoming, often minutes before humans heard anything.

A lull began in mid-April. The shelling stopped at Ben Het, but there were indications of NVA forces closing in on Dak To behind it, the headquarters of the ARVN 24th Special Tactical Zone, the main territorial command for the entire sector, under Col. Nguyen Ba Lien. The South Vietnamese pulled back into their fortifications, and the sudden absence of American or ARVN patrols in the hills gave the NVA increased freedom of movement. The 2nd Battalion of Special Forces' 2nd Mobile Strike Force Command ranged more freely, but in May, when the North Vietnamese closed in again, it too hunkered down.

The siege of Ben Het resumed on May 5. Three days later, shelling was back to previous levels. The North Vietnamese called this Operation Dien Bien Phu. The NVA's 40th Artillery Regiment, and its 28th and 66th Infantry Regiments put intense pressure on the camp. Again there were reports of tanks in the hinterland. North Vietnamese forces mounted over seventy attacks, ambushes, or shellings in May and June. Their forces were estimated at 5,600 troops.

Redoubled efforts by airpower to clear the environs had some impact, and Arc Light was there with a vengeance, bombing a reported 140 targets. The level of effort in May and June absorbed about a fourth of all Southeast Asia B-52 sorties. Some 18,000 tons of munitions fell from the huge jet bombers. The North Vietnamese adopted the practice of rapidly pushing troops into Arc Light target boxes immediately after attacks, hoping to catch American or ARVN units sent in to do damage assessment. More than once they did. The South Vietnamese then became even more cautious.

Tactical targeting was harder because of the absence of patrols. Col. Lien's command had no intelligence plan, no specific statements of intel requirements, and the Americans saw little evidence that the ARVN intelligence staff was giving units intelligence tasks or stressing battlefield intelligence.

Col. Lien planned to use his forces to clear the area around his own position (Dak To) and then see what he could do about Ben Het. That is what happened when the siege resumed. Lien's forces were the ARVN 42nd Infantry Regiment and the 2nd Ranger Group. Both had their limitations, with desertion rates averaging sixty to seventy men per month per thousand.

In fact, the 42nd declined to 78 percent of its assigned strength by June even though it had a corps priority for replacements. The Rangers had 84 percent of their strength. Lien's combat support included the equivalent of almost three ARVN artillery battalions, and a recently formed troop transport helicopter company.

In early June he was reinforced by a task force consisting of the ARVN 22nd Division's 47th Infantry Regiment and 14th Armored Cavalry Squadron. Later there was another reinforcement, a task force from the 23rd Division consisting of two battalions of the ARVN 53rd Infantry. Special Forces committed the 4th Battalion of its 2nd Mobile Strike Force Command. There were a half dozen other U.S. battalions of the 4th Infantry Division in the Highlands at the time, but they did not participate directly in the Ben Het campaign. A total of 15,600 allied troops were involved.

While Col. Lien fought to disengage Dak To, the siege of Ben Het went on. It was especially harsh for civilians who lived in the camp. The Montagnard hunters and gatherers could hardly go outside the camp. The pace of the bombardment doubled on May 11. Word circulated that this would be The Day. Down at the helicopter pad only medevacs were permitted. Capt. Kingsley of Detachment A-244 called the alert, but other officers, including engineer detachment chief Capt. James Hager and the Regular Army artillery officers were in agreement. No attack occurred that night.

That Sunday was a pretty day in the Central Highlands. No attack occurred that night. The worst complaint was the teamhouse refrigerator held no soda.

Some Americans, especially among personnel of the three artillery batteries now emplaced on Ben Het's satellite strong points, groused about the situation. The South Vietnamese were favorite targets. At least three times ARVN 155mm guns fired on the Ben Het positions in error. The detritus of combat and the danger involved in cleaning up in the middle of a siege made some liken the camp to a garbage dump. Others saw MACV holding them out as bait for the North Vietnamese. Some believed the whole campaign was being staged to show that ARVN could fight on its own.

Air resupply became a problem. Sometimes C-7 Caribous had to parachute their loads into the Special Forces camp. For landings, a full program was laid on. First the hills surrounding Ben Het were softened up by A-1 fighter-bombers trying to make the North Vietnamese gunners keep their heads down. A forward air controller supervised the Caribou's approach, with a pair of F-4 Phantoms stacked up to react on his call to any anti-aircraft fire. Planes dropped smoke just before the C-7s lined up for their final approaches.

Even so, by late June the C-7s could no longer stay on the ground long enough to unload. Supplies had to be airdropped. Two hundred tons of supplies arrived this way between June 10 and the end of the battle.

On some days the bombardment reached a level of a hundred or two hundred shells. On June 23 there was a serious probing attack that led to a three-hour firefight. One American was killed and a half-dozen more wounded. The NVA, estimated to have 1,500 to 2,000 troops in the immediate vicinity of the camp, did not relent.

They also tried a little psychological warfare. Beginning the night following the attack, the North Vietnamese used loudspeakers to promise destruction while offering safety if the defenders surrendered. The messages in English and Vietnamese were punctuated with a bombardment of sixty-five shells. The U.S. command answered with B-52 strikes that loosed 340 tons of bombs.

Green Beret Capt. Dooley visited Ben Het twice during the siege. He learned that the NVA had dug zig-zag trenches up to the defensive wire, even through it in places. In late June, CIDG strikers discovered two tunnel systems under the North Hill strongpoint that went under all three barbed wire entanglements and reached the bunkers of the outer perimeter defenses. The artillery battery lost 72 men dead or wounded in seven weeks of the latest round of the siege. Only fifty remained. Total casualties among the U.S. artillerymen in the siege included 15 killed and 138 wounded. Their six 105mm self-propelled guns were intact, but North Hill lost its one amenity, a 12-inch screen television set.

Battery commander Capt. John Horalek remarked, "If we weren't here to help the defense there would be nothing left of Ben Het,'' as another barrage of mortar rounds wounded more men. Total American casualties from the bombardment added up to over a hundred in June alone. No records show the losses among the CIA-financed Khmer Serei striker company that provided close-in protection.

Other losses included one Green Beret killed and 16 wounded; one South Vietnamese Special Forces killed and seven others wounded; 15 ARVN soldiers killed and 70 wounded; and 52 CIDG strikers killed and 141 wounded. There were 23 civilians killed and 11 wounded. Engineers eventually came and bulldozed the hill to where it was barely half its previous height.

The NVA plotted the helicopter pad for mortar barrages, though they never seemed to get the range right. In the ten seconds that passed between a helicopter landing and the shells arriving, one had either to take cover behind ARVN tanks near the pad or run uphill toward the camp. One journalist arriving from Pleiku was told by the pilot that the ship would not even land and that the reporter should jump out and run like hell.

Freelance reporter Richard Boyle made the ten-minute helicopter flight from Pleiku wondering if he was rushing to a place that others undoubtedly wished they could get out of. The helicopter "came in low and fast, hugging the treetops to give the NVA gunners less time to shoot,'' recalled Boyle. He and the television news crew on the helicopter with him jumped when it hit the ground and raced to foxholes. Not a shot was fired at them.

As far as Ben Het was concerned, it was the future rather than the present that was at issue. While the NVA had not yet made an all-out assault, they could do so at any time. The ``Dien Bien Phu'' moniker they had given the operation suggested they might. It was therefore imperative to disengage the Special Forces camp and to restore its overland road connection with Dak To and Kontum. This brought in the ARVN 24th Special Tactical Zone.

Col. Nguyen Ba Lien fought first at Dak To. There he used South Vietnamese troops to push out into the hills and fix the North Vietnamese in place, after which air strikes bloodied them. This was operation Dan Quyen ("People's Right") 38-A. It began on May 15. Before it ended, the ARVN claimed to have killed 945 of the enemy. By early June the field around Dak To was clear.

Lien would not budge toward Ben Het without reinforcement -a senior American adviser described the South Vietnamese colonel as "running out of gas.'' But excuses were not possible once Col. Lien got the troops: two task forces - four rifle battalions in all - from the ARVN 22nd and 23rd Divisions, plus roughly half the South Vietnamese armor in II Corps. Supporting artillery would have been suitable for a South Vietnamese divisional operation. The United States helped with a battery of 175mm guns and a battalion of 105mm howitzers. The Americans also furnished almost all the helicopters, over 400 B-52 sorties, and 95 percent of the tactical air support (over a thousand sorties in all) for the relief effort. The hills opposite Ben Het, once heavily forested, were stripped bare by the allied firepower, but without driving away the besiegers.

There were two aspects to the South Vietnamese relief of Ben Het. One was to get supplies to the Special Forces camp by road convoy, the second to clear North Vietnamese forces from the surrounding peaks. Evidently Col. Lien did not use all his extra forces for the relief of Ben Het, diverting many of them to holding open lines of communication between Kontum and Dak To and mopping up other points in his area of operations.

Capt. Walter Maslowski, a U.S. adviser with the ARVN forces, said to reporters: "We've been told to make do with what we've got. Well, that boils down to four half-strength battalions of South Vietnamese troops who are too weak and too tired to guard all the roads leading into Ben Het.''

In mid-June the South Vietnamese succeeded in getting a road convoy into Ben Het. But for more than a week after that, NVA ambushes and mines prevented further success. ARVN officers admitted to losing 27 vehicles. Hanoi radio broadcasts claimed some 183 had been destroyed. The road between Dak To and Ben Het was littered with the carcasses of burnt-out trucks and other vehicles.

Another convoy reached Ben Het over Road 512 on June 24. Again the effort required a tough operation. The ARVN 42nd Regiment provided the bulk of the convoy force and fought a half-day battle against ambushers just over halfway between Dak To and Ben Het. They admitted to five dead and 15 wounded and claimed to have killed 105 NVA. Further on, just half a mile from the Special Forces camp, an American detachment of the 299th Engineer Battalion clearing mines for the convoy fell into another ambush and suffered two dead and 21 men wounded. The ARVN soldiers escorting the engineers fled when the shooting started.

As the convoy neared Ben Het, a helicopter lift inserted an ARVN Ranger battalion just a mile from the camp. The North Vietnamese 40th Artillery stepped up its bombardment and hit Ben Het with 195 shells that day, at least five of them bearing tear gas. Six American artillerymen were wounded. Col. Marquis at the Special Forces B-24 Detachment in Kontum told reporters that the North Vietnamese had up to 3,000 troops, plus porters, still besieging Ben Het.

The South Vietnamese command followed up immediately with a new convoy push. This showed how difficult the road operations could be. William Donnell was one of the Americans along for this trip. Donnell, with the 525th Military Intelligence Group running agents over the Cambodian border from late 1967 through early 1969, had fallen in love with Vietnam and returned almost immediately as a freelance reporter. Trying to make his mark as a journalist, he had learned that Ben Het was the biggest thing happening in the Central Highlands and had come up to cover it.

Donnell was on the roof of the ARVN armored personnel carrier that was the command vehicle for the convoy, crouched behind the sandbags on the roof. When the inevitable ambush occurred, the South Vietnamese officer in charge stopped the APC and began trying to maneuver his forces. The track stayed stationary too long and came under fire. When they moved forward, they found the road blocked by a big flatbed trailer truck that had broken down.

The South Vietnamese driver was desperately trying to repair the truck as the bullets whizzed by. Once he got it going, the driver hightailed out of the trap. Donnell could see the road up ahead made a turn and was a perfect place to shoot at vehicles on the straightaway. Sure enough, the APC was disabled by a well-aimed shot. Donnell moved to another vehicle, but the ARVN sergeant in charge there was also slow and they were hit. Wounded, Donnell went back to Pleiku to get patched up. He never made it to Ben Het camp.

Some of the convoy did make Ben Het, and Col. Lien shifted to the clearing phase of his operation. On June 27, another Mobile Strike Force company air assaulted directly into the camp. Helicopter gunships working the country just outside the wire claimed two dozen enemy killed that day. Yet that night a lone North Vietnamese infantryman engaged two American fighter-bombers, repeatedly firing on them even as they worked over the entire area where he was.

A Green Beret sergeant told an American reporter: "I'll never understand where or how Ho Chi Minh gets those kinds of men.'' Meanwhile, nine Americans were wounded in the bombardment, which the North Vietnamese escalated to 445 rounds. The United States retaliated with 60 B-52s that delivered 1,800 tons of bombs. Convoys continued the buildup until seven ARVN battalions augmented the equivalent of two American-led strike force battalions already at the camp, in all about 5,000 troops.

Gen. William B. Rosson, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, flew in to visit. "I think the situation is exceedingly favorable,'' Rosson said. "We've punished the enemy severely. The camp is intact, fully manned, well-supplied, and the morale of the forces is very high.'' That day Arc Light deposited another 1,500 tons of bombs in 50 sorties.

Four of the new units began working along both sides of Road 512 and 579 to disengage the line of communications. Two more battalions cleared the ground outside the perimeter wire. The next day the NVA bombardment fell to only 53 shells, and on June 30 there was no bombardment at all. Ten shells fell on July 1 when another road convoy arrived at the camp. Not a single bullet was fired at the convoy during its passage.

Col. Nguyen Ba Lien held a press conference and claimed the North Vietnamese were being "smashed.'' Lien changed the name of his operation from the "People's Right'' to "Sure Win.'' The colonel asserted that his strategy all along had been to sucker the NVA into a small kill zone where firepower could be concentrated on them. He promised to invite reporters to drive with him to Ben Het in a few days' time. Journalists quoted an American adviser saying, "Who's he kidding?''

On July 2, the siege of Ben Het was declared over. The NVA faded away. They were not trapped anywhere. The Ben Het camp itself was completely rebuilt by the U.S. 20th Engineer Battalion. Every one of its bunkers was replaced and strengthened. "One of our biggest accomplishments in this whole thing has been to keep the war in the boonies,'' Col. Marquis maintained, claiming the alternative would have been fighting in the villages with attendant civilian casualties.

Of course, that was not the nature of war in the Central Highlands. Gen. Timothy, the II Corps deputy senior adviser, noted that the battle had exposed grave weaknesses in South Vietnamese leadership, particularly among junior officers and NCOs. As for the idea of Ben Het stopping infiltration in the tri-border region, the camp continued to be held until late in the war and was eventually converted into an ARVN Ranger outpost.

It was the North Vietnamese who masked Ben Het, not the other way around, and often with very small forces. The American media were lambasted, both by Col. Lien and by U.S. officers, for reporting that Ben Het had been a test of Vietnamization, of the ability of the South Vietnamese army to fight on their own. Field commanders denied this. But the Joint Chiefs of Staff history records that Ben Het "was the first major independent RVNAF operation of the war and was anxiously watched by U.S. military advisers as a test of [South Vietnamese] effectiveness.''

Clearly a lot more work needed to be done.
 

   

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