INTRODUCTION TO UP COMING BOOK "Hell in An Loc"
While searching for a title for this book, I was inspired by Bernard Fall’s Hell in a Very Small Place, in which the late Vietnam historian described in dramatic details the fifty-five day horrors at the French camp retrancheù of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Little did the author know that 18 years after the French humiliating defeat at that small place near the Laotian border, a small plantation town near the Cambodian border was to bear the brunt of a longer and more brutal onslaught - and prevailed.
The title to this book is also borrowed in part from the article The Battle That Saved Saigon by Philip C. Clarke (Reader Digest, March 1973). Its introduction reads:
“Three days before Easter last spring, the North Vietnamese struck South Vietnam with a fury unknown to the Vietnam war since the Tet offensive four years earlier. They poured south across the DMZ, smashed into the central highland from Laos, crossed the border from Cambodia and, with an army of 36,000 men and 100 Russian-made tanks, raced toward Saigon, boasting that they’d be in the city by May 19, Ho Chi Minh’s birth day. From one end of the country to the other, bases and villages fell before the savagery of their onslaught. By April 5, all that blocked them from Saigon was a ragtag band of 6,800 South Vietnamese regulars and militiamen and a handful of American advisors holed up in Anloc, a once-prosperous rubber-plantation town of 15,000 astride Highway 13, which led to the capital, 60 miles to the south. Here is the story of the communists’ thunderous assault on Anloc - and of the resistance that was to change the course of the war and made peace a possibility.”
The South Vietnamese army had indeed won a decisive victory against overwhelming odds. According to Maj. Gen. James F. Hollingsworth, Senior Advisor to ARVN III Corps, “The real credit goes to the little ARVN soldier. He is just tremendous, just magnificent. He stood in there, took all that fire and gave it back.”
Special credit should also be given to the American advisors who fought valiantly alongside their counterparts and, more importantly, provided effective air support and coordinated resupply and medevac operations for the beleaguered garrison. Their mere presence constituted a tremendous boost to the morale of ARVN troops because it embodied the U.S. commitment to support South Vietnam in these darkest hours of its history. Recently, a retired U.S. Army officer requested my autograph for my book The Twenty-Five Year Century. He also said he was an advisor to an ARVN unit defending An Loc. I told that officer that, if I could borrow from Napoleon’s famous address to his victorious army at Austerlitz, I would tell him he is a brave man.
An Loc, indeed, had become the symbol of the determination of the South Vietnamese Army and its people to stand at all costs in face of the enemy. A depleted army, outnumbered and outgunned, stood its ground and fought to the end and succeeded, against all expectations, in beating back furious assaults from three NVA divisions, supported by artillery and armored regiments, during three months of savage fighting.
General Paul Vannuxem, a French veteran of the Indochina War, called An Loc “the Verdun of Viet Nam.” Sir Robert Thompson, special advisor to President Nixon, considered An Loc the greatest military victory of the Free World against Communism in the post-World War II era. Yet, this victory was largely unreported in the U.S. media, which had effectively lost interest in the war after the disengagement of U.S. forces following the Vietnamization of the conflict. With the exception of Trial by Fire-The 1972 Easter Offensive- America’s Last Vietnam Battle (Hippocrene Books, New York, 1995) by Dale Andradeù and The Battle of An Loc (Indiana University Press, 2005) by James H. Willbanks, very little in the U.S. literature on the Vietnam conflict have been written about this epic battle. Further, while the above two books provided a wealth of details about the use of U.S. airpower and the role of the U.S. advisors, they didn’t provide equal coverage to the activities and performance of ARVN units participating in the siege. This behavior may be a reflection of what an American reporter called “national narcissism,” the idea that history is just about us, not the other guys.
Language barrier may be one of the reasons many acts of heroism of South Vietnamese soldiers were ignored by the U.S. media. According to a U.S. reporter who covered the Viet Nam War in the 1960’s and 1970’s, few U.S. reporters tried to learn Vietnamese while the South Vietnamese were never good at explaining themselves. I believe that Americans’reluctance to learn other countries’culture and language is the reflection of their arrogance and that this situation resulted from a basic American ethnocentric attitude, which consisted of judging other people by using American customs and standards, or worse, by judging other people’s customs and standards as inferior to the American ones.
Tracing a parallel between the Viet Nam War and the Iraq War, Robert G. Kaiser, an associate editor of the Washington Post - who covered the Viet Nam war in 1969 and 1970 - recently wrote: “..In truth, we are ethnocentric to a fault, certain of our superiority, convinced that others see us as we do, blithely indifferent to cultural, political and historical realities far different from our own. These failings – more than any tactical or strategic errors – help explain the U.S. catastrophes in Viet Nam and Iraq.” While the assertion in the second proposition is debatable, few would deny the truth as described in the first one.
This ethnocentric attitude and the resulting language barrier may explain why, for example, when Hollywood made the movie “BAT 21”in1998 about the dramatic rescue of an American pilot shot down in Quang Tri province in 1972, it left out the key member of the rescue team: He was South Vietnamese Petty Officer Nguyen Van Kiet, who spent 11 days behind enemy lines helping to locate the downed pilot. For his heroic action, Kiet was awarded the U.S. Navy Cross, the highest award that can be given to a foreign combatant.
In my opinion, the scarcity of information regarding the performance of ARVN troops was often due to the tendency for self-aggrandizement on the part of some American advisors. “Victory has many children, defeat is an orphan,” goes a saying. In laying claims to the lion share in the victory of a battle, such as the successful defense of An Loc, they tended - sometimes unintentionally - to minimize the contribution of the units they were advising. Even General Hollingsworth - who had given due credit to the “little ARVN soldier”- seemed, at times, to have been carried away. In his book Reporting Viet Nam- Media and Military at War, William M. Hammond reported that General Hollingsworth declared during an interview with Newsweek that he intended to “kill” all of An Loc attackers before they returned to Cambodia. In a subsequent taped interview with CBS News, Hollingsworth said he had refused to approve the Red Cross’s proposal to declare a temporary cease-fire in order to evacuate the wounded. Hammond added that: “Since it was clear that Hollingsworth considered himself the commander at An Loc even though a South Vietnamese officer was technically in charge, the remark contradicted U.S. assertions that the South Vietnamese were in total control of their own affairs. Soon after the interview appeared, indeed, an angry General Abrams instructed Hollingsworth to shut his mouth.” ARVN officers in III Corps held General Hollingsworth in high esteem; they appreciated his determination and invaluable contribution to the An Loc victory. Sadly, good men with the best of intentions are not immune to mistakes.
It is no secret, on the other hand, that, for one reason or another, the U.S. media was biased – if not outright hostile - to the Viet Nam War. The war was presented from the most unfavorable angles with the media sensationalizing the news and distorting the truth if necessary to achieve its antiwar objectives. During the 1968 Tet Offensive, for example, in the heavily damaged Ben Tre province in the Mekong Delta, an unnamed U.S. advisor, in response to reporters’ remarks about the destruction of the city, stated that “it became necessary to destroy Ben Tre in order to save it.” This unfortunate remark has since been used time and again by anti-war activists and politicians. In his book Reporting Viet Nam, William Hammond wrote, “The New York Times seized upon the remark as soon as it appeared. So did Time. From there it passed into the lore of the war to become one of the most serviceable icons of the antiwar movement.” Under these conditions, reporting the victory of An Loc would contradict the U.S. media’s basic premise that the war cannot be won because ARVN was a corrupt and ineffective force.
I believe that it is time to set the record straight. Without denying the tremendous contribution of the U.S. advisors and pilots to the success of An Loc, this book is written primarily to tell the South Vietnamese side of the story and, more importantly, to render justice to the little South Vietnamese soldier who withstood 94 days of horror and prevailed.
In researching my book, I relied heavily on multiple Vietnamese language writings on An Loc which were made available after 1975. In particular, Bri. Gen. Tran Van Nhut, former Binh Long province chief, provided invaluable information relative to the performance of provincial forces during the siege in his memoir Cuoc Chien Dang Do(Unfinished War). A new book Chien Thang An Loc (The Victory of An Loc) published in 2007 by Lt. Col. Nguyen Ngoc Anh, former Assistant for Operations, ARVN III Corps, on the other hand, provided insightful information on staff activities and decision-making process at III Corps Headquarters.
I would like to thank Bri. Gen. Mach Van Truong, former 8th Regiment commander, who has provided me with his personal account of the performance of 5th ARVN Division units in An Loc. My deep appreciation goes to Colonel Phan Van Huan, former 81st Airborne Commando Group, for having made available to me copies of old Airborne Commando editions relating the activities of this elite unit during the last stages of the siege.
I am especially indebted to numerous fellow officers who readily responded to my requests for interviews or provided me with invaluable historical documents relating to the Battle of An Loc. My special thank to Colonel Nguyen Dinh Sach, former chief of staff, 21st Division, for having provided me with a compilation of various narratives from former officers of that division, who had participated in the relief operation on Route Nationale 13.
My deepest gratitude, however, goes to my comrades-in-arms who had given their lives in the defense of the city. After the war, the grateful people of An Loc erected a special monument in honor of the fallen soldiers of the 81st Airborne Commando Group. Inscribed on the monument was the following epitome:
“An Loc Xa Vang Danh Chien Dia
Biet Cach Du Vi Quoc Vong Than.”
(In An Loc, which reverberates the fame of the Battleground,
The Airborne Commandos gave their lives for the nation.)
Although the elite airborne commandos had particularly distinguished themselves during the siege, credit should be given to all defenders of An Loc, regulars as well as territorials, who had prevailed against heavy odds. They have inspired me throughout this book and were a source of constant encouragement for me to carry-out this major undertaking. To all these “unsung heroes”, I dedicate this book.