The 5th Infantry Division

Michael Do

There were eleven infantry divisions in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. The 1st, the 2nd, the 3rd (belonged to the I Corps/ 1st Military Region); the 22nd and the 23rd (II Corps/ 2nd MR); the 5th, the 18th, and the 25th (III Corps/ 3rd MR); and the 7th, the 9th, and the 21st (IV Corps/ 4th MR).

Initially, the 5th ID was founded in the far north of Vietnam. During the First Indochina War, the French army recruited its soldiers from the Nung ethnicity to form groups to patrol the Vietnamese-Chinese border. Nung people speak Guangdong Chinese with a particular accent. Many fled China after the Chinese Communists seized power in 1949. Their commanding officer was Colonel Vong A Sang, who later became the first commander of the 5th ID.

After the partition of Vietnam in 1954, five Nung battalions (the 32nd, 67th, 71st, 72nd, and 75th) were moved to Ba Ngoi of Khanh Hoa Province. In 1955, they moved again to Song Mao of Binh Thuan Province to be reorganized into the 6th Infantry Division. On August 1, 1955, it was renamed the 6th Field Division, then the 41st Field Division (September 9, 2955), then the 3rd Field Division (November 11, 1955), and finally, the 5th Infantry Division (January 1959).

Since then, President Diem has ordered more Vietnamese soldiers to join the Division. Nung men were no longer the majority of the unit. Along with the Division’s headquarters, the 7th and the 8th Regiments gradually moved to Bien Hoa to replace the 7th ID, which, in turn, moved to Can Tho of the 4th Region. Its 9th Regiment stayed in the 2nd Region.

The Division – under the command of Colonel Nguyen Van Thieu – took an important part in the coup d’état that overthrew President Diem on November 1, 1963. Colonel Thieu moved up very quickly in power. In 1965,  the Armed Forces Council elected him to be Chairman of the National Leadership Council, and in 1967, he was later elected President of the 2nd Republic.

In July 1964, the Division headquarters moved to Phu Loi of Binh Duong Province. It was assigned to cover three provinces north of Saigon (Binh Duong, adjacent to Saigon; Binh Long, and Phuoc Long, bordered by Cambodia).

In February 1970, the first phase of Vietnamization started. The 5th ID moved into Lai Khe Base, the house of the US 1st Infantry – the Big Red One. Units of two divisions worked together in many operations, particularly the Search-and-Destroy operations in the enemy’s war zones and the Iron Triangle secret zone.

The 5th ID headquarters base – Lai Khe – was about 20 miles north of Saigon. Lai Khe had been a big rubber plantation with a Rubber Research Center before the Big Red One used it as a military base.

The 5th ID had three component regiments, one HQ company, one Long Range Reconnaissance Company, one Armored Cavalry Regiment, four Artillery Battalions, and several other supporting battalions such as Military Medical, Logistics, Signal, Civil Engineer; some companies such as Military police, Transportation, and Ordnance. Total strength was about ten thousand soldiers.  

The 5th ID was one of the well-known divisions thanks to its territory that covered the major enemy’s secret zones. The Division suffered heavy losses in the 1960s. It operated in a vast area, eighty percent of which was the dense forest the enemies used as secret zones since the First Indochina War. Over the Viet-Cambodia border was the safe haven of the National Liberation Front (aka Viet Cong). From the northern province of Central Vietnam, North Vietnamese troops marched southward along the west side of Truong Son Mountain in lower Laos territory. Their destination was Cambodia’s Mo Vet Secret Zone, bordering the Vietnamese Province of Tay Ninh. The War Zone C spread long from that point down to the south across Tay Ninh, Binh Duong, and Gia Dinh Provinces.

Besides, there were other secret zones in the 5th ID operational area, such as Iron Triangle, Ho Bo, and Boi Loi, where occurred many bloody battles: the Dong Xoai battle in the summer of 1965, the battle at the 13 bis Village in Michelin Plantation in November 1965; each killed hundreds of soldiers of either side.

Under the command of General Pham Quoc Thuan, the 5th ID became one of the best Infantry Divisions of the Army. In 1969, the Division was awarded the 6th unit citation along with the Gallantry Cross with Palm.

It was the first time in its history that thirty-nine new graduates from the Polwar College were assigned to all rifle companies of the Division.

I served with the 5th Infantry Division for three years (1969-1971) as a combat officer at the company level. When I reported to the personnel J-1 in May 1969, the Division was chosen as the experimental unit to carry out the New Horizon campaign to boost the morale of the soldiers as well as to improve their combat skills.

In 1969 and 1970, we got involved in the Toan Thang operations, the division-level incursion deep in the Cambodia Province of Kratie. The target was to search and destroy the headquarters of the Central Office of South Vietnam – the highest body of the Communist Party in South Vietnam that oversaw the Liberation Front, the Liberation Army, and the puppet Provisional government of the Republic of South Vietnam.

Three times in February 1970, my battalion encountered the 165th and 174th Regiments of the Viet Cong 5th and 7th Divisions in a forest north of Snuol, Cambodia. We killed a total of 150 enemies, including their regiment commander.

One of the major battles in the Vietnam War was the defense of An Loc in the summer of 1972. An Loc was the capital city of Binh Long Province, about 65 miles north of Saigon. It was a small city of 15,000 inhabitants, surrounded by rubber plantations. Communists launched the massive Spring Offensive in three major cities of South Vietnam at the same time. The battle of An Loc began in mid-April 1972 and lasted over two months. Communists committed a total estimated force of 35,500 personnel to the battle. There were three NVA and VC divisions and numerous supporting units, including three artillery regiments and a tank regiment, to encircle and attack the small city, defended by elements of the 5th ID and the Regional Forces. Days before the battle, Viet Cong overran Phuoc Binh and occupied most of the outposts in the province of Phuoc Long. They also occupied several other ARVN outposts along National Route 13 from An Loc to the Cambodian border.

It was the enemy’s first use of conventional tactics and employed mighty weaponry far exceeding what we had ever encountered. The enemy’s artillery rounds and rockets were shelling violently and continuously at the city for over two months. The city was hit by mortar, rocket, and artillery, estimated at over 78,000 rounds during the siege, between 1,500 to 2,000 rounds daily! On May 11, seven thousand rounds fell on the ARVN position in just four hours (one shell per five seconds).

An Loc was later reinforced with the 3rd Ranger Group, the 81st Airborne Ranger, and the 1st Airborne Brigade, plus elements of other units who survived and escaped from the lost bases. Our forces in and around the city grew to a total of four regiments of about 3000 soldiers; they still were outnumbered 6 to 1 by the enemy forces.

It was also the first time our infantrymen heard the horrible rumble of scores of T-54 and PT-76 tanks. The tanks led the NVA infantrymen in numerous assaults on the defenders. The first T-54 was shot down by Colonel Le Nguyen Vy, the Operation Assistant to the III Corps Commander when it approached the TOC bunker of General Hung. Inspired by this valor act, soldiers were confident dealing with the tanks.

The siege was broken by the end of May 1972. The friendly forces sustained 5,400 casualties, of whom 2,300 were killed or missing. NVA suffered over 10,000 soldiers killed and 15,000 wounded in the fight at An Loc and its surrounding areas. Some NVA regiments were almost 100 percent destroyed.

General Le Van Hung, the 5th ID Commander, when a senior officer was given the title “one of the five mighty tigers” of the Mekong Delta – the 4th Military Region. At the beginning of the siege, he vowed he would sacrifice his life to hold the city at any cost.

And he did! He fulfilled his promise! He was one of the generals (including the 5th ID’s last commander, General Le Nguyen Vy) who committed suicide when the Communists entered Saigon on April 30, 1975