Three Months with the Regional Forces’ Soldiers.
The Quang Tri Military Sector conference room was crowded with about thirty men eager to receive their assignment orders. They were new officers who had recently graduated from Thu Duc Infantry School and six cadets from Polwar College. They would soon depart to six sub-sectors to work closely with the RF and PF soldiers in the next three months. They were members of a political campaign vital to the republic’s destiny during the great turning point of its history.
It has been more than two years since we entered Polwar College. Now that it was the end of our long journey of tough military training and an academic curriculum. We were very excited, waiting for a beautiful day to earn the final reward as newly commissioned officers of the Vietnamese Armed Forces.
However, things did not happen as expected. The Vietnam War shifted to a new phase that caused our graduation to be postponed, and we assumed the task of the large nationwide political project – the Zien Hong Campaign.
The year 1968 marked the great victory of the Armed Forces against the Communists’ General Offensive and General Uprising. North Vietnam miscalculated South Vietnam’s situation in the years following the coup d’etat that overthrew President Diem’s administration. South Vietnam had experienced a dark period when the military junta members fought against each other for power. The army almost deteriorated due to the politically chaotic situation. Ho Chi Minh and his gang estimated that it was the ideal opportunity for a final attempt to occupy South Vietnam.
Suddenly, on the eve of the lunar new year, when millions of South Vietnamese were enjoying the short break from war to celebrate the new year, while most ARVN troops were on leave, the Communists violated the cease-fire truce and launched surprise attacks simultaneously throughout South Vietnam.
An estimated one hundred thousand Communist troops, including the North Vietnamese Army, were committed to the General Offensive and Uprising, the largest campaign ever in the war. That occurred in over 100 towns and cities, including 36 provincial capitals. The most intensive combat happened in Hue, the old capital. It lasted over three weeks since the communists took control of the city.
The ARVN quickly regrouped to counterattack and inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy. About eighty percent of Viet Cong personnel were killed or wounded in the battle, and almost one hundred percent of Viet Cong infrastructure was exposed, destroyed, and paralyzed for a long time afterward.
Although the offensive was a military and political defeat for North Vietnam and was a brilliant victory for South Vietnam, it was viewed by the American public as the weakness of South Vietnam when we could not prevent this from happening!
The American government was pressured to negotiate with the enemy to end the war. American people wanted to bring their sons back and end their involvement in Vietnam. In May 1968, Ha Noi and the United States began the peace talk in Paris, which South Vietnam strongly opposed.
Ha Noi had no intention of searching for peace. After the failure of the General Offensive, they needed time to lick their wounded and pretended that they were a peace-loving side. They demanded that the National Liberation Front be a part of the peace talks. President Thieu of South Vietnam had repeatedly declared that he would never consider the NFL a legitimate political force to negotiate. From a South Vietnamese perspective, the war had been started by Ha Noi (the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) against The Republic of Vietnam, and the National Liberation Front was only the tool of North Vietnamese Communists. He would never sit down with this puppet gang.
Paris Peace Talk was at a dead end until the United States pressured President Thieu to agree to a solution with the presence of four sides at the table. Then, another problem arose. How would the four delegations sit at the table? Would the Americans and South Vietnam be on one side and North Vietnam and the NFL on the opposing side of a long table? Or would they sit separately on four sides of a square table?
In dealing with the communists, the Americans seemed to be naïve. They did not care about the format, while the enemies considered it as important as the contents. To them, anything would be used as a propaganda tool. Communists were the master of deception. At first, Hanoi wanted the NFL to take a major part in the peace talks with the Americans. For years, Hanoi denied its role in the war and considered the United States (not South Vietnam) as the NFL’s primary enemy by having the NFL sit at the table.
Ho Chi Minh and the VCP aimed to take South Vietnam and establish Communism in the whole country. They would never share power with anyone else. Knowing that peaceful coexistence with the Communists would be unthinkable, President Thieu strongly opposed and refused to go to the talk. The US complained that President Thieu’s repeated objection obstructed the peace process. The election season in the States was coming, and President Johnson wanted to resolve the Vietnam War to please the American public. He employed the “carrot and stick” policy to convince President Thieu to give in.
The news confused the South Vietnamese people and upset the military. To ease the growing worry and concern of losing the country to the Communists, President Thieu appeared on national television and reaffirmed his standpoint: The government would not negotiate with the enemy when in a disadvantageous situation and would not yield to the enemy at peace talk.
The president then ordered the ARVN Joint General Staff to launch the Zien Hong campaign, the largest one ever in the history of the army. About one thousand officers were sent to the smallest units of the Regional and Popular Forces in 45 provinces, where they would carry out the three-together plan with the troops and the countryfolk – Live together, dine together, and fight together.
The Polwar General Department mobilized the whole 1st class of Polwar cadets for this campaign. The cadets would lead a four-member team of three aspirants who had recently graduated from the Infantry School.
The primary objectives of the campaign were to explain the firm standpoint of the government, to confirm the determination to defend South Vietnam against the Communist invasion, to win the hearts and minds of the peasants, and to boost the morale of the soldiers.
The campaign inauguration at Thu Duc Infantry School was presided over by President Thieu with all members of his cabinet. It coincided with the graduation ceremony of the 3-68 Class of the reserve officer candidates. About eight hundred new officers of that class joined us in this campaign. We were very proud to be part of this historic event that had never happened before in the Armed Forces.
The officers then were formed into 45 groups, each having from 4 to 6 teams of four. A captain or 1st Lieutenant led the group, and the polwar cadets were the team leaders. Our boss should have advised us to interact with the team members who were already officers and we were still cadets. Some of us wore the aspirant rank insignia, others, 2nd Lieutenant, without any trouble.
I was assigned to Sadec, a remote district in the 4th Military Region. Luckily, a friend of mine asked me to swap the units. Sadec was his hometown, and his assignment was in Dong Ha of the 1st Military Region. Dong Ha was a small town 13 kilometers north of Quang Tri, where I grew up and lived with my mother until 1965. Dong Ha was an important location where the 1st and the 9th National Routes intersected. Via the 9th, an endless flow of merchandise – transported between Vietnam and Laos – enriched this small town even when the war escalated.
During the war, Dong Ha – 15 kilometers south of the demilitarized zone – became the front line of South Vietnam. It was home to the 2nd Infantry Regiment, and in 1966, the US 3rd Marine Amphibious Force was deployed in this region. It built a massive base along the National Route One from Dong Ha to Quang Tri. The Ai Tu (halfway between Dong Ha and Quang Tri) was one of the busiest airfields in Vietnam.
Dong Ha became a district sometime in 1965. The sub-sector had one RF company and about two dozen PF platoons. Its headquarters was located behind the Buddhist temple near the railroad station – The last station of the trans-Viet Rail Road. It had been abandoned since the war escalated in 1963.
Before 1965, the military affairs of the province were under a Deputy Province Chief for Internal Security. This man – usually a captain of the regular army – was also the chief of Bao An Provincial Group (Tỉnh Đoàn Bảo An). These territorial forces belonged to the Ministry of Interior. Previously, they were from partisan militia groups.
In 1964, Bao An and Dan Ve were incorporated into the Army and were renamed Regional and Popular Forces.
The RF and PF troops were poorly equipped and trained. The qualifications for their officers were lower than those of the regular forces.
The government then appointed senior officers as Province Chiefs and Sector Commanders. The Sector had the strength similar to a brigade in the regular army. Each province had an average of 20 RF companies and 100 PF platoons. Besides a company of light armor vehicles and a logistics center, the sectors did not have their artillery or other supporting battalions.
Because of the above reasons, the people looked at the territorial forces lightly. In many cases, the RF units proved themselves as brilliant as other regular units. They carried the burden of defending the inhabitant regions and contributed to the great victories throughout wartime. Regarding the percentage of KIA, the territorial forces suffered heavier losses than the regulars.
For two years, in 1965 and 1966, I worked for the Counter Terrorism Advisory Office at Quang Trị. I followed my boss -Mr. Kenwood Foster – to visit many RF and PF units to exchange experiences of fighting against terrorism. I met some PF leaders who were so skillful and courageous. They knew every move of the guerilla. They knew every secret relationship between the villagers and Viet Cong. They were as good as any soldier of reconnaissance units. I made acquaintance with then Lieutenant Vũ Đức Vọng, the superintendent of an Armed Propaganda Training Center that was located on the outskirts of the city. Vọng had been an NCO of Bao An Group (Predecessor of the RF). When Bao An converted to the RF, he went to Thu Đuc Infantry School and graduated from a special class as a 2nd RF Lieutenant. He was a good man, fully competent not only in military tactics but also in political activities. Mr. Foster told me that Vong would have a bright future in his military career.
More than two years later, when I met him again in Quang Trị, he was a captain and chief of the Polwar Office of the Sector. He did not disappoint me as he talked to our group in a warm voice and very persuasive manner. He proved to us a broad knowledge of the field that I had been educated in.
I met him again in the communist concentration camp Xuan Phuoc. We were in the same barrack during my last four years in prison. Though he got no visit or supply from his family, he kept his head high and never gave up his personality. He became a role model in such harsh conditions for a long time. We loved and admired him.
I led a team of four. Two of them were from Quang Tri: Aspirant Vo Trung was my childhood and high school friend; Aspirant Nguyen Vang was from Lavang, the sacred place where the Virgin Maria once descended to comfort the Christians whom the Viet emperor had persecuted. Aspirant Le Van No was from some area in the Mekong Delta. I let No stay in my house in the good care of my mother.
The Dong Ha sub-sector was smaller than other sectors in Quang Tri. Since there were no enemy activities in the territory, we could ride the motorcycles to work with the RF and PF in the early morning and return home in the evening. We worked with each PF platoon for three or four days. We sometimes stayed overnight with the soldiers to earn their trust and confidence.
The three-togethers turned out to be very joyful. I did not have to act like a formal speaker but sat down with them and talked friendly and frankly about the topics they were interested in. Firstly, there were only soldiers, then they invited the villagers to join us. The day always ended with singing, dancing, and a simple dinner with whatever they could have in their gardens.
Loyalty was one of the good characteristics of the people of Quang Tri. They would be faithful to the ideology they pursue and fight to the death to defend it. In the Mau Than general offensive, Viet Cong lost thousands of troops and were stopped at the city suburb.
In the third week, we participated in a special operation that lasted ten days in a remote hamlet with signs of Viet Cong activities.
The 2nd Infantry Regiment battalions searched a large area to secure the hamlet and minimize the enemies’ movement. Dong Ha sub-sector implemented the Phoenix plan to flush out the Viet Cong moles who had blended into the population. The security agents worked with the S-2 officers to check the households of people who had a relationship with the Viet Cong to find any discrepancies in their identification. Some informers helped detect the suspects. On a large ground, we built tents and booths where the medical team provided healthcare to the people, and the Psywar officers distributed magazines and books. Another Psywar team entertained the folk with songs and music. It was more like a festival than a political operation except for one discomfort as the hamlet people had to stay there during the operation. They were provided daily meals and necessities.
I remember the first day we reported to work. The sub-sector commander, an old major, treated us like VIPs. He suspected that the General Staff sent us to spy on his district. We indeed reported only the progress of our activities, the soldiers’ morality, and the country folk’s political tendency at the monthly meeting of the Sector. We also sent daily reports to the campaign’s central office in Saigon. As days passed, the major and we became friendlier.
I learned a lot from the soldiers of the popular force. I felt closer to my home village. I discovered more things I had not seen as a child.
We left Dong Ha in late March and gathered at the Quang Tri Sector Polwar office to finalize our campaign. Each team leader was awarded a certificate of recommendation signed by the Sector Commander. We flew back to Saigon and then to Dalat to prepare for our graduation.
There was no closing ceremony compared to the grandiose inauguration three months ago. Zien Hong’s campaign ended quietly, like other campaigns in the past.