The First New Year’s Victory

Michael Do

“Raise the Flag on the ThPong Vietnam Village before the Sunrise! An Audacious Determination on Battlefield in Cambodia.”

Captain Nguyen Chi Hien led the battalion in a triumphal return to Lai Khe.

That was the big headline run on the front page of all Saigon newspapers on the first days of the Tân Hợi lunar new year to celebrate the victory of the 4/8th Battalion at Snuol, Cambodia.

The truth is the battle began at sunrise and quickly ended in the afternoon. Although it was a short battle, it marked the first brilliant victory of the ARVN on the battlefield outside the frontier.

The ARVN orchestrated the big operation Total Victory 71-NB to hunt the elements of the Center Office of South Vietnam and the units of the National Liberation Army in hiding in the Cambodian provinces that bordered the 3rd and 4th Military Regions of Vietnam. The participants were the field groups formed by the 3rd and 4th Army Corps units, the Marines, the Rangers, and the Armored Cavalry.

After the Mau Than General Offensive, the enemy’s forces in South Vietnam were almost destroyed. Their infrastructure was exposed and hunted down in the areas they used to control. The remainder of the Communist troops had to retreat to their secret zones deep in Cambodia territories along the border.

In the years that followed Mau Than 1968 victory, we participated in many operations in three provinces Bình Dương, Bình Long, and Phuớc Long. We rarely contacted our enemies; only were harassed by the guerrillas who were in hiding.

At the end of 1970, my battalion was temporarily attached to the Capital Special Region as a security force in the northeast suburb of Saigon. We were here to prevent the enemies from infiltrating the hamlet, and from there, they could bombard Saigon with mortars and even with 107 mm or 122 mm rockets.

We were deployed in a vast swamp that covered a quarter of the Saigon suburban district of Cat Lai. We were not far from Saigon center. Vietnamese people were prepared for the Tet (Lunar New Year) celebration. At night, the capital city was illuminated by hundreds of thousands of colorful lights. The delightful sound of music reached our ears all night long. We could not help dreaming of a reunion with our loved ones in the warm atmosphere of New Year’s Eve.

We unloaded near the small hamlet by the dirt road that led to the Cat Lai district compound. Captain Hien set up his Battalion CP in the local elementary school. We moved to our positions about one kilometer from the hamlet. This area had dozens of creeks, rivulets, and the like interlacing. There was no other tree except the short palm trees (like Dwarf Majesty Palm); we set our defense positions under their feather-like leaves. We walked slowly on the dike along the creek where the cat palm trees grew at the banks. The palm trees were about 6 feet high; their trunk was about one foot in diameter and was not strong enough for us to hang the hammocks. When the water retreated in the daytime, we could move on the dike and across the creek. The mud at the creek bed was about a foot deep, and we could manage. But in the late afternoon, the creek became impassable after 4 or 5 p.m. till morning as the water rose. Even on the dike, water reached our ankles. We could only stand up with our backs leaning against one another to sleep. Of course, it was very uncomfortable! That was how we spent the nights during our operation in this area.

Our soldiers set the claymore mines on the dike and trap wires across the creek. Viet Cong used sampans to move in this area. They could approach and throw grenades at our position.

Captain Hien strictly forbade us to leave our posts at night. He suspected that we would sneak to go dancing in Saigon. Our predecessor, the 38th Rangers, lost some of their officers when these men returned and were ambushed by the guerrillas.

At the end of the operation, I could organize a small celebration to cater to my soldiers with traditional food and rice wine. Better late than not!

We returned to Lai Khe on February 1, 1971, expecting a short break of several days before jumping to another operation. We settled in the barracks near the gate on the other side of the airstrip. Late in the evening, I had just eaten dinner and was about to go to bed when I received an urgent order to go to the regiment headquarters. It was 11 p.m.

At the S-3 office, we were rushed into the operation center, where Colonel Bui Trach Dan, the Regiment Commander, and his staff were already seated. The intelligence officer gave us a bunch of maps with bizarre letters. It turned out to be maps of the Kratie province of Cambodia.

Colonel Dan opened two bottles of Hennessy and handed each of us a glass. He said,

“The Corps organized the 9th Assault Group with the 1st Armored Regiment and two battalions of the 9th Regiment. There are two other battalions, each from the 7th and our Regiment. We will be invading Cambodia and moving up along the 13 Route to search and destroy the headquarters of Viet Cong in Snuol district. You are chosen to represent our Regiment to join Operation Toan Thang 71 NB. We will replace the 9th when this 1st phase ends in about two months. I always trust you guys and wish you luck and success.”

ONE BY ONE, the S-2 and S-3 officers briefed us on the enemy and tactical situations.

“I have sent words to your battalion and company NCOs. You must be ready now,” The S-3 officer announced, “We depart at 4 a.m. We must reach the border no later than 5 p.m.”

We returned to the barracks and saw that tanks and APCs had been there. Sergeant Hung and Sergeant Thanh distributed the ammo and meals to the soldiers. There was no time to sleep! I told my men to make the best of the time to get some sleep while on the APCs and be careful not to fall off the vehicles.

We stopped at Loc Ninh at 04:00 p.m. Loc Ninh was the furthest district on National Route 13 before going about 5 kilometers to the Cambodian border and intersecting Route 7 at Snuol, a district of Kratie Province. Loc Ninh was claimed by the Communists as the capital of the so-called Republic of South Vietnam (a puppet government created by Ha Noi).

We were told to unload and eat dinner while waiting for further orders. At this departing point, hundreds of soldiers of various branches were walking back and forth in an instant.

Not far from my position, General Do Cao Tri, the III Corps Commander, reviewed the map and gave orders to the commanding officers.

As I was about to move my troops to the line of departure, the radioman reported that my wife and my son had arrived at Lai Khe. They wished to talk to me.

“I came to visit you, knowing you had just returned from an operation in Saigon.” My wife said in a sad and disappointed voice.

“Yes, I also expected to see you,” I said, “but this operation is unpredictable. I am at the border now and getting ready to move forward. Please, go back home. Kiss the baby for me. I’ll see you when this ends.”

We moved slowly in the wild. The forest on the Cambodian side was not dense. It was early spring, and the trees were high with new green leaves. Dead leaves were rustling under our feet. Around us, the grass made a soft carpet dotted with yellow wild daisies. The river Chlong serpents between rows of crepe myrtle trees of which pink flowers were blooming.

We could hear the noise of soldiers of the 333rd Ranger Field Group who were at our left flank. The talk mixed with the clinking sound of weapons. Apart from the heavy stuff on our back, it was more like a field trip camping rather than a military operation.

We were bent down by heavy equipment in our backpacks and suspenders. We had three times the standard of ammo, six hand grenades, six empty sandbags, a shovel, meals for seven days, and two water canteens. Half of us carried an M-72 rocket launcher; the other half,  one claymore mine. Claymore mines were very effective in defending against the assault by human waves of enemies. Sandbags were to strengthen our defense positions even if we temporarily paused for just one night. At least they saved us from direct fire or fragments of shells.

On February 4, we entered the Snuol suburb. Corporal Bo of the 3rd Platoon shot and killed an NVA regular. That unlucky guy was riding a bicycle with his AK-47 mounted on the hand bar.

On February 6, we approached a hamlet and discovered the enemies were setting tables for a big party. We charged and killed two at the scene and captured three weapons plus a long table full of delicious foods and rice wine.

On February 8, while we settled in an abandoned garden of a hamlet, PFC Lai Bel and PFC Nghia, the drunkard caught a rabbit and barbecued it in an open space. VC snipers from the hamlet shot dead both of them. I ordered the capture of all adult men in the hamlet and sent them to the Regiment S-2 for interrogation.

On February 9, the field group occupied the Snuol military compound and set up a fire support base.

We were moving toward a big plantation northeast of Snuol when we heard a shot fired. It was seven a.m., and the fire came from the opposite direction. It was the enemy’s alarming fire. At 8, we could see a complex of two hamlets at the center of the plantation. One was Thpong Vietnam with thatched roof houses; the other was ThPong Cham with stilt houses. They were separated by a dirt road. Names of the hamlets told us that there were Vietnamese workers in one settlement and the Champa workers in the other. The S-2 officer warned that there would be an enemy regiment of the NVA 5th ID stationed in this area. He also noticed that the civilians in the hamlets had fled when the NVA troops chased away the Cambodian army.

My Company was spread out on the right side, facing ThPong Vietnam. The 16th Company of Lieutenant Duong Quang Boi was on the left side, facing ThPong Cham. We moved slowly to the targets. Before we could see what happened in the hamlets, the enemies opened fire with rifles and heavy machine guns at our formation.

Our soldiers hid behind a row of rubber trees and observed. In front of us, we saw a shallow trench, a dirt road, and the enemy defense line. At the corners of the hamlets, they posted heavy machine guns to dominate the field.

Our first casualties were the medic Corporal Sau and Private No who were following behind me. They were killed by the shot fired from the corner of the hamlet. The rubber trees had been planted in rows and lines. The gunner at the corners could fire in a diagonal direction. That explained why the men behind me got shot.

We were pinned down by the enemy’s heavy fire, not moving an inch. We kept in a stalemate for about an hour, and then the ground was set on fire. The thick carpet of dried rubber leaves caught fire, and the wind helped the fire spread quickly. We were pushed back by the fire and had to run far away from the targets. Captain Hien shouted on the radio,

“Stop and jump over the fire to come back.”

We did as ordered and returned to the ditch in front of the hamlets. We heard the sound of a helicopter and the voice of General Tri,

“This God damned target must be taken before dark! If you cannot do it, let me know. I will have another battalion to take over.”

“We will, General,” Captain Hien said confidently.

“OK then. I will give promotion to the commander of the Company that raises the flag on this hamlet.”

At two o’clock, Boi was hit in his arm and was evacuated. Lieutenant Hung “the Skull” replaced him.

I made a radio call to Captain Hien,

“74, this is 51. We could only suppress them by pounding with artillery. I request ten rounds of ten shells beginning from the rear end of the hamlet and moving toward the front end. My men will charge right after the last explosion.”

“51, this is 74,”  Captain Hien said, “I am afraid that the artillery would not dare to shell too close to our troops.”

“From our position to the enemy’s, it is a distance of 50 meters. My men will dig in the trenches, covered by armored vests and helmets. They might be disturbed by the shockwaves but were not in danger provided that artillery is accurate.”

Captain Hien requested permission from General Tri, who agreed after a moment of hesitation,

“Go ahead! Make sure you get a good cover.”

Of course, I knew it was extremely dangerous when the shells might have missed the targets and landed at the friendly forces, or even the shrapnel could kill or wound them. This has happened in many cases in the past.

I asked my men to make an accurate count of the incoming shells. When the first round of 105 mm landed, my soldiers moved forward. They shrank their bodies in the trenches and covered them with anything they had.

The last round of artillery landed precisely on the enemies’ position. The ground shook like an earthquake. My ears were deaf for a while; my body seemed to be tossed up in the air. I tried to be calm to count the explosions.

95, 96, 97, 98, 99…

Ready! 100, C H A R G E!

The soldiers sprang up, ran across the road, and jumped at the enemies while they were still spinning in their holes. We threw grenades, fired, punched… until there was only flesh and blood.

We did not carry any flags. I tied my scarf to a long rod and waved it to make a sign indicating the target was now in our hands.

On the other side, at ThPong Cham hamlet, the 16th Company also overran the enemy positions.

We did not block the enemy’s escape route. In the hamlet, their dead bodies were everywhere. The body count was 97! They were troops of the 174th NVA Regiment. We sardined the corpses in the trenches and filled them with dirt.

At five, the 4/9 Battalion arrived with APCs of the 1st Armored Regiment. We got resupplied. The APCs carried the wounded soldiers to the base, where they would be sorted and sent to the hospitals.

My Company set up defense positions at the ThPong Vietnam hamlet. I sent Aspirant Tinh and his 2nd Platoon to lay an ambush at a distance from the hamlet. Other companies did the same in different directions. I found an underground hiding place in a small hut on the right side of the hamlet where my CP stayed overnight. It looked abandoned. Its mouth was too narrow for a man to get through.

I asked my helper Quy to make the entrance larger, but he did not because he was so tired! I didn’t complain!

At three a.m., no sooner than Captain Hien had ordered an alarm drill, the enemy began to shell mortars at us. We did not go down to the shelter but ran out of the house and hid behind a cement water reservoir. Our 60 mm mortar returned the fire randomly to the position where we suspected they were having the gun. Meanwhile, everybody jumped to the defense line.

The shelling lasted about ten minutes following the first wave of assault. Claymore mines exploded at the 1st Platoon’s line. I told my men to conserve the ammo since more waves would come. We only fired when the enemies were within range. The 14th Company reported the ambushing Platoon had been overrun with several dead. The survivors ran into the forest. The defense line of the Headquarter Company failed. All ten soldiers of a squad were killed at the scene. Captain Hien instantly sent the assault platoon to fill the void.

Sergeant Hung reported that he ran out of mortar shells. I told him to take his squad and join the defense. The enemies made three more assaults but were pushed back by our superior combat power and fire support from the artillery batteries.

My soldiers stood or ran around the big trunks of rubber trees and fought the enemies. They were also too tired after a day of fierce fighting and did not dig the holes. And God helped them; no one was hit!

Before the first beam of the sun appeared, the enemies had retreated. We could see through the thin fog they were pulling their dead comrades from the field. We fired at the best target until no more bullets were left in the chamber.

Captain Hien wanted us to pursue the enemies.

“We are running out of bullets, Captain!”

“Hell, that they know. Keep going after them.”

When we reached the edge of the jungle, we found telephone cables entangled among some broken radios stained with blood. Captain Hien said that was the command post of the enemies. There were signs that our artillery had hit this station. It was not until months later that we were informed about the death of the enemy regiment commander. He was killed in this battle. 

General Do Cao Tri and his entourage greeted us at the Snuol market. He shook my hand, saying some praise. I was awarded the Gallantry Cross with Palm instead of a new rank because I was going to get an automatic promotion the next month!

We moved to the firebase for a break in a week, then were sent north again.

My Company discovered a training center and a field hospital of the NVA. There was a burial site with fresh new graves. I shot and killed a man carrying a water can on his way back to the center. My soldiers killed seven more in a short firefight. We set fire to destroy the whole facility.

 The enemies got their revenge on February 27.

We continued the search operation for two weeks in a large area northwest of Snoul. There were no friendly forces within a radius of 10 kilometers from us. We were out of the 155mm arty range. We were exhausted but were ordered to move on. The enemies followed and spied on us for seven days in a row. The enemy’s reconnaissance team harassed us at night, investigated how we set up our defense, counted our foxholes, and shot random fire at our formation.

The night before, February 26, Viet Cong commandos sneaked into the firebase and set demolitions to destroy several pieces of 105 mm and the ammunition depot.

From our position at night, we could hear a big explosion. Later, Captain Hien told us that there would be no fire support from tomorrow and we would be on our own.

February 27. We were ordered to take a shortcut back to the fire support base. One of the four given targets was the Trapeang Lak hamlet. It was on the bank of a stream. The Battalion CP and the HQs Company got into the hamlet, defended by the 14th Company in the northwest, the 16th Company in the north, and my company in the southeast. We had not bathed or even washed our faces for over a week. Hung and his Company were lucky to be deployed at the stream. The water was crystal clear, and Hung could not help but take off his clothes and jump into the cold water.

Of a sudden, gunfire was heard from all directions. Hundreds of NVA troops from nowhere appeared, charging into the 16th Company position. Hell was broken loose! In less than a minute, the north defense line broke. The soldiers ran for their lives. Hung ran past me with only his underpants and pistol belt, and the map was still in his hand.

The fire became increasingly intense when I realized that the 14th Company had also been hit hard. The Headquarters Company broke into small groups. I looked at the hamlet and only saw hundreds of enemies with brand-new green uniforms. They scurried back and forth to search for any of our troops trapped in the hamlet’s houses.

Captain Hien ran out to me carrying the radio. His radiomen were all killed. He did not know his staff’s whereabouts. He was very confused since the attack was so fast and brutal. He hesitated to ask me to stand and fight. At the same time, I heard the shouts of the enemies and the incoming mortar shells around my position. Aspirant Chieu reported to me that an unknown number of enemies blocked his direction. I said to Captain Hien,

“We must open a blood trail to flee before they can block all the exits.”

That was the NVA 174th Regiment and the Z-27 Commando Battalion – supported with heavy artillery – who had followed us the previous week and made the attack at this place where they had expected and chosen.

I ordered my platoons to spearhead in the southwest direction. Enemy’s mortars landed behind and around me. The fragments flew over my head. The NVA soldiers who were closest to me shouted,

“Get him, that tall guy with the map in his hand. He must be the commander.” Another NVA was about thirty feet behind me, shouting and firing.

We withdrew to a safe place where we met Major Nguyen Da and his 4/9th Battalion.

The survivors, one by one, group by group, found their way back. About fifty men were missing. We returned and found Lieutenant Deo Chinh Tuong, the 14th CO, Lieutenant Mai Thanh Tong, the S-5 officer, and six others in hiding. They were alive while Lieutenant Nguyen Van Mau and Sergeant Nguyen van Khiet of the 16th Company, hiding in the same trench, were KIA.

It took us five days to retrieve the corpses of the dead soldiers. On the first day, we had just wrapped the corpses in the ponchos, and then the enemy pounded us with mortar shells. We came back the next day, and the same thing happened. The corpses became swollen and heavy; yellow fluid leaked from the poncho, dripping on the road. The smell was horrible. I had to carry an M-16, walked behind the formation, and threatened the carriers to shoot if they abandoned the corpses. 

General Do Cao Tri was killed in a helicopter crash a week later. General Nguyen Van Minh assumed the III Corps Commander post.

In mid-March, our 9th Field Group was repatriated to Vietnam, replaced by the 8th Regiment. At that time, all other Field Groups had retreated from Cambodia, save only the 8th on the battlefield. Three NVA divisions converged in the Snuol area to prepare for a decisive battle against the 8th Regiment. The Americans refused to drop B-52 bombs at the enemy concentration and let them overrun the Regiment HQ base. Dead bodies of hundreds of soldiers were left on foreign soil, in the rubber plantation, or along Route 13!

Snuol became a big failure to our ARVN, and then the Ha Lao Lam Son 719 Operation got the same fate!

It took the 8th Regiment a long time to recover.

My Company was lucky. We lost only four men during two months in Snuol. We returned with a great victory and were greeted at a splendid ceremony where I received two gallantry cross medals.

When I wrote this story, Major Hien was in his 80s, living in a suburban town in Paris, France. Captain Mai Thanh Tong is living in New Jersey. Lieutenant Duong Quang Boi was discharged after the battle and is living in Sai Gon. Corporal Nguyen Van Quy is now living in Saigon. Vietnam. Most of the other men mentioned in this story were KIA.