“Raise the Flag on the ThPong Vietnam Village before the Sunrise! An Audacious Determination on Battlefield in Cambodia.”
That was the big headline run on the front page of all Saigon newspapers on the first days of Tân Hợi lunar new year to celebrate the victory of the 4/8th Battalion at Snuol, Cambodia.
Truth is the battle began at sunrise and quickly ended in the afternoon. Although it was in a short time, the battle marked the first brilliant victory of the ARVN on the battlefield outside the frontier.
The big operation Total Victory 71-NB was orchestrated by the ARVN 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 units of the 3rd and 4th Army Corps, 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 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 the year 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 which were about one kilometer from the hamlet. There were dozens of creeks, rivulets, and the like interlacing in this area. There was no other tree except the short palm trees (the ones like Dwarf Majesty Palm); under their feather-like leaves, we set our defense positions. 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. In the daytime, when the water retreated, 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, as the water rose, the creek became impassable after 4 or 5 p.m. till morning. Even on the dike, water reached our ankles. We could only stand up with our backs leaning against one other 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 1st, 1971, expecting a short break of several days before jumping to another operation. We settled in the barracks at the other side of the airstrip near the gate. 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 pm.
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 at their seats. The intelligence officer gave us a bunch of maps with very strange letters. It turned out to be maps of Kratie province of Cambodia.
Colonel Dan open 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 be replacing the 9th when this 1st phase ends in about two months. I always trust you guys, and wish you luck and success.”
The S-2 and S-3 officers, one by one, gave us briefings 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 came back 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 4. 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 the 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, there were hundreds of soldiers of various branches walking back and forth in an instance manner. Not far from my position, General Do Cao Tri, the III Corps Commander, was reviewing the map and giving orders to the commanding officers.
As I was about to move my troops to the line of departure, the radioman reported to me that my wife and my son had arrived at Lai Khe. They wished to talk to me.
“I came to visit you, knowing that 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 to me. 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, 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 to defend against the assault by human waves of the enemies. Sandbags were to strengthen our defense positions even if we temporarily pause 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 to capture 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 in the 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.
My company was spread out on the right side, facing ThPong Vietnam. The 16th Company of Lieutenant Duong Quang Boi at 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 both 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 and a dirt road, then 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 being in a stalemate for about an hour then the ground was set on fire. The thick carpet of dried rubber leaves caught fire and the wind helped the fire to spread real fast. We were pushed back by the fire, running 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 gad damned target must be taken before dark! If you cannot do it, tell me. 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 had 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 exactly 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 and 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 ambush at a distance from the hamlet. Other companies did the same in other directions. In a small hut on the right side of the hamlet where my CP stayed overnight, I found an underground hiding place. 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 am, no sooner than Captain Hien had ordered an alarm drill, the enemy began to shell mortars at us. We did not go down 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 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 there would be more waves to come. We only fired when the enemies were within the 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 trunk of rubber trees and fought the enemies. They were also too tired after a day of fighting and did not dig the hole. 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 ever until there were no more bullets 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 this station had been hit by our artillery. 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 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 who was 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 had been continuing 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. For seven days in a row, the enemies followed and spied on us. The enemy’s reconnaissance team harassed us at night, investigated how we set up our defense, counted our fox holes, 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 night position, we could hear the big explosion. Later, Captain Hien told us that from tomorrow, there would be no fire support 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 more than a week. Hung and his company were lucky to be right at the stream. The water was crystal clear, and Hung could not help but take off his clothes and deep 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 passing me with only his underpants, his pistol belt, and the map was still in his hand.
The fire became more and more intensive when I realized that the 14th Company was also 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 who were trapped in the houses in the hamlet.
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 his direction was blocked by an unknown number of enemies. 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 in 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 came back and found Lieutenant Deo Chinh Tuong, the 14th CO, Lieutenant Mai Thanh Tong, the S-5 officer, and six others in a hiding place. 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 5 days to retrieve the corpses of the dead soldiers. On the first day, we had just wrapped the corpses in the ponchos then the enemy pounded us with mortar shells. We came back the next day, it happened the same. The corpses became swollen and were heavy; yellow fluid leaked out 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.
A week later, General Do Cao Tri was killed in a helicopter crash. General Nguyen Van Minh assumed the III Corps Commander post.
In late 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 HQs base. Dead bodies of about hundreds of the 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 of 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.