By Major General Huynh Cong Than
As told to Nguyen Huu Nguyen
People's Army Publishing House, 1994

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Chapter 5
Turning the Situation Around

In mid-1961 the U.S. began implementing its “special warfare” strategy. The puppet army was quickly built up and equipped with many types of modern weapons and equipment: M-113 amphibious armored personnel carriers, helicopters, artillery pieces, and naval combat vessels. The Americans also trained in many new tactics, like helicopter assaults, armored assaults, etc. …
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     In early 1962 I was transferred from the mobile company and appointed to the Long An Province Party Committee, and my principal responsibility was to provide guidance and direction to our armed forces. …
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     Toward the end of 1962, I was called to go attend the Nguyen Ai Quoc Party School at COSVN Headquarters. This was the first time since the day I joined the revolution that I would have a chance to attend such an important class. This made me happy and proud, but I still thought to myself, “It would have been better if I had been selected to attend a military training class.”
     I went up to COSVN in October 1962. At that time the situation in Long An was still not very difficult. Our liberated areas in Binh Hoa, Hoa Khanh, An Ninh, and Loc Giang still were relatively peaceful.
     For the first time I was given instruction in Marxism-Leninism, in dialectical materialism, in historic materialism, and I thought to myself, “There are too many new words to learn!” Although I understood the lessons, I still felt that they had nothing to do with the revolutionary situation in South Vietnam. The other students probably felt the same as I did. I sat in the classroom, but my thoughts still were on the situation in my home province: “What is the enemy doing? How well are my brothers doing in the fighting?” …
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     In July 1963 the class ended. I left for Long An immediately. It had rained a lot, but on the trail from An Ninh and Loc Giang to Hoa Khanh and Binh Hoa the landscape was desolate and I was unable to even recognize many of the places. I had been gone for not quite a year but the enemy had completely devastated these villages and hamlets, demonstrating that they were carrying out their actions with great resolve and large forces.
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     On our side, we must be having many problems, I thought to myself.
When I arrived and met my old comrades and friends again I was overjoyed. … At that time Tu Vu was the Commander of the Province Military Unit and I was assigned to be the Political Officer of the Province Military Unit. Tu Vu was a cadre from Long An who had regrouped North in 1954 and who had just returned.
     The situation in Long An at that time was truly difficult. Our 1st and 2nd Companies, which had been operating south of Route 4, had to constantly fight off enemy sweeps and had suffered such heavy losses that they had pulled back to the north side of Route 4, but we still had not been able to regroup them, reequip them, and replace their losses. …
[after long discussion of problems, tactics, how to utilize recoilless rifles that had been recently received to knock out enemy bunkers and blockhouses, discussion of the strengths of various officers in the province headquarters]
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     The Province Party Committee unanimously agreed that we had to quickly build and strengthen our forces. At that time provinces had not yet been given permission to form battalions, so we decided to increase the table of organization strengths of 1st and 2nd Companies to meet our battle requirements rather than simply relying on the standard, uniform table of organization structure set by higher authorities. 1st Company was organized into four platoons, each platoon had four squads, and the company’s total strength was more than 500 soldiers. 2nd Company was organized into three platoons and had a total strength of about 300 soldiers. In addition, we decided to form two sapper units (each unit with a strength of 70-80 men), one reconnaissance unit, and a heavy weapons unit armed with recoilless rifles, 60mm and 82mm mortars, and 12.7mm antiaircraft machineguns.
     The Province Party Committee also directed the individual districts to increase the troop strength of their units. They were ordered not to limit the size of their units but instead organize units that as large as each district was capable of forming. At this time each district had between 70 and 100 soldiers, and every village had at least one squad of guerrillas.
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     In September 1963 the Province Party Committee held a conference that lasted for almost ten days. …Finally, the conference passed a decision to shatter the entire structure of the enemy’s “strategic hamlet” network throughout the entire province by using forces of all three types of troops [main force, local force, guerrilla militia] to defeat enemy attempts to conduct sweeps and to set up outposts in order to support the people so that they could rise up on their own to destroy the “strategic hamlets”. We would conduct armed operations that were closely coordinated with mass uprisings by our civilian supporters. …
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…During the period from late September to the end of October 1963 the soldiers and civilians of Long An were able to attack ten enemy outposts and destroyed almost 20 “strategic hamlets.” Although this transformation of the situation was small, it was a welcome sign because the soldiers and civilians of Long An had found ways to fight and win victories. …
     In late 1963 there was an upheaval within the Saigon puppet government. The U.S. and Diem were at odds with one another. Higher authority instructed Long An to immediately send forces down to operate south of Route 4. Meanwhile we, on the other hand, wanted to keep our forces north of Route 4 in order to build and consolidate them to make them stronger and at the same time to try to open up the Duc Hoa-Vam Co Dong area to serve as a springboard area we could use to begin to open up other areas.
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     Even though Long An had now been able to begin to destroy the “strategic hamlets,” our pace was still slow. If we wanted to destroy them faster we needed to fight a truly big battle that would have shake the enemy so hard that it would break the enemy’s network of outposts and “strategic hamlets” into a number of large pieces. That much was clear, but the question was how to create a large battle, what tactics to use, and where to fight this battle.
     I was thinking about this problem intently when Brother Chin Can asked me, “What do you think about Hiep Hoa? Can Long An attack and destroy it all by itself?” I had heard the others talking about Hiep Hoa before, but because I had just returned to the province and still did not have a firm grasp on the details of the situation there, I could not yet answer whether or not we could attack it. Chin Can told me that while I was away at the Party school, the Military Region Headquarters had sent a cadre down to the analyze Hiep Hoa as a possible target, but because the Region’s 261st Battalion had been forced to move in close to My Tho City to be ready to seize an opportunity, nothing had yet been said about whether an attack was being planned or not. As for Long An, we had an advantage because Brother Bay Thanh’s military proselyting wing had recruited two agents inside the enemy’s Hiep Hoa Base.
     I asked Chin Chan to give me a week to study the actual situation before I gave my reply. I met with Brother Ba Son, the Deputy Chief of Staff of Region 8 and the person who had been sent to study Hiep Hoa as a target. Son said that the terrain at Hiep Hoa was difficult and that the 261st was not familiar with this battlefield, so a decision had not yet been reached. I then went to Hiep Hoa and convened a meeting with all the different staff, reconnaissance, and sapper elements that had studied the target in order to gain an understanding of the details of the situation. All of these cadres, men such as Muoi Xuong, Tu Ap, Vu Diep, Phuoc, Day, and Hieu, all said that they had carefully studied approach routes and ways to enter the case and all said that we could make such an attack.
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     Bay Thanh also told me that we had a very firm grip on our penetration agents inside the base and that they were very trustworthy.
Looking at a diagram of the base, I saw that the target was rather large and very complicated. Each side of the base was between 100 and 150 meters long. In addition to four main blockhouses [bunkers] at the four corners of the base, there were four additional blockhouses, one located in the center of each of the four walls. All of the blockhouses were equipped with medium machineguns, for a total of eight medium machineguns. Outside the walls there were a large number of deep trenches and many layers of barbed wire fences. I asked the men,
     “If we attack this place, how should we do it?”
     “Our inside agents will allow our sapper/reconnaissance teams to cut through the fences and lead our infantry in to attack and seize one of the blockhouses to serve as a bridgehead,” they answered. “Then we will develop the attack into the interior of the base.”
     I felt that this method was not very good, because experience told me that if we did not destroy the base’s command and communications right at the start of the attack, it would be very difficult for us to “finish off” the enemy defenders and take the base. I suggested that our sapper and reconnaissance element make an additional study of the target to see if we could get into the area where the American advisors were quartered and where the communications center was located before our infantry opened fire to begin the attack. That meant that when the shooting started to signal the start of the attack, our troops would already be inside the American advisors’ compound and the communications compound, and that was the only way that we could be certain of victory. After conducting another reconnaissance and analysis of the target, our sapper/reconnaissance wing firmly announced that they would be able to carry out this mission exactly as required.
     I returned to meet with Chin Can. I told him that I was certain that we would be able to attack and take this enemy base. When he heard that he was very happy, because he knew my personality and knew that I was not a person who bragged, that I was not a “big mouth.” However, he was also very worried. I was worried too. This would be a very big battle, and we had very few heavy weapons to support this attack. In addition, we had not experience in attacking a large enemy outpost in this manner. We sent some of our people out to make contacts to see additional help and were able to borrow some more recoilless rifles from Kien Tuong Province and borrow additional 12.7mm machineguns from Y4 (Saigon Special Zone).
     After the decision to attack Hiep Hoa was approved, I continued to think about the attack. I imagined the attack so clearly that it seemed as if it had already taken place.
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     In my mind’s eye I could see Phuoc and Day commanding the sapper spearheads as they cut through the enemy fences and imagined how they would carry satchel charges into the compound where the American advisors lived. I imagined how Muoi Xuong and Tu Ap would command the different infantry columns as they attacked and captured their targets. I imagined how Thanh would move his recoilless rifles right up to the barbed wire to fire at and destroy the enemy blockhouses. The more I imagined the battle in my mind’s eye, the more difficulties and problems I found that we would face in this attack. However, I had the greatest confidence in our people, in the cadres and the enlisted men of our units. I was certain that they would be able to overcome these difficulties in order win victory.
     We had already set the date of the attack and had mobilized thousands of civilian coolie laborers from Duc Hoa and Duc Hue and moved them to the different assembly points. However, I still had the feeling that something was wrong. I reviewed all the tasks that had to be carried out in my head, I checked all our units again, and still could find nothing wrong. All that was left was to wait for Brother Bay Thanh and his penetration agents to see how things were going on that front. It turned out that our penetration agents were not assigned to stand guard duty on the night we planned to attack, but the penetration agents had promised that they would be on hand and that they would find a way to switch assignment with the guards who were scheduled to be on watch so that they could greet our troops and let them inside. Hearing that, I saw that our coordination arrangements too risky, and that it would be too easy for something to go wrong. I asked what would happen if on the afternoon of the day of the attack the enemy sent our agents off to do some other job. Also, I suggested that for someone who was not assigned guard duty to request such duty might look suspicious, and our entire plan could be exposed. In the end, I was forced to postpone the date of the attack to wait for Bay Thanh to make new coordination arrangements with our penetration agents.
     This was not an easy decision to make, because at that time we had already asked Region Headquarters to let us keep our forces in the north a little longer and had promised that as soon as we finished the attack on Hiep Hoa we would send them down south of Route 4. We were supposed to have sent all of our forces down south in early November, when the coup against Diem took place in Saigon. However, the coup did not present us with any major opportunity, so in fact for us to push our forces in close to Saigon was not really necessary.
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     However, when they heard the news that the attack had been postponed, some people recommended that we immediately send our forces south and simply drop our plan to attacking Hiep Hoa entirely. There were even people who claimed that I was afraid to attack. In addition, there was one other very difficult problem that had to be resolved: How could we maintain secrecy, because we could not let the thousands of civilian coolie laborers we had mobilized just go back home, and we also could not keep them concentrated in one place for too long.
     Determined to carry out this attack, I stood up and informed the Province Party Committee and the Military Region Headquarters that I would take full responsibility for each and every one of my decisions, and especially the decision to postpone the attack. Personally, I was not worried about being disciplined or being removed from my post. My greatest concern was that the success or failure of the attack would involve the lives of hundreds of our cadres and soldiers, and these lives were the most precious assets of our revolutionary cause and of the people of Long An. For that reason, I could not allow myself to make a mistake when making this decision.
     In the end, all of the problems were resolved. Bay Thanh checked again and made very firm coordination arrangements to ensure that the attack would be carried out when Penetration Agents Ba To and Nguyen Van Ghe were scheduled to be standing guard duty. As for the problem of keeping the coolie labor force secret, this was also resolved by ordering our civilian proselyting section to organize a few protest demonstrations, a few efforts to block the road by piling mounds of dirt on it, so that the enemy’s army would not suspect anything about the large number of people massed together.
     On the night of 23 November 1963 we moved our troops forward to attack. The force that would directly attack the base consisted of 1st Company and the sapper unit. The total number of troops in this attack force was approximately the same as the number of enemy troops inside the base, around 500 men. Our force assigned to the outer perimeter consisted of 2nd Company, our artillery element, and our antiaircraft element – in total, about 300 more troops. In addition, we had several hundred coolie laborers standing by to support the attack.
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     The province military unit’s command post was set up at Rach Thiem [Thiem Canal], a little over one kilometer from the target. Those manning the command post included Tu Vu, the Province Unit Commander; me, the Political Officer; and Brothers Tu Chieu and Sau Chau, two headquarters staff operations officers.
     Our troops approach to the target went rather well, so the situation around Hiep Hoa was rather quiet, but those were very tense hours in the command post as we monitored the situation and waited. We received regular reports from inside the attack columns and the reports said that everything was proceeding well, but I still worried about some unknown, unanticipated problem suddenly cropping up. At 12:00 midnight the attack column reported that our troops had reached the last ditch and were putting up ladders in preparation for beginning to climb over the wall. This meant that everything was going as planned. About ten minutes later, however, we suddenly heard several bursts of sub-machinegun fire from inside the base, followed by the sound of gunfire from a medium machinegun mounted on top of the blockhouse. I was very worried. Had our attack force been spotted? If so, and if they had to fight their way over the wall and into the base, then the battle would be much more difficult. Just then we heard loud explosions, the sound of satchel charges going off, and flames shot up from the middle of the base, lighting up the surrounding area. This was followed by the thunder of gunfire of many different types of weapons, so much gunfire that we could not distinguish between the sounds of our own guns and the sounds of the enemy’s guns. However, we knew that the sappers had accomplished their mission and that our infantry was advancing into the fray.
     Enemy artillery guns in other locations did not fire toward Hiep Hoa, and we did not see any signs of aircraft overhead. This meant that the U.S. and puppet officers and the enemy communications center had been wiped out right at the very start of the battle.
     The battle lasted for about 40 minutes, and it proceeded almost exactly as planned. We secured complete control of the battlefield and our civilian coolie laborers went into the enemy base to collect captured weapons and ammunition. Later we learned that the initial bursts of gunfire that we heard were fired by our sappers and by our penetration agent to deal with a situation – they were fired to wipe out a squad of enemy commandos [CIDG] returning from patrol so that our explosives team carrying satchel charges could attack the primary target.
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     This was something we had not anticipated or planned for, but our troops had handled the situation very correctly and very intelligently. Their actions were very important for the conduct and the ultimate success of the attack.
We captured hundreds of prisoners, along with more than 500 weapons and tons of ammunition. We lost six men killed and ten wounded. The attack was a success and our level of combat efficiency was very high. The next morning the enemy sent in two large sweeps from two different directions, but by that time our troops had already withdrawn from the area safely.
     The news of our victory at Hiep Hoa spread very quickly throughout the province. Everyone was happy and excited, but perhaps the happiest person in the province was me, because this attack had occupied my every thought for a long, long time.
Following the plan that we had laid out beforehand, to coordinate with and respond to the attack on Hiep Hoa, all of our forces throughout Long An province simultaneously attacked enemy outposts and guard stations. South of Route 4, the forces commanded by Chin Tai and Sau Nam in Can Duoc and Can Giuoc attacked the “strategic hamlets” and then stayed in the area to support the people in the area as they rose up to destroy these hamlets and return to their old home villages. In Duc Hoa, local force troops and guerilla militia fighters attacked and forced the surrender or the abandonment of dozens of enemy outposts. Taking advantage of the victory at Hiep Hoa, we immediately organized a wave of operations throughout the entire province, with the focal point of these activities being Duc Hoa. This wave of operations lasted from early December to the end of December 1963. From that point onward, the enemy’s network of “strategic hamlet” was shattered into a number of large, separate pieces. In April 1964 the province military unit organized another large battle that overran and destroyed the enemy PF training base at Go Den.
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     This forced the enemy to abandon a large number of outposts because of a lack of sufficient replacement troops. When enemy outposts were abandoned, the strategic hamlets promptly collapsed as well. By this time, Long An had destroyed almost all of the strategic hamlets that the U.S. and Diem had established in 1962 and 1963. In just five months (from November 1963 to April 1965) the soldiers and civilians of Long An had achieved a very high rate of speed in opposing the enemy’s “pacification” program and in destroying his “strategic hamlets....