Fighting Is An Art:
The Army of The Republic of Vietnam’s Defense of Xuan Loc
8-20 April 1975.
George J. Veith and Merle L. Pribbenow, II, “Fighting is an Art”: The Army of the Republic of Vietnam's Defense of Xuan Loc, 8-20 April 1975," The Journal of Military History 68 (January 2004): pp 163-214.
LTS. Trong những ngày cuối của tháng 4 năm 1975, Xuân Lộc (Long Khánh), cửa ngỏ dẫn vào thủ đô Sài Gòn, đã trở thành một địa danh lừng lẫy vì "12 Ngày Tuyến Thép Xuân Lộc" của Sư Đoàn 18 Bộ Binh/QLVNCH và các đơn vị tăng phái dưới quyền chỉ huy của Thiếu tướng Lê Minh Đảo đã anh dũng chiến đấu và gây nhiều tổn thất cho đại quân cộng sản Bắc Việt. Mới đây, tập san "The Journal of Military History" một tập san quân sự lâu dài và nhiều uy tín đã có bài viết về tướng Lê Minh Đảo và trận đánh Xuân Lộc. Chúng tôi xin trích một vài đoạn trong bài viết nói trên.
From early to mid-April 1975, the South Vietnamese 18th Division, defending the strategic road junction of Xuan Loc, northeast of Saigon, held off massive attacks by an entire North Vietnamese Army corps engaged in a surprise assault to overrun Saigon and quickly end the war. Enduring extremely heavy fighting, they stopped the communist offensive before being ordered to a retreat and help defend Saigon. While communist forces were guilty of over-confidence, the 18th Division’s superb performance was largely the result of the combat skills, prior planning, and inspirational leadership of their commander, Brigadier General Le Minh Dao, who demonstrated that even in South Vietnam’s darkest hour; the much-maligned soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam would fight when led by able officers.
The first artillery shell landed directly on the General’s home. It was a small two-story house, inconspicuous really, despite its pinkish hues. It sat across the road from the province chief’s residence, near the Catholic church in the middle of the town of Xuan Loc, the capital of Long Khanh province. The General lived, as did many of his South Vietnamese soldiers, in the quiet, somewhat shabby rural town. The round crashed through the roof and exploded in the bedroom, a testimony to the incredible accuracy of the North Vietnamese artillerymen. It was immediately followed by a 2000 round bombardment that lasted for precisely one hour. Fortunately, the General was not home.
Awakened by the steady hammering from the enemy batteries, the soldiers of the 18th Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and the remaining Long Khanh provincial forces huddled in their prepared positions on the periphery of the town. The communist gunners were firing into the city center, unaware that the ARVN had moved to the outskirts to escape the expected artillery barrage.
As dawn arrived, the clank of steel treads heralded to appearance of North Vietnamese tanks, followed by waves of infantry, confident of their certain victory. It was 6:40 am on Wednesday morning, the 9th of April 1975.
The decisive battle for Saigon bad begun.
Despite the crucial role the struggle for Xuan Loc played during the demise of the Republic of Vietnam. Western historians know few precise details about this epic engagement, in which the South Vietnamese 18th ARVN Division and Long Khanh provincial forces held of a series of massive combined-arms attacks by the infantry, armor, and artillery of an entire North Vietnamese Army (NVA) corps. While historians and memoirs frequently mention this major clash of the Vietnam War, what has been published is often inaccurate or erroneous. What is known is this: despite the tremendous setbacks suffered by the South Vietnamese military in 1975, the 18th ARVN Division made a truly remarkable 12 stand against heavy odds during a time when many other ARVN units broke and ran. Why? What made them different from other ARVN outfits? What made its soldiers not only hold their ground but fearlessly slug it out? How did they withstand the massive artillery barrages and defend against constant tank-led infantry assaults? What effect did their resolute resistance have on the war and on the American evacuation? Most importantly, what decisions turned this quaint provincial capital into the scene of the heaviest combat since An Loc and Quang Tri in 1972?
The answers some twenty-five years later are not easy to obtain, but what made Xuan Loc the focal point for the NVA attack was its strategic location. The city, located 60 kilometers northeast of Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, controlled the vital road junction of Route 1 and Route 20, the two main paved highways into Saigon from Central Vietnam.
With the destruction of South Vietnam’s two northern Military Regions in March 1975, Xuan Loc suddenly became a critical node on the improvised defensive line the desperate South Vietnamese were trying to form around Saigon. Most observers realized that whatever slim chance the ARVN had to defend the capital from the encircling enemy army was predicated on holding Xuan Loc. If the Republic of Vietnam forces could make a stand there, a chance remained they could stabilize the situation, regroup their battered military, and save the country from defeat.
The communist leadership in North Vietnam was determined, however, to “strangle the puppets in their lair” before the South Vietnamese could recover. Given the chaos that caused the fall of Da Nang on 29 March 1975. Hanoi’s leadership saw an opportunity to quickly conclude the war with a swift attack on Saigon through Xuan Loc. They were convinced that another hard blow would crumble the last vestiges of ARVN resistance, and the city’s loss would clear the path for a rapid communist advance to the very gates of Saigon, ending the decades-old conflict in one massive assault. To achieve that goal, the North Vietnamese threw their entire 4th Corps, comprised of three divisions, against the 18th ARVN at Xuan Loc.
The 18th Division, however, did not crumble, and communist dreams of an easy victory withered in the fires of what the NVA commander, a battle-scarred veteran who had fought the cream of the French and American armies, called the fiercest battle of his 30-year military career. Instead, the 18th’s performance, shouldered at a moment in time when ARVN morale was at rock bottom, resoundingly answered the question asked by so many at the time: Will the ARVN fight? While ultimately the Division was ordered to retreat from the ruined town, their valiant resistance briefly raised the hope that the South Vietnamese might hold off the relentless onslaught of the regulars of the People’s Army of the Vietnam (PAVN), long enough either for the rainy season to bring the offensive to a halt, or for covert diplomatic efforts to achieve a ceasefire.
Moreover, the poor public reputation of the South Vietnamese military, fed by the collapse in I and II Corps, was partially redeemed by the heroic stand of the 18th.
As communist artillery fire blasted into the city and the 7th was also ordered to resume its assault, the results were the same. The dogged ARVN defenders threw back the attack columns of both divisions. Several more enemy tanks were destroyed, ARVN counter-attacks stopped NVA penetrations and reclaimed any lost ground. Again the PAVN had not taken the city and North Vietnamese casualties were extremely heavy and growing. Hoang Cam wrote, “This was the most ferocious battle I had even been involved in! My personal assessment was that, after three days of battle, even after committing our reserves, the situation had not improved and we had suffered significant casualties.” In a footnote, Cam provides figures, which match those in the History of the People’s Army. “During the first three days of the battle 7th Division suffered 300 casualties and the 341st Division suffered 1,200 casualties. Virtually all of our 85mm and 37 mm artillery pieces had been destroyed.”
The PAVN Campaign Commander, General Van Tien Dung, wrote, “The battle of Xuan Loc was fierce and cruel from the very first days. Our divisions had to organize many assaults into town, striking and striking again to destroy each target, and had to repel many enemy counterattacks.”
While COSVN’s plan (Central Office for South Vietnam) to attack Saigon from the northeast was foiled, in the end, the III Corps forces could not withstand the entire North Vietnamese Army. Yet, despite the public image of corruption and incompetence, the ARVN, as shown in the battle for Xuan Loc, was not an army of bumblers and cowards as it is so often portrayed. It was an army that stood and fought with great courage not only on a few well-know occasions like the siege of Xuan Loc, but also in hundreds of little battles whose names most Americans never knew. When asked by his captors why he did not flee like many other ARVN Generals, Dao told them he could not abandon the soldiers who had fought so hard for him. I was their General, he told his jailers, and if you are holding any of my men in prison, I wish to be the last man from the 18th ARVN released. “I could not look them in face otherwise”, he said. Speaking of the battle for Xuan Loc, he calmly states, “Fighting is an art; you must use not only your arms and begs, but your mind as well. Even though we knew we had lost the war, I still fought. I was filled with despair after the loss of the northern Corps, but I still fight.” He gave a similar answer to a reporter who visited the town on April 13th,who ash him: “Why had the South Vietnamese troops fought at Xuan Loc and not in the north? How I can speak for them, said General Dao, the division commander. I can speak only for myself, and we have fought.”
General Le Minh Dao was released from prison on May 4, 1992 and arrived in the United States in April 1993. He currently is active in the far-flung Vietnamese communities, spending much of his time traveling to see his former soldiers, most of whom are officers, since few of the line troops left Vietnam. Finally, he asked the authors, “Please do not call me a hero. My men who died at Xuan Loc and a hundred battle’s before are the true hero’s.”
There is no need to call General Le Minh Dao a hero. Some truths are self-evident.