Airborne Ranger Group and the Days of April 1975
[LÐ81/BCND và Những Ngày Tháng Tư 1975] (Taken from "81st Airborne Ranger Group Issue Number 3" [Ðac San GÐ81/BCND] dated 1 July 2001)
The information in this article has been summarized from the reminiscences of soldiers of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group with the goal of depicting a small portion of the deadly and painful burden borne by the soldiers of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group, and by all members of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam, during the days of April 1975 and over the succeeding years. … (Footnote: Taken from confessions, letters, published articles, telephone and e-mail exchanges, and the accounts of those soldiers who directly played some role during these historic and painful days in the life of our nation. I would like to express my sincere thanks to Colonel Phan Van Huan, Major Pham Chau Tai, Captain Nguyen Hien, Captain La Cao, Captain Truong Viet Lam, First Lieutenant Lai Dinh Hoi, Second Lieutenant Nguyen Cong Danh, Team Leaders Le Xuan Hien, Nguyen Minh, and other, and many other servicemen of all ranks who helped me put together the article "81st Airborne Ranger Group and the Days of April 1975" [Lien Doan 81/BCND va Nhung Ngay Thang Tu Nam 1975], even when they did not want to relieve this "painful experience."
Throughout 1974 and up until 30 April 1975, the 81st Airborne Ranger Group was assigned to III Corps to operate in the Duong Minh Chau War Zone, War Zone D, and the mountain jungles of Tay Ninh, Binh Duong, Binh Long, Phuoc Long, Binh Tuy, Phuoc Tuy, Long Khanh, and Bien Hoa provinces. The 81st Airborne Ranger Group’s mission was to drop reconnaissance teams to operate in which other units seldom operated because enemy forces there were too strong, because the terrain was too rugged, because they were outside the range of friendly artillery support, because they were far from the operational areas of friendly units, etc. The reconnaissance teams had the advantage of being small (each team consisted of only six men) so that they could easily avoid enemy contact and easily escape enemy pursuit, using their meticulous training in escape and survival techniques. The mission of the teams was to collect information on enemy operations to report to higher levels. Depending on the target, the teams could conduct raids or ambushes to capture prisoners for intelligence exploitation. When a target was beyond the capabilities of a team, and upon request from Corps Headquarters, 81st Airborne Ranger Group occasionally launched raids into enemy rear areas, such as an ambush that destroyed convoys of enemy supply vehicles in the Ashau Valley in Thua Thien province in 1968 and in the tri-border area (the Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Lao border area) in Kontum province in 1972. In addition to the above-mentioned ambush and raid missions, depending upon the situation, the 81st Airborne Ranger Group could mass its forces to conduct coordinated operations with other units, such as was done in the city of An Loc in 1972, in Quang Tri in 1973, and in Phuoc Long in 1975.
The 81st Airborne Ranger Group in the Battle of Phuoc Long
On 3 January 1975, the 81st Airborne Ranger Group was ordered to send reinforcements to defend the Phuoc Long province capital. Lieutenant Colonel Vu Xuan Thong and Major Nguyen Son, commanding 300 soldiers, prepared to jump into Phuoc Long. The landing was divided into two waves. It was not possible to carry out the landing on that day, however, because the Bien Hoa Airbase had been hit by a rather heavy shelling attack. A number of helicopters had been damaged, and some of the pilots who lived off base were not able to get into the Airbase early in the morning as had been planned. The takeoff had been planned for 9:00 A.M., but it was not until afternoon that the prescribed number of helicopters to lift the Airborne Rangers into the Phuoc Long battlefield were finally assembled at the Long Binh Airfield. At 2:00 in the afternoon, 30 helicopters took off in a single wave. After a one-hour flight, the Phuoc Long battlefield appeared before the eyes of the Commander of the 81st Airborne Rangers. The top of Ba Ra Mountain had fallen into the hands of the Viet Cong. Firing from the top of the mountain, enemy artillery shells landed on top of our troop positions with extreme accuracy, and entire city seemed to be submerged in a sea of flames. It might be possible to land the troops, but after the time set for the landing our bombers still had not arrived to neutralize the enemy fire from the top of Ba Ra Mountain. The helicopters circled twice on the outskirts of the city of Phuoc Long to avoid enemy anti-aircraft fire and still saw no signs of the bombers. In addition, in Phuoc Long, with the heavy cloud of smoke and dust blanketing the city and the high mountains and jungles surrounding the city, the curtain of night would fall earlier than in the lowlands. If the Airborne Rangers were landed at approximately 3:30 in the afternoon, since it was almost 100 kilometers from the Long Binh Airfield to Phuoc Long, the earliest the second wave of troops could arrive would be 5:30 P.M. By that time, it would be totally dark in Phuoc Long, the helicopters and the bombers would be helpless, and it was certain that the Airborne Rangers landed in the first wave would not be able to stave off the enemy’s waves of "Born in the North to Die in the South" assault troops. Because he could not sacrifice the lives of his Airborne Rangers in such a stupid manner, the Commander of the 81st Airborne Rangers decided not to land his troops and was prepared to accept the responsibility for the consequences of that decision.
On 4 January 1975, the required number of helicopters was on hand before 9:00 A.M., as planned, so the 300 soldiers were able to land in Phuoc Long with a moderate number of casualties. However, 300 troops landed on a battlefield on which 90% of the defensive positions had already fallen into communist hands, and with the morale of the troops stationed there shattered and their ranks depleted, it was only a matter of time before Phuoc Long fell unless additional reinforcements were sent in. The remaining elements of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group were ready to fly in to reinforce the city, but they were not permitted to on orders from higher levels, so on 6 January 1975, all of Phuoc Long was lost to the communists. 81st Airborne Ragner Group used helicopters to rescue more than 100 soldiers from the jungles around Phuoc Long, including seven soldiers from other friendly units. The rest of the Airborne Rangers dropped into the city were considered as killed, captured, or missing.
Incredibly, after the fall of Phuoc Long, the Air Force was accused in a military court of being guilty of "losing Phuoc Long." That must an unjust decision. The III Corps Headquarters, Air Force Headquarters, and the Commander of the 81st Airborne Rangers should have been the ones taken to court. More accurately, the individual who decided to send the Airborne Rangers into this "sea of flames" which he had already decided to abandon Phuoc Long was the real criminal. When the 43rd Tactical Air Wing had to appear in front of the Council of Generals, the Commander of 81st Airborne Ranger Group came to the meeting. He asked to be allowed to speak first, then hurriedly departed, because after the loss of Phuoc Long, the Headquarters of the Airborne Rangers had only been able to rescue a little more than 100 men, including Lieutenant Colonel Vu Xuan Thong, the Tactical Headquarters Commander; Major Nguyen Son, the Deputy Tactical Headquarters Commander; Captain Truong Viet Lam, Commander of the 811th Company; and Captain Le Dac Luc, Commander of the 814th Company (Note: These individual are all now in the United States). More than 100 missing Airborne Rangers needed the Commander of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group to be out on flights searching for them. After almost nine years of continuous service on the battlefield side by side with our Airborne Rangers, the Commander of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group recognized that the Air Force, and especially the helicopter crews, had always lived and dived alongside the Airborne Rangers. For that reason the Commander of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group said that he was ready to accept responsibility for the loss of Phuoc Long in front of the military court, and that the blame should not be places on the 43rd Tactical Air Wing.
I would like to present a segment of an article written by Air Force Dao Vu Anh Hung [Dao Vu the Hero, a penname] for the Air Force special publication "Idealism" [Ly Tuong] related to the "Phuoc Long incident":
"The Commander of the 43rd Tactical Air Wing, Colonel Trieu, whose nickname was ‘Pilot Thai Binh’ and whom Duong Hung Cuong described as someone who ‘learned how to fly a plane before he knew how to ride a bicycle,’ asked me to represent the Wing and serve as the Wing’s ‘lawyer’ during the hearing in front of the Council of Generals. Colonel Phan Van Huan, the Commander of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group, accompanied by single second lieutenant, his aide, walked into the hearing room after everyone else had arrived. He requested permission to speak first. In a proud and forceful voice, he said,
‘You all know why Phuoc Long was lost, even if no one is willing to say it out loud. As for the 81st Airborne Rangers, for us to fly into the jaws of death is a given, because our chosen career is to seek out the jaws of death. As for our Air Force brothers, the helicopter crews did more than their duty, and I am truly sorry that some of them died because of us. To bring them up on charges before a military court is completely unjust. If someone is guilty of the crime of being responsible for the loss of Phuoc Long, I accept that guilt. Please continue your meeting now and inform me of the results. I ask to be allowed to leave now, because I have a lot of work to do.
Colonel Huan came to attention, saluted, turned around, and walked out. He had walked in like a powerful wind, and he left the same way. He had been there for less than five minutes, and had made only a very short statement, but I the memory of that historic moment and his image at that time will remain etched forever in my memory. The Council of Generals left, and turned the investigation over to Colonel Nguyen Huu Loi of the Judge Advocates General Corps, who remained behind to continue the work. I carried out my duty as the "defense lawyer" for 43rd Tactical Air Wing. During the evacuation, I met Colonel Nguyen Huy Loi aboard an American ship, and in front of a large crowd of fellow soldiers, he commended me profusely for daring to speak the truth about the loss of Phuoc Long.’
81st Airborne Ranger Group’s 3rd Tactical Headquarters, stationed at the Joint General Staff
The work of sending reconnaissance teams deep into communist operation areas to collect information continued as before. On 26 April 1975, 81st Airborne Ranger Group was ordered to send a Tactical Headquarters with about 1,000 troops to reinforce the defenses of the Joint General Staff Headquarters. The 3rd Tactical Headquarters, commanded by Major Pham Chau Tai, was selected for this assignment. Major Pham Chau Tai set up his headquarters in a tall building in front of the JGS front gate and deployed his forces at key points around the JGS compound, including the Army Soccer Field, the North Vietnamese cemetery, the Canine Corps five-way intersection, the golf course, etc. Defensive positions inside the perimeter fences surrounding the JGS compound were the responsibility of the JGS’s own organic security force.
On 30 April 1975, communist forces advancing from the direction of the Ong Ta intersection to the Bay Hien intersection were attacked and blocked by rear headquarters elements of the Airborne Division, while communist forces advancing from Lang Cha Ca to the gates of the JGS compound ran into resistance from the 81st Airborne Ranger Group and the Special Technical Directorate. The enemy force was made up of infantry and tanks, supported by artillery, but although the enemy force was large and very powerful, it could not overcome the resistance offered by the Airborne troopers, the Airborne Rangers, and the Special Technical Directorate, even though Duong Van Minh had begun broadcasting an appeal early that morning calling on ARVN troops to cease-fire and turn in their weapons to the NLF. Major Pham Chau Tai summarized his telephone conversations with Brigadier General Nguyen Huu Hanh and President Duong Van Minh as follows:
"At 9:00 in the morning on 30 April 1975, the 3rd Tactical Headquarters/81st Airborne Ranger Group was fighting with Viet Cong troops outside the gates of the JGS in Lang Cha Ca when President Duong Van Minh issued his order to surrender. I ran into the office in the JGS where I have met with General Vinh Loc the night before, but the security guards assigned there said that General Vinh Loc had left the JGS at 6:00 that morning. All the generals and colonels who had been meeting in this office the night before were all gone. I picked up the telephone and dialed the number of the Officer of the President in order to speak with President Duong Van Minh. I was surprised when the person who answered the telephone said his name was Brigadier General Nguyen Huu Hanh. I said I wanted to speak to President Duong Van Minh. General Hanh asked who I was. I replied, ‘I am Major Pham Chau Tai, Commander of the 3rd Tactical Headquarters of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group stationed at the JGS.’ General Hanh knew who I was because he had been present during the meeting at JGS during the night of 29 April 1975. A few seconds later, General Hanh handed the telephone to President Duong Van Minh. President Minh said,
‘This is General Duong Van Minh. What do you want?’
I told President Minh,
‘I am the commander of the forces that are now in a life-or-death fight with Viet Cong forces at the JGS. I was trying to contact JGS when the cease-fire order was issued, and Viet Cong troops had continued to advance into the capital. I entered the JGS Headquarters and there was not one general left there. They all ran away. That’s why I wanted to talk to you, Mr. President, to request a decision on what I am supposed to do.’
‘Prepare to turn over everything,’ President Minh replied.
‘Does that mean we are to surrender?’ I asked.
‘That is correct. Right now Viet Cong tanks are entering Independence Palace," President Minh responded.
‘If Viet Cong tanks are entering Independence Palace, we will come save you,’ I said immediately, ‘but if you are ordering us to surrender, will you accept the responsibility for this to the 1,000 soldiers who are now fighting for their lives in front of the JGS?’
‘That’s up to you and to them,’ President Minh replied, and then hung up."
In spite of President Duong Van Minh’s surrender order, many ARVN units continued to fight. The developments at the 3rd Tactical Headquarters of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group from 29 April 1975 on can be summarized as follows:
At 12:30 noon on 29 April 1975, 819th Company’s 1st Platoon, commanded by Second Lieutenant Nguyen Cong Danh, rescued and protected a convoy of two buses that was being robbed and threatened at gunpoint at the gates to Tan Son Nhat Airbase. After resolving the situation, 1st Platoon escorted the two buses into the airbase. The passengers boarded an aircraft, and the aircraft took off at 2:45 in the afternoon. This was the last aircraft to take off from Tan Son Nhat. 1st Platoon then went back to deploy with the rest of 819th Company, commanded by Captain Truong Viet Lam, which was then deploying its troops at the Army Language School and the Army Arsenal. Captain Lam showed his soldiers how to use M-113s and they drove three brand new M-113s out of the Arsenal to establish an outer defensive perimeter.
During the night of 29 April 1975, Captain Nguyen Hien was ordered to command a convoy of trucks transporting heavy equipment and wounded soldiers of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group from Bien Hoa back to the 81st’s Rear Base at Camp Bac Tien [Advance North]. At 3:00 in the morning on 30 April 1975, when the convoy reached the Binh Phuoc Bridge, the PF unit guarding the bridge said that Bac Tien Camp and the other military installations in that area had been occupied by Viet Cong forces. Captain Hien immediately ordered the truck convoy to take a different route. The convoy drove to the Binh Trieu Bridge and tried to find their way to the JGS to join 81st Ranger Group’s 3rd Tactical Headquarters, which was then fighting to defend the JGS. Captain Hien finally managed to link up with 3rd Tactical Headquarters at 5:30 that morning.
On 30 April 1975, at 2:00 in the morning, fighting between the VC and units of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group was continuing at the gate to Tan Son Nhat Airbase and the Joint General Staff. The 81st Airborne Ranger positions at the back gate to the JGS used "mini" grenades to stop the Viet Cong sapper teams trying to infiltrate into the compound. Grenades and explosive charges were use to the maximum level possible, and after one and a half hours of fighting, the VC had not been able to advance and withdrew from the back gate to JGS.
At 6:00 A.M., five T-54 tanks and a column of accompanying VC infantry advancing into Saigon were stopped in front of the gate to Tan Son Nhat Airbase by resistance from elements of the Airborne Division and the 81st Airborne Rangers. Four VC tanks were destroyed, and the last one turned around and retreated. The Airborne Ranger companies that fought to defend the front gate of the JGS were the 817th Company, commanded by First Lieutenant Le Van Loi, and the 818th Company, commanded by Captain Nguyen Anh.
At 7:00 A.M., another column of Viet Cong armor headed toward the main gate into the JGS compound. A team from the 81st Airborne Rangers fighting in a tall building destroyed the lead vehicle with an M-72 rocket. The second tank fired its main turret gun into the building, neutralizing the defensive position there, but this vehicle was then destroyed by soldiers from 1st Lt. Le Van Loi’s 817th Company in front of the gate into the JGS.
After 10:00 A.M., the VC swarmed into Tan Son Nhat airbase. At that time, a civilian Toyota Corona [sic] drove up to the gate to the JGS compound, where it was stopped by soldiers of the 81st Airborne Rangers, who would not let the vehicle enter. Two men were in the car. One of them wore a uniform with major’s rank-tabs and the insignia of the Military Transportation Corps, while the other man wore civilian clothing and claimed to be a journalist. They wanted to enter the JGS compound to raise the NLF flag over it. Captain Nguyen Hien ordered his soldiers to confiscate the flag and detain these two individuals. After interrogating them and learning that they were just opportunists trying to gain an advantage by this trick of raising the flag, 3rd Tactical Headquarters released them in from of the JGS Headquarters gate.
At 10:30 A.M., Captain Nguyen Huu Hung, Deputy Commander of the 3rd Tactical Headquarters, and Captain Nguyen Hien decided to withdraw the unit from the JGS and return to Bien Hoa to join the Operational Headquarters of 81st Airborne Ranger Group. The convoy that left the JGS carried all those who still wanted to fight, and was reinforced by eight armored vehicles (M-41 tanks and M-113s) that came over from Tan Son Nhat to support the Airborne Rangers. As the convoy was driving down Vo Di Nguy Street in Phu Nhuan, however, it was ambushed by the VC. The lead truck was destroyed, blocking the rest of the convoy. Captain Hung ordered his troops to abandon the truck convoy and try to make their own escapes to avoid enemy vengance.
At 1:00 P.M. on 30 April 1975, Captain Truong Viet Lam’s 819th Company, after managing to collect the company’s soldiers, loaded weapons and ammunition from the Army Arsenal onto two covered GMC trucks and headed for Bien Hoa in the hope of joining the 81st Airborne Ranger Group Headquarters there. However, when these two trucks reached the Hanh Thong Tay intersection, they were stopped by Viet Cong soldiers. The civilians along the streets swarmed around the two trucks, appealing to the soldiers of 819th Company to lay down their weapons. They said,
"The war is over, put down your weapons. Airborne Rangers, lay down your weapons…" The 819th Company/81st Airborne Ranger Group turned in its weapons at the Hanh Thong Tay intersection at 2:15 P.M. on the afternoon of 30 April 1975. The men of 819th Company said farewell to one another and split up.
For a better understanding of the situation at Independence Palace at that time, I invite you to read a Viet Cong article from a newspaper published in Saigon on 30 April 1995:
Viet Cong Newspaper: ….
Headquarters/81st Airborne Ranger Group and the two Tactical Headquarters at Bien Hoa
At that moment, there only two pockets of resistance in the capital of South Vietnam: the Bay Hien intersection and Lang Cha Ca. Not long thereafter, the gunfire stopped at those locations also, and the soldiers laid down their weapons, said goodbye to one another, and went their separate ways.
Colonel Phan Van Huan’s 81st Airborne Headquarters, along with the 1st Tactical Headquarters, commanded by Lt. Col. Vu Xuan Thong, and 2nd Tactical Headquarters, commanded by Major Nguyen Son, a total of about 2,000 men, were stationed north of the Bien Hoa Airbase. At 12:00 noon on 28 April 1975, Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Toan asked Colonel Huan to come to an urgent meeting at III Corps Headquarters, but because Colonel Huan did not have a helicopter assigned to his that day and because the road to III Corps Headquarters had been cut, General Toan sent a helicopter to pick Colonel Huan up for the meeting. General Toan presided over the meeting, which was attended by the Bien Hoa province chief, Colonel Luu Yem; the commander of the 7th Airborne Battalion, Lt. Col. Lo, Colonel Phan Van Huan from the 81st Airborne Rangers, and about 20 officers from III Corps Headquarters.
The atmosphere in the conference room was tense and nervous. General Toan said,
"Tomorrow (29 April 1975), we will withdraw from Bien Hoa to defend a line at Thu Duc. Units will withdraw in succession, but you must maintain order and discipline, and not allow things to break down as they did in I Corps and II Corps. 81st Airborne Ranger Group will serve as the rear guard and will be responsible for destroying the bridge on the Korean Highway near Bien Hoa Airbase."
After Colonel Huan returned from the meeting at III Corps Headquarters, the 81st Airborne Ranger Group immediately shifted down into the Bien Hoa Airbase and deployed its forces there. Captain La Cao’s 812th Company was assigned responsibility for maintaining security and traffic control at the Moi Bridge [New Bridge] until the other units and 81st Airborne Ranger Group crossed the bridge to move down to Thu Duc to establish a line of defense there. On the morning of 29 April 1975, the units moved across the Bien Hoa Highway Bridge, withdrawing from Bien Hoa city exactly as General Toan had ordered (Bien Hoa Airbase was supposed to be manned by the 3rd Air Division, but the Air Force had withdrawn several days earlier). At exactly 8:00 in the morning, 81st Airborne Ranger Group crossed the New Bridge.812th Company together with a team of engineers led by Captain Hoang, which had been attached to 81st Airborne Ranger Group, was the last unit to cross the bridge, and it completed its assigned mission by destroying the bridge with explosive charges. Just after the unit crossed the bridge, it heard the order from Vu Van Mau, the new Vietnamese Prime Minister requesting all Americans to leave Vietnam within 24 hours.
This was an important event in the final hours of South Vietnam. In this situation, the 81st Airborne Ranger Group immediately pulled back into the Co Mi forest, deployed there, and tried to contact higher authorities and other friendly units to gain a clearer understanding of the situation in order to choose the proper course of action for the 81st Airborne Ranger Group. The Headquarters and the communications section of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group tried all night to contact other friendly units on all radio frequencies, but no one responded. On the morning of 30 April 1975, 81st Airborne Ranger Group moved down jungle trails, moving gradually toward Thu Duc in the hope of encountering another friendly unit, but the situation was completely hopeless. Along the way, 81st Airborne Ranger Group occasionally found military equipment and uniforms abandoned by other units. When the 81st Airborne Ranger Group reached a point near Lang Chu Hoa, near Chau Thoi Mountain, the unit halted and sent out reconnaissance teams to observe the situation on the Lai Thieu and Korean Highways. The reconnaissance teams reported back to 81st Group Headquarters that Viet Cong trucks were driving openly down the main roads without any resistance from the units responsible for these areas. Our forces had collapsed everywhere!
After learning this, Colonel Huan called an immediate meeting with his commanders. He told them,
"We have tried unsuccessfully to contact higher authorities and other friendly units, but it is now hopeless. Given the present situation, I would like your opinions as to what we should do."
The vast majority of the commanders answered along the following lines:
"A single swallow cannot make the weather turn into spring [TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Old Vietnamese proverb]. In addition, we have no instructions from higher authority. If we continue to fight without supporting units, the Viet Cong will mass and annihilate our unit. The only course left open to us is to reluctantly follow the order issued by President Duong Van Minh."
Colonel Huan asked his commanders to assemble all the men around a rather high burial mound. Standing on top of the mound, Colonel Huan spoke sadly to his assembled troops:
"We were born in South Vietnam, and it was our duty to defend the South. Now we have been defeated, and, bitterly, we must follow the order issued by President Duong Van Minh to turn in our weapons to the Viet Cong. My brothers, we are an elite unit of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam, and have fought side by side for many long years. At this historic moment, we must demonstrate that we are a disciplined unit, not some disorganized, bastard unit. Therefore, I ask that you follow me out to the Bien Hoa Highway. The companies will line up in a column of fours and march toward Saigon in order to contact a Viet Cong unit to turn in our weapons. Then all of us will disperse and split up. I want you all to remember that you will not be guilty of any crime, because you will be following my orders. I am prepared to accept the guilt and I will lead the way. If the Viet Cong shoot at us, I will be the first man hit."
Arriving on the Korean Highway near Lang Chu Hoa, the soldiers of 81st Airborne Ranger Group lined up in a column of fours and marched toward Saigon. The two Tactical Headquarters and the Group Headquarters totaled almost 2,000 men, and in a column of fours the formation was more than one kilometer long. The troops marched silently down the road, with no moans or sighs, but the order to surrender made the still fully-armed soldiers fight back their tears. Civilians stood in front of their thatch-roofed huts along the road watched the sad troops march past. As the 81st Airborne Ranger Group marched down the Korean Highway, a Viet Cong truck drove by in the other direction. The communist cadre and soldiers in the truck stared at the 81st Airborne Ranger Group with curiosity and amazement when they saw our soldiers were still carrying their weapons. After the 81st Airborne Ranger Group had traveled a considerable distance, two vehicles appeared from the direction of Saigon. A movie camera was mounted on each vehicle. The Viet Cong filmed the entire column, from the front to the end, then turned around and filmed the entire column from the other direction. They spent a great deal of time filming the troops at the head of the column, who consisted of the senior officers and commanders of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group.
When the Airborne Ranger column stopped to provide the troops a short rest break, a Viet Cong unit arrived to receive them. The soldiers of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group placed their weapons on the ground and then dispersed in all directions.
It should be added that as the 81st Airborne Ranger Group was marching down the highway, it encountered many young men running back the other direction, from Saigon to Bien Hoa. Their heads were bare, they were barefoot, they each wore only a pair of undershorts, and they carried their personal documents and money in their hands. Colonel Huan, marching at the head of the column, called one of them over and asked,
"Where are you guys running to dressed like that?"
The young man replied,
"We are soldiers. The Viet Cong took our weapons and then forces us to take off our uniforms and footwear and told us to return home."
For this reason, when he met with the Viet Cong to turn in the unit’s weapons, Colonel Huan asked them not to make his Airborne Rangers undress in that manner, because he said he was afraid they would feel insulted and humiliated and would not obey the order to turn in their weapons. The Viet Cong agreed to his request, and even sent trucks to transport the officers back home.
As for the 812th Company, commanded by Captain La Cao, the captain instructed his men,
"When you remove the magazines from your weapons, leave one round in the chamber just in case of a surprise attack or in the event that, when we meet the Viet Cong, if they humiliate us so much that you can’t take it, you’ll be able to use your last cartridge."
Two trucks arrived to take the officers back to Saigon. When the trucks reached the Thu Duc University campus, Colonel Huan asked the trucks to stop and told the Viet Cong,
"My officers live in this compound."
Actually, the officers did not live in this rich and impressive area, but the officers did not want the Viet Cong to know where their homes and families really were. At this point, the officers sadly said their farewells and split up.
813th Company/81st Airborne Ranger Group in Tay Ninh
In mid-March 1975, the bulk of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group, under the command of Lt. Col. Nguyen Van Lan, the Deputy Group Commander , was sent up to Tay Ninh to help 25th Division defend the northwestern approaches to Saigon (the Commander of the 25th Division at that time was the former Junior Cadet Brigadier General Ly Tong Ba). When the 81st Airborne Ranger Group arrived in Tay Ninh, it established its Operating Base at Xom Cham. 813th Company was designated as the reserve unit and assigned responsibility for the outer perimeter defense of the Operating Base. About a week later, 813th company was sent to Trang Sup, a forward outpost in the extreme western part of Tay Ninh province, to replace Captain Le’s 816th Company.
In late April, the situation in Tay Ninh province was extremely tense. Lt. Gen. Toan ordered the 81st Airborne Ranger Group to leave one company behind to help maintain the morale of our soldiers in Tay Ninh while the rest of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group moved back to Bien Hoa to receive a new mission. First Lieutenant Lai Dinh Hoi’s 813th Company was given the assignment of remaining behind. Before leaving Tay Ninh, Lt. Col. Lan gave 1st Lt. Hoi a sealed envelope and told him to only open it in an emergency.
At that time, ARVN forces in Tay Ninh, other than the provincial forces, consisted of only the 49th Regiment of the 25th Division, commanded by Lt. Col. Khoa, and 813th Airborne Ranger Company. A few days later, Colonel Tai, the Tay Ninh Province Chief, ordered the 813th Company to defend the Tay Ninh province headquarters. During this period, many incidents occurred, such as the resignation of President Nguyen Van Thieu and President Huong’s relinquishing of his office to General Minh.
On the morning of 29 April 1975, Lt. Col. Khoa told 1st Lt. Hoi that he had been unable to contact the Headquarters of the 25th Division for several days. 813th Company had also lost contact with the 81st Airborne Ranger Group Operations Center at Suoi Mau and even with the Airborne Ranger Group Rear Base at the An Suong intersection. Lt. Col. Khoa told 1st Lt. Hoi that he had met with Colonel Tai and a number of the unit commanders of provincial units, and that he planed to withdraw back toward Saigon the next day (30 April 1975). If Saigon had fallen, he would continue down to IV Corps to continue to fight, because he had a number of friends in that area. Lt. Col. Khoa asked 1st Lt. Hoi to do something for him:
"This afternoon, when you go to the meeting (Colonel Tai held a meeting every afternoon for the commanders of the different provincial and attached units), have a team of our Airborne Rangers break into the room in the middle of the meeting, point guns at everyone, and order me to withdraw to Saigon."
1st Lt. Hoi replied,
"I cannot do that, because I will not withdraw without an order from Colonel Huan, even if the only unit left in Tay Ninh is my 813th Airborne Ranger Company."
Lt. Col. Khoa worked to persuade 1st Lt. Hoi to withdraw with him, and explained that he was only withdrawing so that he could continue to fight, not just to run away. 1st Lt. Hoi promised to give him an answer that afternoon.
At noon on 29 April 1975, 1st Lt. Hoi met with all the officers and NCOs in the company. After repeating his conversation with Lt. Col. Khoa, 1st Lt. Hoi told his men that the last helicopter re-supply mission had included a hand-carried letter from Colonel Huan for him. In addition to orders and instructions, the letter had included a short piece of advice: "Hoi, the situation is extremely grave. If something happens, return to fight to the end with the rest of the Group." After a discussion, everyone agreed to withdraw.
On the afternoon of 29 April 1975, 1st Lt. Hoi told Lt. Col. Khoa that he would withdraw with Khoa’s unit if Lt. Col. Khoa approved the withdrawal [sic – probably should read, "…if Colonel Tai approved the withdrawal], but Hoi said he would not send his troops to threaten him. Lt. Col. Khoa agreed and the meeting that afternoon was not held. Hoi then ordered the 813th Company to prepare to move back to their rear base the next day. He also ordered 1st Lt. Phan Anh Tuan, the Company XO, to go to the province military hospital to inform the Airborne Ranger sick and wounded being treated there of the withdrawal.
On the morning of 30 April 1975, Lt. Col. Khoa said that the only forces withdrawing from Tay Ninh would be his regiment and the 813th Airborne Ranger Company (Colonel Tai would remain behind). The orders were that the troops would travel back to Saigon by truck. In the event of an ambush, the troops would dismount, clear the road, and then continue on (at that time the highway was cut in a number of locations). 813th Company was assigned to accompany the 49th Regiment Headquarters. At about 7:00 A.M., everyone had boarded the trucks and was ready to move out. Accompanying the 813th Company, in addition to the Airborne Ranger wounded personnel, was one more individual: the Chief of Police of Tay Ninh Province (no one remembers the name of this lieutenant colonel). The truck convoy drove for a distance and then the road was blocked. 1st Lt. Hoi ordered his Airborne Rangers to dismount from the vehicles, move a long distance off to the right side of the road, deploy, and await orders. When he counted his men, he found that 813th Company was not missing a single man, not even the wounded accompanying them. He also had Lt. Col. Khoa and the police chief. At that time, 1st Lt. Hoi opened the sealed envelope Lt. Col. Lan had given him when Lan left Tay Ninh. The letter contained a map showing assembly locations to wait for pick-up in the event of a disaster. Lt. Col. Khoa told Hoi that the Viet Cong had occupied Tay Ninh province as soon as the truck convoy left the city. Lt. Col. Khoa and 1st Lt. Hoi decided to walk back to Saigon. To avoid meeting enemy forces, 813th Company would move under the cover of rice-paddy dikes, far from the highway. Lt. Col. Khoa said that he had lost contact with his regiment.
At noon on 30 April 1975, as they were marching, an Airborne Ranger turned on his radio and heard the surrender proclamation issued by President Duong Van Minh. After halting the company and deploying into defensive positions, Lt. Col. Khoa said he believe IV Corps was still holding out and he wanted to go down there with the men of 813th Company. The troops of the 813th Airborne Ranger Company then shouldered their weapons and set out, ignoring President Minh’s appeal to surrender.
At 4:00 in the afternoon of 30 April 1975, 1st Lt. Hoi met with all his officers and NCOs to consult about what to do. Everyone agreed to lead their weapons on the rice-paddy dikes at Bau Nau hamlet and walk out to the highway. On 1 May 1975, the men of 813th Airborne Ranger Company continued to strictly follow the orders of their squad leaders, platoon leaders, Company XO Tuan, and Company Commander Lai Dinh Hoi.
At about 9:00 at night on 1 May 1975, 813th Company and soldiers of the 25th Division were ordered to assemble to listen to a talk on the "Amnesty Policy of the Revolution". Before the end of the talk, a communist cadre said, "All officers are to remain behind, while NCOs and privates will be allowed to return home." 1st Lt. Hoi whispered to his men, "Everyone is to leave; no one stays behind." At about 10:00 P.M. on 1 May 1975, the entire 813th Airborne Ranger Company walked out to the highway and walked all night to Go Dau to catch buses back to Saigon. The busses carrying the 813th Company reached the An Suong intersection at about noon on 2 May 1975, at which time the soldiers said their farewells and split up.
The fate of Six 81st Airborne Ranger Reconnaissance Teams in War Zone D
The six reconnaissance teams dropped by helicopter deep in the center of War Zone D lost all radio contact. The team radios, PRC-25s and UHF-1s, had to be relayed either by L-19 observation aircraft or radio relay sites located atop high mountains. After 29 April 1975, the teams lost all radio contact with 81st Airborne Ranger Group Headquarters because the radio relay stations had all disappeared. The reconnaissance teams knew nothing of Duong Van Minh’s surrender order on 30 April 1975. Eighteen men from three teams were able to contact one another by radio. When their five days of rations ran out, they had to endure hunger as they tried to escape from the deep jungle. When they reached a hamlet in Tan Uyen district along the Dong Nai River near the Tri An Waterfall (where the Dai An outpost was previously located), they were so hungry they went into the hamlet to ask for food and to try to find out news about the situation. These three reconnaissance teams were surrounded by Viet Cong troops, so they laid down their arms and surrendered on 5 May 1975. The eighteen men were imprisoned by the Viet Cong, left to starve, and then taken out and shot, and their bodies were thrown in the river. When the bodies floating down the river began to stink, the Viet Cong forced the local residents to pull them out and bury them along the banks of the Dong Nai River. The bodies of eight others [sic] were buried in a mass grave in an abandoned well. According to local residents, one of the men was still alive, and an old couple in the hamlet hid him and saved his life. This man’s name was Duc. Every year at Tet, Duc would return to thank his benefactors for saving his life. After the couple died in 1995, however, Duc did not return again. Local villages kept the diary of another team member, Nguyen Van Mot, when they buried his body, but now this diary has disappeared. The 81st Airborne Ranger Group has tried to locate and buy it, but has been unsuccessful. As for the grave of Tuan, an officer and a team leader, his family recovered his remains in 1993.
There remained the teams of Sub-Lieutenant Le Xuan Hien and Second Lieutenant Nguyen Minh. Hien’s team turned itself in on 7 May and Minh’s team on 15 May, both in the Dai An area. These teams were not executed by the Viet Cong. Le Xuan Hien and Nguyen Minh have both have resettled in the United States.
Local people believe that the reason these two teams were not executed by the Viet Cong was because the local population was so upset by the brutality of the Viet Cong, who had mistreated and murdered the first three teams.
Team Leader Le Xuan Hien says that after the VC took their weapons on 7 May 1975, he was sent to a prisoner of war camp in the jungles of Binh Son. There, Hien met twelve members of other reconnaissance teams. Hien still remembers some of their names: Sub-Lieutenant Huynh Son Phuong, Sergeant Vo Van Hiep, Ly Khach, Le Van Diep, Sub-Lieutenant Nguyen Van Be, Nguyen Van Son, etc. While being held in this prison, all the men were beaten and tortured, and Nguyen Van Son and Sergeant Vo Van Hiep died.
In 1995 the 81st Airborne Ranger Family abroad sent someone to Dai An hamlet to build a proper grave for those who had given their lives for their country, but the local population was afraid to cooperate in this effort. They were afraid of Viet Cong retaliation because to build a grave for these men would expose the brutality and inhumanity of the Viet Cong. The 81st Airborne Ranger soldiers who died at Dai An hamlet during the last days of the war survive only in the memories of the local residents and of their comrades-in-arms living abroad.
The 81st Airborne Ranger heroes who fell at Dai An during the tragic month of April [sic] were the recipients of the heartless and brutal bullets fired by our enemies after the day that those who were blinded by their dreams called the day "that peace returned to our native Vietnam."
Family of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group
Colonel Huan and his entire staff officers were released briefly. Then they were arrested and sent to prison in the North Viet-Nam for many years. Many of them died in prison. Colonel Huan was released after thirteen years in "Communist re-education" camp. He and most of his staff have resettled in the United States. They formed the Family of the 81st Association as a network of support for each other and their friends still living in Vietnam.
The Family of the 81st Airborne Ranger
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