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Friday, March 30, 2007

The 35th Anniversary of the Easter Offensive

Thirty-five years ago, the U.S. was withdrawing its forces from Vietnam, my ship was off the southern tip of South Vietnam, replenishing some small boys, and headed to Thailand for liberty. But on March 30, 1972, we were ordered to make best speed for the gunline off the DMZ because the North Vietnamese, with tanks and regular army troops were rolling across the DMZ in what became known as the Easter Offensive:
When the DRV Vietnam launched the offensive in 1972 it had every reason to be confident of success. U.S. forces had been gradually withdrawing from South Vietnam for the previous three years, growing anti-war sentiment had spread among the population and government of the U.S., and the failure of South Vietnamese forces during Operation Lam Son 719 in 1971 had all added to the DRV's confidence. However, it was during this offensive that the North Vietnamese failed as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) put up stiff resistance and inflicted much material damage to their opponents. The result was a military disaster for North Vietnamese forces.
The offensive began on 30 March, when 200,000 PAVN troops under the command of General Vo Nguyen Giap, crossed the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and attacked the three northernmost provinces of South Vietnam. Rolling over the border outposts, PAVN then attacked the city of Quang Tri from the north and west.
This wave of attacks was followed by offensives against Kontum Province on 12 April and the city of An Loc, in Binh Long Province on 19 April.

The second wave of the offensive was designed to split the RVN in two by driving through the Central Highlands to the sea. The attack on Quang Tri was met by heavy aerial bombardment by aircraft of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force]]. B-52 Stratofortress bombers were used to extend the air strikes against PAVN forces in the DMZ on 4 April, and into areas of the northern DRV on 10 April in a bombing campaign unprecedented during the Vietnam Conflict. Targets near the DRV capital of Hanoi was bombed on 15 April.

Quang Tri fell to PAVN on 1 May. In response, the U.S. and RVN negotiators withdrew from the Paris Peace Talks three days later, although talks would resume on 13 July. PAVN soon pressed the attack southward from Quang Tri southward toward the old imperial capital of Hue, where they were rebuffed with the assistance of American air support on 5 May. The U.S. military reinforced its in-theater air forces by shuttling squadrons in from as far away as Japan and the continental U.S. This aerial armada continued to provide tactical support to South Vietnamese forces, and simultaneously began Operation Linebacker I
Some have said that the initial success of the NVA invasion was due to the failure to properly assess and use intelligence. Other have slightly different take, blaming some of the problem on putting very inexperienced South Vietnamese troops along the DMZ.

Some recall heroics:
At midday on March 30, 1972, almost by complete surprise, the North Vietnamese Army launched its single biggest assault of the Vietnam War. Larger in size and scale than the very costly but politically effective 1968 Tet Offensive, the NVA this time were fighting an almost conventional battle.

Generously supplied with seemingly unlimited artillery, Soviet armor and the latest air-defense weapons, reports of the NVA strength and battlefield successes were, for the first few days, not believed by the South Vietnamese general staff and their senior American advisers way down yonder in Saigon.

The first three and a half days of what came to be known as the Easter Offensive of 1972 were a near rout. The shock value of the new conventional NVA juggernaut was wreaking havoc with friendly forces. Indiscriminate artillery barrages, as intense as any experienced by the old hands, were especially deleterious for the uncounted masses of peasants turned refugees in Quang Tri Province. The poor weather and low visibility temporarily neutered the South's advantage in air power. It was hard to believe things could turn so negative in such a short time.

It was clear early on that the town of Dong Ha was a strategic target for the NVA. Offering the only bridge over the Cam Lo-Cua Viet River capable of supporting the heavy T-54 tanks now being used with such tremendous effect, the enemy needed to take it intact. Control of that one bridge would open the South for further exploitation. At a minimum, the turnover of Dong Ha would assure the loss of the northern provinces.

The allied unit closest to the gathering storm at Dong Ha was the Vietnamese Third Marine Battalion. As fate would have it, Capt. John Ripley was the covan (the Vietnamese name "co-van" for U.S. Marine Corps advisers means "trusted friend") that day about to enter the arena.
The saga of "Ripley at the Bridge" is now part of Marine Corps legend (see also here):
Ripley's performance that day continues to fascinate. These were not the deeds of a regular man. His bravery was not some gut reaction or counterpunch to a blow struck by an enemy. His actions in that three-hour window – with the world collapsing around him – were deliberate, willful, premeditated. Every ounce of his spiritual and physical fiber was focused on mission accomplishment. Anything less and he surely would have failed. Exhausted prior to the start, when he was finished he was way past empty.
I noted a wonderful book about Captain Ripley in a long ago post on how John Kerry and his ilk helped us lose an ally and hurt our troops back in 1972:
Having trouble with the idea that we had people in action in 1972? I suggest you read the Bridge at Don Ha by John Grider Miller or go to the USS Mullinnix site to see the shell splash photo or visit the USS Sterrett site (NB: Site no longer validd- some history here) to learn about the battle off Dong Hoi where the USS Higbee took a bomb in her after gun mount and the Sterett fought off a Styx missile attack. The North Vietnamese had plenty of fight left, helped in no small part by the words and actions of the anti-war crowd, including John Kerry.
Much more on the Easter Offensive here:
U.S. air power in all its forms was absolutely critical throughout the campaign to defend An Loc from repeated North Vietnamese attacks. It took primarily three forms: tactical air support, aerial resupply, and evacuation of wounded.

Tactical air support was so critical that the city would almost certainly have fallen before 1 May without it. Members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations traveled to Saigon in late 1972 to investigate the conduct of the Easter Offensive. The Committee Report in 1973 cited U.S. air support as the key ingredient to the ARVN victory. During one of the briefings presented to the committee members at MACV headquarters, the briefer was asked what would have happened if U.S. air support had not been available; the briefer replied: "We would be meeting some other place today."

General Abrams, former MACV commander, later stated that in his opinion, "American air power and not South Vietnamese arms, had caused his [the enemy's] losses." This evaluation was echoed by participants at all levels. The after-action report of the 21st ARVN Division stated, "The accuracy, devastation, and responsiveness of U.S. tactical air meant the difference between victory and defeat." Brigadier General McGiffert, General Hollingsworth's deputy at Third Regional Assistance Command, was even more emphatic in his evaluation of the impact of U.S. air power. During the battle, he was quoted as saying that the B-52 force was "the most effective weapon we have been able to muster" and asserted that the threat of bomber strikes "forces the enemy to break up his ground elements into small units and makes it difficult to mass forces for an attack." When asked after the battle what he thought about the ability of the ARVN to hold An Loc without American tactical air support, he replied, "No contest-never would have hacked it." (footnoted omitted)
Much support also came from U.S. Navy carriers and gunships off the coast. See here:
Cdr. W. James Thearle, USN commanded the U.S.S. BUCHANAN (DDG14). Thearle and his crew responded magnificently to the call for assistance from Lieutenant Eisenstein's naval gunfire spotters. When the BUCHANAN went to full battle stations and began to deliver suppressive fires on the enemy, the ship properly reported its actions in "high precedence" naval messages. Fire missions for naval gunfire increased intensity almost by the hour, and Thearle requested augmentation from other U.S. destroyers. By 1 April, four destroyers were off the Cam Lo-Cau Viet River delivering fire on the enemy. The deployment of these and other ships all resulted from voice radio communication from 3rd Division TOC. The Navy was committed to the defense of Quang Tri Province before General Abrams recognized the crisis or asked for additional assistance.
Because of inclement weather conditions, no tactical air support was brought to bear on the North Vietnamese ground forces. Naval gunfire became the only reliable source of supporting arms during the first forty-eight hours of the offensive. History will record that the U.S. destroyers were of immeasurable value in holding back the North Vietnamese attack down Highway 1 to Dang Ha and Quang Tri City.

The U.S.S, BUCHANAN later received credit for destroying four PT-76 tanks,* definitely a first for a U.S. destroyer operating in South Vietnamese waters. Hundreds of rounds of ammunition were being fired on NVA troops and vehicles and at the end of each day, Navy gunfire expenditure reports were submitted identifying the types of targets fired upon. Often the ships included personal assessments on the situation ashore and identified U.S. Marine advisory personal. Eisenstein, Turley, and later Captain Ripley, began to appear in their "flash" precedence messages to CINCPAC in Honolulu.
More at the Buchanan website:
USS BUCHANAN first line period in 1972 consisted of 63 continuous days of operation in combat zone off Vietnam

On station off the DMZ March 30, 1972 she was one of the first gunline ships to fire against the North Vietnamese invading force. During those first days of April, BUCHANAN provided gunfire support for evacuation of U.S. Marines
at the forward ground observer post, Alpha Two, the defense of Dong Ha and the evacuation of the Vietnamese Naval Base.

On the Cua Viet River on numerous occasions, BUCHANAN took enemy troops and tanks under direct fire and has been credited with the destruction of four enemy tanks at the DMZ and numerous enemy troops killed in action at the
approaches to the Dong Ha bridge.

On April 5, with Commodore T.R. Johnson, ComDesRon 31 embarked, BUCHANAN led an operation against North Vietnam. On the afternoon she fired the first rounds into North Vietnam since "Sea Dragon" operations creased in 1968.

On April 10 BUCHANAN was directed to proceed to Danang Harbor for regunning alongside the tender USS Samuel Gompers. This marked the first time that a US Navy ship was assigned tender availability in a forward combat area
during the Vietnam conflict.

Regunning completed, BUCHANAN once again put to sea and continued operations off the coast of North Vietnam, Several times a day her guns hammered supply routes, SAM sites, enemy troop concentrations and coastal
defense sites.

On April 16, she led the first strike against the Do Son Peninsula off Haiphong Harbor in company with the Seventh Fleet command ship, USS Oklahoma City, USS Richard B. Anderson and USS Hamner.

On the following day, while engaged in a sharp exchange of gunfire with hostile shore batteries, one enemy artillery shell found its mark. The shell penetrated the superstructure and exploded, killing one man and slightly wounding seven others. Material damage was quickly isolated and three hours later BUCHANAN was again striking enemy targets. On April 18, BUCHANAN retired to Danang for battle damage repair.

On April 19 the Task Force BUCHANAN had just left was attacked by MIG's. The USS Higbee DD 806 was severely damaged by direct hit to after Mount. She joined BUCHANAN at Destroyer Tender in Da Nang to undergo repairs. During the battle two MIG's were shot down by USS Steret

After a brief four-day period as plane guard for the attack aircraft carrier, USS Kitty Hawk, BUCHANAN returned to the gunline.

BUCHANAN once again headed for the northern reaches of the Gulf of Tonkin on May 8 and participated in operations in the vicinity of the Do Son Peninsula.

One operation involved suppression of hostile shore batteries while enabling other U.S. Navy Forces to mine the Haiphong Harbor entrance, On the night of May 10, BUCHANAN in company with USS Newport News, USS Providence, USS Oklahoma City and USS Hanson once again returned to the Do Son Peninsula to participate in operations involving the most formidable cruiser-destroyer strike group assembled in the Western Pacific since World
War II.

Striking against military targets in the Haiphong area, BUCHANAN is the only U.S. Navy ship to have participated in every surface strike operation off Haiphong Harbor since operations were initiated of April 5.

In 63 days, BUCHANAN had struck North Vietnamese military targets 49 times and also delivered over 7700 rounds against enemy emplacements while receiving hostile fire on almost every mission. She was the first U.S. Navy
vessel to engage the enemy as the North Vietnamese forced their way across the DMZ and is now the last of the "Charter members" in combat action to return to port.
Action off Haiphong described here. Story of the Higbee getting bombed covered here. More on the sucess of the South Vietnamese defense here (source of the map).

It all began 35 years ago, today.


  1. Anonymous1:55 PM

    I was on the Buchanan during this period.

  2. Anonymous4:42 PM

    There were Army units there too.