PART 2 :
LTC Schott's deferment of command to me was communicated to MG James Hollingsworth and BG John McGiffert. They agreed with LTC Schott's decision. This command situation was further communicated by me to General Hung, Commander, ARVN 5th Division. LTC Schott's decision to put me in command was made in deference to my experience in combat. I had participated in major battles at Loc Ninh in 1966 and 1967. Further, my ability to use the various supporting arms was established. I had served in Vietnam, for at least a portion of soldier, on the ground at Loc Ninh, who was fluent in the Vietnamese language.
The attached report describes the true disposition of friendly forces, not where some commanders claimed them to be, and the true disposition of enemy forces, not where they were « assumed » to be. The report also correctly reflects an organization of 4 rifle companies per battalion which was the standard rifle company organization in the 9th Infantry Regiment.
I have written the attached report to set the record straight. I regret that The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) chose to classify my initial report, which I rendered while in Letterman Army Medical Center in early 1973. Classification. of my initial report, I have been told, was required because of sensitivity regarding the manner in which LTC Schott was killed and the actions of SFC Howard Lull. The U.S. Army's uneasiness concerning the content of my initial report was further compounded by my pointed statements concerning Major Davidson, the acting Loc Ninh District Senior Advisor, and his Vietnamese counterpart. These two men escaped from Loc Ninh and Major Davidson was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC); the award being presented prior to myself and Captain George Wanat being released from the POW camp. Subsequent to our release, however, my comments in regard to Major Davidson were that he « whined » throughout the entire battle; and finally deserted Captain George Wanat while under fire. My DIA debriefers and the U.S. Army ignored my comments because the Army would be embarrassed if it admitted a « deserter » had received the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism during a battle where he ran away ! I could not professionally ignore Major Davidson's conduct and actions during the battle and refused to retract the truth. As a result, my initial report remains classified or has ceased to exist. At my insistence, the Army accepted my submission of a recommendation for award of the Distinguished Service Cross to Captain George Wanat for his actions at Loc Ninh and for his thirty one days of escape and evasion (E&E) prior to being captured by the Vietnamese. George was, most deservingly, awarded the DSC.
In Annex D to this report is a description of the events in the prisoner of war (POW) camp in Cambodia. Once again, as with my initial Loc Ninh after action report, the DIA chose to classify my debriefing concerning the period of imprisonment. The DIA did so because of my strong statements concerning « who did what » and « who did not do as duty and honor would dictate » while held as a POW. The end-notes referenced in this report are located immediately after « The Battle » section of the report.
At Annex B, is a roster that reflects names and/or call signs of participants. If anyone was omitted from the report or was not given proper credit it is unintentional.
As to the question: « Who was in command ? » I was in command !
My call sign and nickname is « Zippo ». My call sign was the prefix all call signs of personnel assigned to the 9th RCAT.
Annex C reflects the names of eleven Americans, not counting myself, and one Frenchman. I believe ten of these people are still living. I further believe at least eight of them will verify that I commanded the defending forces during the battle of Loc Ninh.
II. Prelude to Battle :
During the winter of 1971-72, the 5th ARVN Division conducted operations of a limited nature in Binh Long, Phuoc Long, and Binh Duong provinces. These operations rarely made contact with the enemy, except for limited incursions into Cambodia toward the town of Snoul. It should be noted that, within the 9th ARVN Regiment, contacts with the enemy increased when advisors again accompanied battalions on operation. This practice was reinstituted by myself in November 1971. SFC Lull and myself accompanied battalions on operations on a regular basis.
One small battle between Lai Khe and Ben Cat was initiated by the 2nd Battalion, 9th Infantry, in December 1971. The area had been worked by numerous units without advisors. By pushing the ARVN commander to move farther off the highway, contact with a company of NVA was achieved. This indicated to LTC Schott, Colonel Bill Miller, and to me that all was not as pacified as the 5th ARVN Division staff would have us believe.
Contacts around Loc Ninh were rare, as the enemy could see you coming for a very long distance. Members of the Border Ranger Battalion and the French plantation manager, however, assured me that the NVA were in the area continuously. The Frenchman also told me that he paid the NVA not to start trouble in the plantation. This was done to preclude damage to the trees. The 9th Regiment soon learned that by operating only within the confines of the rubber plantation, one could avoid trouble.
One operation conducted northwest of Loc Ninh was to put a « scissor » bridge in place on a small river at the border. The reason given was to allow units to avoid using QL13 as the single avenue of approach to Cambodia. My observation was that the bridge offered an excellent avenue of approach for the enemy. The ARVN, however, left the bridge in place and never guarded it or used it for operations because of its size and location, in the jungle. The NVA made fine use of this bridge, and one other, to put the 5th NVA Division in place for battle; and, the 9th Division used it to by-pass Loc Ninh for points South. During the battle of Loc Ninh it took one full day to destroy this bridge.
A short time prior to the battle, LTC Schott and myself drove to Fire Support Base (FSB) Alpha. At the Montagnard village, short of Fire Base Alpha, is a river. The bridge there had long since been destroyed; however, « someone » had been building an underwater bridge with rocks. Inquiries to the Rangers and to the 9th Regiment Headquarters drew a negative response on knowledge of this endeavor. A stop at the village and a discussion with some children made it clear that « someone » had ordered the people to bring rocks to build this structure. Further questioning about « who » only solicited the response: « The Vietnamese ». When asked if it was the ARVN or the enemy, the response was that all Vietnamese were the enemy. When LTC Schott and I raised the issue with Colonel Vinh, he was not worried. Me was sure the Montagnards were using the underwater bridge to smuggle wood from Cambodia. This structure held no tactical implications for Colonel Vinh. He further stated that it was good for the « scissor » bridge to remain in place as it gave the NVA the opportunity to by pass Loc Ninh. He also said that if the NVA came with full combat power, using the tanks and armored personnel carriers (APC), captured in an earlier battle, we would have to surrender. He also stated that he had been a prisoner in the 1950's and it was better than being dead.
I made up my mind to two things at this time:
1. Loc Ninh would not surrender without a fight.
2. The bridges would become prime targets at the onset of any battle. With this in mind, the stage was set for the battle of Loc Ninh.
On 30 March 1972 the Stars and Stripes published a picture of NVA T-54 tanks on the « Ho Chi Minh Trail » headed South. Colonel Vinh, however, remained convinced that the only armor the 9th ARVN Regiment faced was captured M-41 tanks and APCs. An inventory of high explosive anti tank (HEAT) ammunition, for the sole 106mm Recoilless Rifle at Loc Ninh, showed the presence of precisely six rounds on-hand ! There were also fifty rounds of canister ammunition on-hand. Colonel Vinh assured me he would request more ammunition. On the afternoon of 4 April 1972 Major Carlson, SOT Wallingford, a French photographer named Michael Dummond, and myself journeyed from Lai Khe to An Loc. We were passed by numerous overloaded vehicles fleeing south. Just south of Loc Ninh the French plantation manager passed us and waved for us to go back. We proceeded on to Loc Ninh. The village square was basically deserted, except for some drunk ARVN soldiers at the local « soup stand ». They said they were drunk because tomorrow they would die. Colonel Vinh was not alone in his defeatism. Amazingly the National Police station was erecting additional barbed wire and filling sandbags. This for a staff of six people ! These personnel included one female and five male police. When I inquired of Major Davidson as to the district chief's plans for the police, he stated that they had been ordered to defend the police station.
Other after action reports state that the 1st ARVN Cavalry was operating in Cambodia just prior to the battle. This is a myth concocted by Col. Vinh and the Commander of the 1st ARVN Cavalry. They were, in fact, at FSB Alpha. The only exception to this was a total of five APCs and one tank at the intersection of QLIS and QL14. These vehicles were placed here for two reasons:
1. To provide a blocking force to protect the flank of the 1ST Cavalry Regiment moving to Loc Ninh;
2. To assist or reinforce the 1st Battalion, 9th infantry, at Bu Dop.
The small size of this force indicates the lack of tactical awareness of the 9th Infantry and 1st Cavalry Regimental Commanders; because if is not tactically sound to appose a force of two NVA regiments with an ARVN force of only five APCs and one tank. Colonel Bill Miller, SRA 5th DCAT and myself both attempted to convince Colonel Vinh and General Hung to pull the 1st Cavalry back to Loc Ninh. Colonel Vinh's thinking was that the NVA would attack FSB Alpha and leave Loc Ninh alone. Also this was his reasoning to move the two companies of the 3rd Battalion, 9th Infantry, not to the west of Loc Ninh as previously reported, but to place them on the first hill mass south of Loc Ninh to cover a withdrawal by the 9th Regiment. This movement was ordered immediately after the departure of General Hung and Colonel Miller from Loc Ninh. There was a contact to the west of Loc Ninh on the afternoon of 4 April. It was actually made by the 9th Regiment Reconnaissance (Recon) Company but it was reported as a contact made by the 3rd Battalion because Colonel Vinh had told General Hung that the 3rd Battalion remained to the west. After this contact, all that remained of the Recon Company was one wounded soldier with a radio. He remained on the radio until the afternoon of 6 April and provided me with targets to the west of Loc Ninh.
When I returned from An Loc, late in the afternoon of 4 April, I advised Colonel Vinh to move the 2nd Battalion, 9th Infantry, except for one company, back to Loc Ninh from Fire Support Base Alpha. I also advised him to leave a PF Platoon and RF Company at the Cam Le bridge to assure it's destruction. Again, Colonel Vinh stated that we could « survive » if we provided the enemy a variety of targets. Also he felt that ordering the destruction of the bridge would anger not only General Hung, but also the NVA Commander ! Colonel Vinh's theory was that, « when we surrender », we could bring up certain things to show we actually helped the enemy. The term « when we surrender »became more and more common in Colonel Vinh's discussions, until he did in fact try to surrender Loc Ninh on 7 April 1972.
When I learned this at 03:00 hours, I carried the E-6 Regiment west of Loc Ninh on the situation map and added the 272nd Regiment to the south and the remainder of the 5th NVA Division as the attacking force.
The events described above and the resulting disposition of friendly and enemy forces, as depicted on my map as of 03:00 hours, 5 April 1972, set the stage for the battle of Loc Ninh. As the battle scenario develops, it will become evident why I continued to place the 272nd Regiment of the 9th NVA Division south of Loc Ninh.