23rd DivisionOrganized April 1, 1959
(JGS Order 5,116/TTM/1/1/MK of December 12, 1959)
(JGS Order 1,029/TTM/1/1/MK of February 28, 1959)
The 23rd Infantry Division was the successor of the former 15th Light Division which was known as the 5th Light Division when it was formed on August 1, 1955 with its headquarters at Nha Trang. Three new regiments- the 404th (formed at Ninh Hoa), 405th (formed at Tuy Hoa), and the 406th (Formed at Ninh Hoa)- were organized at the same time and included in the division. With one exception, the constituent battalions were all raised in the southern part of Central Vietnam.
On November 1, 1955, the 5th Light Division was redesignated the 15th Light Division and the 404th, 405th, and 406th Regiments became the 43rd, 44th, and 45th Infantry Regiments. From January to May 1956, the division participated in the "Nguyen Hue" Campaign in the Mekong Delta which eliminated armed units belonging to dissident factions of the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai religious sects. The 15th Light Division operated in the Dong Thap Muoi area (present-day Kien Tuong and Kien Phong Provinces) and quickly brought Hoa Hao faction leader Tran Van Soai to terms and then broke up bands of Cao Dai irregulars before turning attention to miscellaneous Vict Minh and other disruptive elements in the vicinity of the border with Cambodia. Units of the division also operated in Tay Ninh and what area today Long An, Hau Nghia, and An Giang Provinces.
After completing operations in the Delta, the division returned to Central Vietnam. On August 14, 1956, the headquarters of the division was moved from Nha Trang to Duc My, now a major RVNAF training area, located in Khanh Hoa Province on National Highway 21 connecting Ninh Hoa with Ban Me Thuot.
During the first half of 1959, the Vietnamese army was reorganized. On April 1, 1956, the 15th Light Division became the 23rd Infantry Division. Subordinate units were strengthened and support units were added as part of the change. In late 1960, the division began its move from Duc My up to Ban Me Thuot, Darlac Province. The permanent headquarters of the division was officially moved to Ban Ma Thuot in June 1961 and it remains there.
The division became part of II Corps when the latter was formed on October 1, 1957. However, in a reorganization that took place in December 1962, the division became part of III Corps with Binh Tuy Province being added to its area of responsibility (Binh Thuan, Ninh Thuan, Tuyen Duc Darlac, Quang Duc, Lam Dong and Khanh Hoa Provinces.) On November 1, 1963, another reorganization took place and the 23rd Division was returned to II Corps control. Several changes in infantry regiments took place during the mid-1960s. On November 1, 1963, the 43rd Regiment was detached from the division, made independent, and assigned to III Corps (it was incorporated in the new 18th --then the 10th Division--in 1965.) At the same time, the 47th Independent Regiment was brought into the 23rd Division.
On October 16, 1963, the 47th Regiment again became independent (it joined the 22nd Division not long afterwards) and was replaced by the 42nd Regiment from the 22nd Division. However, on July 1, 1966, the 42nd Regiment was made independent and left the division (it rejoined the 22nd Division in 1970). The 53rd Regiment, the division's newest, was activated on August 1, 1968 in Ninh Thuan Province.
From 1958 to 1969, elements of the division conducted operations in the coastal provinces from Binh Tuy to Quang Ngai and also in the Central Highlands. Some units have been in combat a considerable distance from their normal areas of operation. From September 1958 to January 1959, part of the division was in the northern part of what is now Military Region 3. From July to September 1959, one regiment (the 44th) was in Tay Ninh, while from July to October 1959 another (the 45th) was in the U Minh Forest in the Southern Mekong Delta.
In May 1970, part of the division crossed into Cambodia as part of a large scale operation by American and South Vietnamese forces to disrupt Communist base area previously immune to large-scale ground assault. Two years later, in May 1972, the 23rd Division was rushed to the Kontum/Pleiku area following a serious setback in Northern Kontum to the 22nd Division. The 23rd Division successfully defended the town of Kontum and remained in the Kontum/Pleiku area until late 1973 when it moved back to the southern part of the Highlands.
Ban Me Thuot was a city of over 100,000, the "capital" of the tribal peoples of the Central Highlands. It held the headquarters and rear base facilities of the ARVN 23d Division, including the tempting Mai Hac De supply complex with large stores of artillery ammunition. If Ban Me Thuot was taken, PAVN forces could move swiftly by road north to take Pleiku from the rear, east to cut Vietnam in half, or south to attack Saigon. ARVN could not afford to lose such a strategic position and would be forced to mount a counterattack. This was doubly true because the families of the soldiers of the 23d Division were all housed in Ban Me Thuot -- ARVN troops simply could not abandon their own wives and children without a fight.
During the early morning hours of 10 March, 12 PAVN regiments launched a massive surprise attack on Ban Me Thuot. After 32 hours of combat, PAVN forces overran the 23d Division headquarters complex and captured the division's deputy commander. The North Vietnamese leadership immediately recognized the significance of their victory. During a Politburo meeting on 11 March, Le Duan broached the possibility that the strategic opportunity, the time to launch the final general offensive, might be imminent. Victory in war goes to the side prepared to seize it. The North Vietnamese were prepared.
As the North Vietnamese knew he would, Thieu ordered an immediate counterattack to retake Ban Me Thuot "at all costs." With the road to Ban Me Thuot cut, ARVN II Corps Commander General Pham Van Phu was forced to send the two remaining regiments of his 23d Division into battle by helicopter, dropping five battalions on a landing zone east of Ban Me Thuot during the period 12-14 March with no armor and only limited artillery support. The regiments landed in the middle of a planned PAVN "killing zone."
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