II Corps, the Central Highlands military region in South Vietnam, was the second allied combat tactical zone in South Vietnam. It included the Central Highlands and contiguous central lowlands, and was known politically as the Central Vietnam Highlands, one of the four major administrative political units of South Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s. II Corps was also known as Military Region 2 (MR 2). The military and administrative headquarters of II Corps was in Pleiku, and it consisted of the following provinces: Kontum, Binh Dinh, Pleiku, Phu Bon, Phu Yen, Darlac, Khanh Hoa, Quang Duc, Tuyen Duc, Ninh Thuan, Lam Dong, and Binh Thuan. The major ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) units operating in II Corps were the 22nd Division at Qui Nhon, the 23rd Division at Ban Me Thuot and the 42nd Independent Regiment north of Kontum.
From the Mekong Delta an infertile Central Lowland coastal strip, generally narrow and covered with shifting sand dunes, extends northeastward some 100 miles to Mui Dinh / Phan Rang. This region has less rainfall than any other part of Vietnam. From Mui Dinh northward the coastal plain remains narrow for about 100 miles to Mui Dieu / Tuy Hoa, where a mountain spur presses against the shore. In this section there are occasional stretches of quite fertile land where rice is grown.
Westmoreland addressed two enemy threats. Local insurgents menaced populated areas along the coastal plain, while enemy main force units intermittently pushed forward in the western highlands. Between the two regions stretched the Piedmont, a transitional area in whose lush valleys lived many South Vietnamese. In the piedmont's craggy hills and jungle-covered uplands, local and main force Viet Cong units had long flourished by exacting food and taxes from the lowland population through a well-entrenched shadow government. Although the enemy's bases in the Piedmont did not have the notoriety of the secret zones near Saigon, they served similar purposes, harboring units, command centers, and training and logistical facilities. Extensions of the Ho Chi Minh Trail ran from the highlands through the Piedmont to the coast, facilitating the movement of enemy units and supplies from province to province. To be effective, allied operations on the coast had to uproot local units living amid the population and to eradicate the enemy base areas in the Piedmont, together with the main force units that supported the village and hamlet guerrillas.
Despite their sparse population and limited economic resources, the highlands had a strategic importance equal to and perhaps greater than the coastal plain. Around the key highland towns - Pleiku, Kontum, Ban Me Thuot, and Da Lat - South Vietnamese and U.S. forces had created enclaves. Allied forces protected the few roads that traversed the highlands, screened the border, and reinforced outposts and Montagnard settlements from which the irregulars and Army Special Forces sought to detect enemy cross-border movements and to strengthen tribal resistance to the Communists. Such border posts and tribal camps, rather than major towns, most often were the object of enemy attacks. Combined with road interdiction, such attacks enabled the Communists to disperse the limited number of defenders and to discourage the maintenance of outposts.
Such actions served a larger strategic objective. The enemy planned to develop the highlands into a major base area from which to mount or support operations in other areas. A Communist-dominated highlands would be a strategic fulcrum, enabling the enemy to shift the weight of his operations to any part of South Vietnam. The highlands also formed a "killing zone" where Communist forces could mass. Challenging American forces had become the principal objective of leaders in Hanoi, who saw their plans to undermine Saigon's military resistance thwarted by U.S. intervention. Salient victories against Americans, they believed, might deter a further build-up and weaken Washington's resolve to continue the war.
There were certain differences between operational concepts of the US Army and the US Marine Corps. Concentrating their efforts in the coastal districts of I Corps and lacking the more extensive helicopter support enjoyed by Army units, the USMC avoided operations in the highlands. On the other hand, Army commanders in II Corps sought to engage the enemy as close to the border as possible and were quick to respond to threats to Special Forces camps in the highlands. Operations near the border were essential to Westmoreland's efforts to keep main force enemy units as far as possible from heavily populated areas. For Hanoi's strategists, however, a reciprocal relation existed between highlands and coastal regions. Here, as in the south, the enemy directed his efforts to preserving his own influence among the population near the coast, from which he derived considerable support. At the same time, he maintained a constant military threat in the highlands to divert allied forces from efforts at pacification. Like the chronic shifting of units from the neighborhood of Saigon to the war zones in III Corps, the frequent movement of American units between coast and border in II Corps reflected the Communist desire to relieve allied military pressure whenever guerrilla and local forces were endangered. In its broad outlines, Hanoi's strategy to cope with U.S. forces was the same employed by the Viet Minh against the French and by Communist forces in 1964 and 1965 against the South Vietnamese Army.
The expanse of the highlands compelled Army operations there to be carried out with economy of force. During 1966 and 1967, the Americans engaged in a constant search for tactical concepts and techniques to maximize their advantages of firepower and mobility and to compensate for the constraints of time, distance, difficult terrain, and an inviolable border. Here the war was fought primarily to prevent the incursion of NVA units into South Vietnam and to erode their combat strength. In the highlands, each side pursued a strategy of military confrontation, seeking to weaken the fighting forces and will of its opponent through attrition. Each sought military victories to convince opposing leaders of the futility of continuing the contest. For the North Vietnamese, however, confrontation in the highlands had the additional purpose of relieving allied pressure in other areas, where pacification jeopardized their hold on the rural population. Of all the factors influencing operations in the highlands, the most significant may well have been the strength and success of pacification elsewhere.
For Americans, the most difficult problem was to locate the enemy. Yet Communist strategists sometimes created threats to draw in the Americans. Recurrent menaces to Special Forces camps reflected the enemy's seasonal cycle of operations, his desire to harass and eliminate such camps, and his hope of luring allied forces into situations where he held the military advantages. Thus Army operations in the highlands during 1966 and 1967 were characterized by wide-ranging, often futile searches, punctuated by sporadic but intense battles fought usually at the enemy's initiative.
In the Central Highlands the war of attrition continued after the 1968 Tet offensive. Until its redeployment of 1970, the Army protected major highland population centers and kept open important interior roads. Special Forces worked with the tribal highlanders to detect infiltration and harass enemy secret zones. As in the past, highland camps and outposts were a magnet for enemy attacks, meant to lure reaction forces into an ambush or to divert the allies from operations elsewhere.
Siege is the key word to describe the combat activity in the II Corps Tactical Zone in 1970. The Special Forces activity in II Corps was controlled by Company B. Bu Prang, which had undergone a 45-day siege at the end of 1969, was rebuilt completely underground. (See Appendix D.) Dak Seang was taken under siege at 0645 on 1 April, and when it became clear that the enemy was making a determined attempt to destroy the camp reinforcements were sent in. Mobile strike forces and Vietnamese Ranger battalions came to the aid of the camp and helped to inflict heavy casualties on the enemy forces-the 28th North Vietnamese Army Regiment, the 40th North Vietnamese Artillery, and elements of the 60th North Vietnamese Army Regiment. Twelve days after the beginning of the attack on Dak Seang, the enemy turned his siege tactics on Camp Dak Pek, attacking with mortars before dawn, and following with a sapper attack. While the camp was almost completely destroyed, enemy losses were extremely high. A lull set in after the thrusts into Cambodia, and handling refugees became the major task in II Corps camps. Refugee villages were established near Bu Prang and Duc Lap.
In 1975 North Vietnam's leaders began planning for a new offensive, still uncertain whether the United States would resume bombing or once again intervene in the South. When their forces overran Phuoc Long Province, north of Saigon, without any American military reaction, they decided to proceed with a major offensive in the Central Highlands. Neither President Nixon, weakened by the Watergate scandal and forced to resign, nor his successor, Gerald Ford, was prepared to challenge Congress by resuming U.S. military activity in Southeast Asia. The will of Congress seemed to reflect the mood of an American public weary of the long and inconclusive war.
On 4 March 1975, the Communist People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) launched the final campaign of its 30-year war. What had started as a limited offensive in the highlands to draw off forces from populated areas now became an all-out effort to conquer South Vietnam. Thieu, desiring to husband his military assets, decided to retreat rather than to reinforce the highlands. Confused, desperate, and in what must have been a virtual state of shock, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu made momentous decisions that sealed the fate of South Vietnam.
The last remnants of ARVN's once-powerful army in the Highlands (19 ranger battalions, one infantry battalion, three armored squadrons, and six artillery battalions), their supply lines cut and with no prospect of resupply or rescue, were doomed. Thieu's 14 March order to withdraw these forces from Pleiku down the unused and almost impassable Provincial Route 7B to the coast was an act of desperation aimed at saving what was left of his forces in the Highlands. The order was stupid, its execution abysmal, but, in context, it was understandable. The result was panic among his troops and a mass exodus toward the coast. As Hanoi's forces spilled out of the highlands, they cut off South Vietnamese defenders in the northern provinces from the rest of the country.
In II Corps area, the South Vietnamese still occupied the coastal provinces. The ARVN 22d Division had successfully blocked the Binh Khe pass, gateway from the highlands to the coastal plain, for two weeks against two NVA divisions. Evacuation from MR 2 commenced on 11 March when the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) started to move its dependents in VNAF C 130 aircraft. The loss of radio contact with Ban Me Thuot the following day, interdictions oŁ routes 14, 19 and 21, combined with the loss of several district towns, persuaded President Nguyen Van Thieu to order the evacuation of Pleiku and Kontum. In Pleiku, II Corps Forward began to evacuate as early as 14 March. Special flights during the same day evacuated contractors and missionaries. The following day, US citizens and US Government LN employees began what was to be the one day evacuation of Pleiku. LN employees were loaded aboard buses and transported directly to waiting aircraft. Each bus was accompanied by a US citizen in order to gain access to the air base. Unlike Da Nang, the Pleiku airlift was relatively free of incidents. By 1900H hours on 15 March, the evacuation to Nha Trang had been completed.
Evacuation of a small contingent of US employees from Qui Nhon and Binh Dinh Province was accomplished on 27 March with little interference from the local populace. The rapid evacuation from Qui Nhon followed the uncovering of a Viet Cong plan to kidnap US citi¬zens. By 28 March, all field elements from the highlands, the contingent from Qui Nhon and a portion of the ConGen I staff were in Nha Trang.
With about two-thirds of its men battle casualties, the outgunned and outnumbered ARVN 22d Division gave way and was evacuated from the corps area by sea. Concurrent with the evacuation from MR 1, ConGen 2 began to reduce US Mission personnel in MR 2 and to move Da Nang refugees to Saigon. A few staff members remained until 1 April when the last Americans were withdrawn from Nha Trang. During the final days, crowds began to gather around the ConGen compound. A helipad was bulldozed in the parking lot and the final evacuation was accomplished iron within the compound. Employees were assembled in the compound and then helicopter lifted to waiting aircraft.
The NVA then rapidly overran the coastal plain and seized Nha Trang and Qui Nhon. Contact was lost with Nha Trang on 3 April 1975. Saigon fell to the Communists on 29 April 1975.
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