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5th Division

Organized February 1, 1955
(Decree 040-QP/ND of February 10, 1955)
(JGS Instruction 15,590/TTN/1/1/S of November 22, 1955)

The 5th Division had its origins far away from South Vietnam. During the first Indochina war, the French formed ethnic minority units into an organization known as the Frontier Guard for the Northeast and Northwest of North Viet Nam to patrol the region near the border with China. In the northeastern sector, many of the troops were Nungs, a Chinese-speaking ethnic minority closely related to the Chinese (many Nungs fled China to escape the Communist takeover). The commander in the northeast was himself a Nung, Vong A Sang, who was given the rank of Colonel by the French. In addition to Col. Sang's troops, the French also formed several regular army battalions using Nung personnel.

Following the Geneva Agreement of July 1954, several Nung battalions (the 32, 67, 71, 72, and 75) and other Nung units under Col. Sang were brought to the south. Initially debarked at Ba Ngoi (Cam Ranh) and Nha Trang, the Nungs were soon regrouped at Song Mao in Binh Thuan Province. Organization of a Nung division was ordered taken in hand starting from December 16, 1954. However, it was not until February 1, 1955 that the 6th (or Nung) Division officially came into being with Vong A Sang as its first commander.

On August 1, 1955, the 6th Infantry Division became the 6th Field Division. One month later, on September 9, the 6th Field Division was renumbered and became the 41st Field Division. Effective November 1, 1955, another change was made, and the division became known as the 3rd Field Division. This designation was in retained until January 1959 when it became the 5th Infantry Division.

The division did not long remain exclusively a Nung division. President Ngo Dinh Diem soon saw to it that considerable numbers of ethnic Vietnamese officers and enlisted men were brought into the unit. Nevertheless there were a number of Nungs still with the 5th Division. The headquarters of the 5th Division remained at Song Mao until May 1961 when it moved to Bien Hoa (Bien Hoa had just been vacated by the 7th Division, which moved to My Tho. However, the bulk of the division had already moved to what is now Military Region 3 by the time a headquarters was established at Bien Hoa. By November 1960, the division had two regiments and forward headquarters in what was then the 1st Military Region (now MR 3); only one regiment, the 9th, and a rear headquarters remained at Song Mao.

The 5th division was at Bien Hoa at the time of the November 1, 1963 coup that overthrew President Diem. Troops of the division participated in the coup. Col. Nguyen Van Thieu, Commander of the division, helped direct the assault on President Diem's residence at Gia Long palace. In July 1964, the division moved to Phu Loi, a few kilometers east of Phu Cuong in Binh Duong Province. In February 1970, another move was made, this time to Lai Khe, a former base camp of the American 1st Infantry Division and before then a rubber research center. Lai Khe is in northern Binh Duong Province about five kilometers north of Ben Cat district on National Highway 13.

The 7th, 8th, and 9th Infantry Regiments (known as the 34th, 35th, and 38th Regiments prior to November 1955) had been assigned to the division about the time it was formed. The 5th Division had for many years operated in the northern provinces of MR 3. In 1970-71, it also conducted operations in adjacent areas of Cambodia.

The Battle of An Loc was one of the most important battles of the Vietnam War. It took place during the 1972 North Vietnamese Spring Offensive, after most U.S. combat troops had departed South Vietnam. The battle, which lasted over two months, resulted in the virtual destruction of three North Vietnamese divisions and blocked a Communist attack on Saigon.

If An Loc fell, the North Vietnamese would have very little between them and Saigon. Accordingly, the decision was made to hold An Loc at all costs. South Vietnamese President Thieu radioed the senior ARVN officers in An Loc that the city would be defended to the death.11 This had a psychological impact on the enemy as well as the defenders. By directing that the city be held "at all costs," Thieu all but challenged the North Vietnamese to take it. In the weeks that followed, the NVA became virtually obsessed with the desire to overrun An Loc, even long after it had ceased to hold any real military significance.

The American advisers prepared to share the fate of their ARVN counterparts in the coming battle. This proved to be a crucial factor in convincing the South Vietnamese defenders that they would not be left in the lurch to face the repeated North Vietnamese attacks alone. The commander of Third Regional Assistance Command (TRAC) was Major General James F. Hollingsworth. While concerned about the welfare of his advisers, Hollingsworth was excited about the opportunity to get the NVA to stand and fight. He later said, "Once the Communists decided to take An Loc, and I could get a handful of soldiers to hold and a lot of American advisers to keep them from running off, that's all I needed." He told the advisers in An Loc, "Hold them and I'll kill them with air power; give me something to bomb and I'll win."

The forces in An Loc would undergo a protracted attack, marked by repeated human wave assaults and continuous heavy shelling at levels seldom seen during the conduct of the entire Vietnam War. By the afternoon of 12 April 1975, ARVN forces in and around the city had grown to a total of four regiments (nine infantry battalions), consisting of regular infantrymen from elements of two divisions, rangers, and territorial forces. This included 52d Regiment (2-52) and one from the 48th Regiment (1-48), both originally from the 18th ARVN Division, had been moved from the 18th Division base in XuanLoc (Long Khanh Province) in late March 1972 and placed under the operational command of the 5th ARVN Division. This force of about 3,000 soldiers would be outnumbered 6 to 1 by the 3 NVA divisions advancing on An Loc.

What thwarted the North Vietnamese onslaught was the well-executed air support that struck the enemy well forward of the ARVN positions and prevented the NVA from reinforcing their initial success in the northern part of the city. American advisers directed repeated air strikes against the NVA forces, which were sometimes as close as twenty meters to friendly troops. The tenacity of the defenders and the continuous air strikes prevented the enemy from expanding its foothold in the northern part of the city.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:36:54 ZULU