Night of the Flowered Lanterns

By Nguyen Van Lap [Nguyễn Văn Lập]
Translated by Merle L Pribbenow

After recapturing Quang Tri, the Airborne Division remained stationed there atop the Annamite Mountain Range, deployed in a long line north to south, running from the southern banks of the Thach Han River to Fire Support Base Bastogne, northwest of Hue. At this time the ink on the Paris Agreement had dried with waves of North Vietnamese communist infiltration down the Ho Chi Minh deep within the vast Annamite Mountain Range. The communists planned to cut Military Region I in two, so they reduced their activities but still kept up pressure to tie down the two general reserve divisions, the Airborne and Marine Divisions, in Quang Tri so that they could attack Thuong Duc in Quang Nam Province. The 3rd Airborne Brigade was sent down to deploy in a line stretching from Hoa Thanh near the Hai Van Pass to the banks of the Thu Bon River to protect the I Corps Headquarters in Da Nang. The Airborne Division Headquarters also moved back and re-located at the Non Nuoc Airfield.
Our 2nd Airborne Artillery Battalion moved down to Quang Nam Province in mid-February 1975. After nearly three years of operations in Central Vietnam, this time I had the feeling that this would be our last move south before we bade farewell forever to Central Vietnam. My platoon was stationed at the foot of a mountain only eight kilometers from Hill 1062 in order to support many savage battles that were fought there. The 6th Airborne Battalion and then the 3rd Airborne Battalion took turns recapturing this bloody hilltop position. Just before Tet, Marine artillery arrived to replace us. My platoon pulled back to a position co-located with the headquarters of an RF battalion stationed on a gently sloping hill in front of the Dai Loc district capital, looking down on Cau Gay [Broken Bridge]. Our mission at that time was just to provide general support to friendly units, so we had time to go out into the local villages to find out the situation and to carry out civilian proselyting and support operations. Even though this was not the primary mission of combat units like ours, after seeing the poverty and the hardship that the local civilians suffered, with no medicine for the sick, I told our medic to give the civilians whatever medications they needed and then request replacement supplies later. We also gave all of our milled rice to the people, including even the leftover rice from the daily rations. Rather than selling the leftover rice to buy other types of food for the platoon, as we usually did, I told my men to take it all out and give it to the civilians. On the last day before the Lunar New Year, the local hamlet committee and the local civilians brought Tet cakes and “Banh To,” a Quang Nam Province specialty cake, to give to our platoon to celebrate Tet. There was great affection between the soldiers and the civilians, and I knew that the old saying, “As ungrateful as civilians, as inhuman [savage] as soldiers,” that I had heard earlier was truly a lie. The district chief told me that our army was very good. He said that security was usually bad in the area and that if the paratroopers left, he and the rest of the civilian residents of the hamlet would probably leave as well. That statement has remained deeply engraved in my memory for many years, and I am sorry that when we left Quang Nam a few days later to move south that the citizens of Dai Loc were unable to accompany us.

After the Marines completed their replacement of the Airborne Division on the Thuong Duc Front, the Airborne Division was ordered to return to our rear base [in Saigon]. We never suspected that this was actually an order to abandon Military Region 1. The battalion ordered me to remain behind to the end to collect our quartermaster gear and load it aboard LST HQ-505 for shipment back to Saigon. After almost two days at sea, instead of returning to Saigon the ship delivered us to the Military Port of Cam Ranh Bay, and then military trucks transported us to Duc My. The 3rd Airborne Brigade was already in Khanh Duong to block the advance of the communist army after President Nguyen Van Thieu decided to abandon Military Region 2.

The battalion commander, Major Nguyen Ngoc Trieu, assigned me as Liaison Officer to the 3rd Airborne Brigade. If I had arrived one day earlier I might not have ever been able to write this account, because I would have been assigned to replace Captain Tuan, the commander of Battery A2, who had become ill. Captain Tong Van Tung, a graduate of Thu Duc Officers School Class 26 and a classmate of mine for four years at Tran Luc High School, who had been Assistant G-3, was assigned to replace Captain Tuan. After the battle of Khanh Duong Tung was captured, and the North Vietnamese took him out to the Nha Trang Soccer Stadium and executed him there.

My orders gave me authority to call on all the firepower of the Duc My Artillery School, consisting of one battery of 105mm howitzers, one battery of 155mm howitzers, and one section of three 175mm long-range guns, to reinforce the combat units assigned to the 3rd Airborne Brigade, which included 18 fast-firing Type M-102 105mm howitzers, a weapon that had not even been issued to U.S. artillery units, because it was reserved specially for the ARVN Airborne Artillery, which was the only unit that employed this light, mobile gun. After Ban Me Thuot was overrun, all units stationed there withdrew south down Route 21, and at this time the 3rd Airborne Brigade was left all alone to block the communist 3rd and 10th Divisions, along with a number of other units that gave the enemy a ten-to-one superiority over us. I remember thinking that the 3rd Airborne Brigade’s defense of Khanh Duong would be just like the 11th Airborne Battalion’s defense to the death at Fire Support Base Charlie in Kontum in 1972.

Communist forces pressured us everywhere, both east and west of the rugged mountain, but the communists did not dare to drive down Route 21 to flood into the lowlands. Instead their infantry and tanks moved down trails through the mountains to attack the M’Drack Pass, but they were blocked their and left hundreds of bodies and one T-54 tank strewn across the battlefield. The entire weight of this military pressure was placed on the shoulders of the “Old Man,” the Brigade Commander – Colonel Le Van Phat. Without anyone saying anything to anyone else, everyone realized that it would be difficult to maintain our positions unless we received reinforcements. For an entire week, and especially on 29 and 30 March 1975, the brigade’s units clashed with communist forces continuously, and airborne artillery constantly dueled against communist artillery units. Perhaps I was the first and only artillery officer ever to utilize the entire firepower of our Mother School [the Artillery School] to support savage fighting not far from the Artillery School. I called in artillery virtually continuously, night and day. I called in counter-battery and destructive barrages to the 175mm guns and laid down many blocking barrages with 105mm and 155mm howitzers. In addition to the targets requested by the liaison officers with the individual airborne battalions, I also marked out many blocking lines for artillery fire. Communist forces did not shell the brigade headquarters but instead just hit the individual airborne battalions with artillery and tank fire and then followed up with infantry assaults, in accordance with their old, familiar tactics. Our air force flying out of Thanh Son [Phan Rang] Airfield provided air support, but it was not very effective because of the widely-scattered nature of the fighting and because the battles were fought at close range, with the opposing forces separated from one another by only a few dozen meters.

By dawn on 31 March 1975 all of our combat units, including our airborne artillery batteries, had been overrun. Before they retreated they destroyed all of their guns. I do not know if the Artillery School heard the radio reports about what had happened, but they suddenly stopped firing. I called the school continuously to be ready in case we got a request from one of our friendly units for fire right on top of their own positions, but no one replied to my radio messages. After about half an hour I heard a long series of explosions from the direction of the Artillery School and then heard the sound of the tracks of the self-propelled 175mm guns. Perhaps the Artillery School had received an order from somewhere to evacuate, and that is why they deserted their positions. They were followed by the Duc My Ranger Training School, which was located right next to the Artillery School, and finally the Lam Son Training Center also was evacuated. A number of units of the 3rd Airborne Brigade that were maintaining radio silence abandoned their positions. I only knew that almost all our units had been overrun. No commander and no artillery liaison officer came up on the radio, and even if we had made radio contact there was no artillery support left in any case.

The 3rd Airborne Brigade Headquarters gave the order to retreat, and the headquarters of the 2nd Airborne Artillery Battalion had to evacuate with them back to the Ru Ri Pass. About an hour later we had packed up the entire base and evacuated back from the Duc My Airfield when I received an order to stop and stay at the base with a PRC-25 radio, a driver, and a Dodge truck [a half-ton truck]. Lieutenant Colonel Tran Dang Khoi, the Deputy Brigade Commander, instructed me to remain at the airfield to wait for him as he flew in a helicopter to inspect the situation. He said he would return to pick me up, but leaving me with a driver and a Dodge truck meant that if he did not return to pick me up I and the driver were to flee back to the Ru Ri Pass to find the brigade. At that time in the entire vast training area the only people left were my driver and I. I looked off to the northwest, where I could see the shape of Widow’s Mountain in the pale sunlight. The faithful wife and her child, both of whom had waited so long that they had turned to stone, still waited there, and at the Widow’s feet many succeeding generations were playing out another tragic chapter in the story of those who go off to war and do not return, history repeating itself over and over again [Translator’s Note: This is all an allusion to an old Vietnamese story, told in a famous Vietnamese work of literature, of the loyal wife and child who wait patiently for the husband and father who goes off to war and never returns. The wife and child waited so long that finally they turned to stone]. With my heart filled with sadness and pain, I longed to hear the voice of my comrades-in-arms, from any unit at all, calling for help in finding their way out to the main road, so that I could guide them as I had so many times in the past, but I heard nothing.

After almost an hour of waiting, Lt. Colonel Khoi’s helicopter still had not returned. I switched from frequency to frequency and made radio calls constantly, but it was hopeless. There was no response – not even from Lt. Colonel Khoi. I got in the truck and told the driver to start the engine and head back to Nha Trang. Along the way we saw civilians traveling by every conceivable method – by bus, by motorcycle, by oxcart, and even walking. Some people carried their most precious possessions – their children – on their shoulders. All were headed south, following the national army. They were following the route of the army’s retreat, trying to see freedom. To serve their anti-war schemes, the damned foreign journalists only put out false and distorted stories about the war of self-defense being fought by the people of South Vietnam. They never took the time to find out why innocent civilians fled from the communists, and why my compatriots followed on the heels of the national army, trying to reach the promised land of freedom on foot.

Around noon I reached the Ru Ri Pass near Nha Trang and met up with my battalion. I reported to Major Trieu that I had not been able to make radio contact with anyone. About half an hour later Lieutenant Colonel Khoi flew in. He asked me why I had not waited for him. I replied that the entire vast training area had been evacuated and was completely empty. The only people left there were my driver and I, and I had not been able to contact anyone on the radio, so I had been forced to pull back to this location. At that time I still did not know where the brigade would go, to Nha Trang or back to Saigon by road. Then we received an order to retreat to the Cam Ranh Military Port. When we reached the military port we found a huge crowd of military vehicles (including every branch of service) and civilian vehicles of all kinds completely blocking the gate and stretching out in a line at least ten kilometers long. The military policemen standing guard at the gate to the port could only shake their heads to deny entrance and tell people that there were no ships at the port. In this situation, if the gates had been opened even the gods could not have prevented chaos and rioting.

As evening approached Colonel Phat, the Brigade Commander, decided to move back to Phan Rang by road. When the brigade’s convoy turned around to leave the port area, the entire crowd of vehicles followed behind us. With motorcycles carrying civilians putting along beside the flanks of our trucks, thousands of vehicles, including civilian cars, tanks, artillery pieces, and military trucks representing a portion of Military Region 2’s forces, a total of at least ten thousand people, followed behind the small convoy of Red Beret paratroopers, totaling little more than a hundred men, who led the way south. In the middle of this tragic situation I had the feeling that I was in a scene from the Old Testament in the Bible, when Moses led the Israelites across the Red Sea to the Promised Land to escape the Egyptian army. The trucks drove rather slowly to allow the vehicles behind to keep up, and occasionally we had to stop to allow us to observe and check out the road ahead. Each time we stopped, we pleaded with the people not to drive their motorcycles right next to our trucks, because if we ran into an ambush they might be killed as well. However, the people determinedly replied, “Wherever you paratroopers go, we will follow. If you die, we will die with you.” So we had to let them continue to accompany us in this manner. In one’s military career, when one heard from their own mouths how innocent civilians placed their lives and property in the hands of the national army at such a hopeless, tragic moment, one realized that the sacrifices of our soldiers were not in vain.

As I sat in my vehicle, I remembered back to the second day of Tet of 1973. I was assigned as artillery officer to Major Nguyen Dinh Ngoc’s 2nd Airborne Battalion. The 1st “Black Panther” [Hac Bao] Company, the most famous infantry company in the 1st Infantry Division, a company that was commanded by a major, was attached to the battalion as reinforcements. The battalion had been ordered to recapture An Lo village, located right along Route 1 in Thua Thien Province. The Vietcong, in violation of the Paris agreement to seize people and territory, had exploited the ceasefire to capture this entire village and were using the civilian residents as human shields. Respecting the ceasefire order, we did not use artillery to provide fire support. With the Black Panthers serving as the reserve force and the paratroopers deployed in a line to conduct the main effort, we carefully retook the area, one house at a time, with orders to make every possible effort not to harm the lives or property of the civilian residents. As we advanced, we turned over responsibility for the retaken area to the Black Panthers. After we recaptured the entire village, we had captured or killed a large number of enemy troops, but the houses of the people were all virtually intact and not a single paratrooper or civilian had been killed. It was a miracle – more than a miracle.

By the time that we reached Du Long night had fallen. Looking back behind our convoy, I could see headlights stretching back into the distance, at least ten kilometers. An entire section of the night sky was illuminated by the headlights of the vehicles. It looked like an enormous dragon twisting and turning, shining brightly in this tragic night of flowered lanterns. That night the people of Khanh Hoa cast their votes for freedom. They did not care where they were going – they were determined to follow the national army, wherever it went. Fortunately, not a shot was fired that night, and the entire long column, both military and civilian, arrived in Phan Rang safely.

Followed by this gigantic vehicle convoy, the airborne trucks arrived at Phan Rang at about 3:00 A.M. on the morning of 1 April 1975. The vehicles down right next to the seashore and stopped, while the vast convoy of vehicles that had accompanied us continued their long journey south and reached Phan Thiet that same day. The 3rd Airborne Brigade received new orders to move into the Thanh Son Airfield, which was occupied by the Headquarters of the 6th Air Division, led by the Phoenix of Phan Rang, a Front-Line General, Brigadier General Pham Ngoc Sang. The Phan Rang Province Chief, Colonel Tran Van Tu, was taking shelter inside the airfield, and he stayed there until 7 April 1975 before he finally returned to his own headquarters.

On the morning of 2 April 1975 a platoon from the 3rd Brigade’s headquarters company was sent out, led by a sergeant and accompanied by an RF captain. The RF captain, who had been the G-2 of the Phan Rang City district headquarters, had been appointed as the new district chief and he was being sent out, with a security detail of paratroopers, to calm the fears of the civilian population. I was ordered to accompany this group. My primary duty was to try to find any operable 105mm howitzers that had been abandoned by other units to bring back to help defend the airfield. However, the barrels of all the cannons I found, including the 155mm howitzers, had been destroyed by our retreating forces to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. None of them were usable. At the Ninh Thuan Province Military Headquarters I met the officer who had replaced the province chief, who was still hiding at the airfield. This man was a lieutenant colonel, the deputy province chief, and he was talking in English on the radio to a helicopter that was circling overhead. I heard that the person in the helicopter was a former American advisor who was checking on the situation. While waiting, I took a walk around the province compound and ran into a PRU (Provincial Reconnaissance Unit) team. They recognized me as a former CT (Counter-Terror) instructor – the CTs were the predecessor organization to the PRU. They joyfully greeted me and told me that the situation in the province was still relatively calm. Although there had been a few incidents of robbery and looting, the Viet Cong had still not yet been able to enter the city. I told them that the Airborne had arrived to defend Phan Rang, and said that whenever they had the chance they should tell the civilian population that we were here. Then I said goodbye and drove off in the truck with the airborne platoon to drive around the city to look for artillery pieces we could use. We then drove around the outskirts of the city. Everywhere we went the RF captain who was now the district used a bullhorn to inform the civilian population that the paratroopers had arrived in Phan Rang and to ask the people to return to their normal daily lives. In just a single morning we saw life return to Phan Rang, an area that had now become our northern front line. However, I still was unable to find a single artillery piece that was serviceable. Artillery is the king of the battlefield, and without artillery defending the airfield would be even more difficult.

At the Phan Rang Inlet, right next to a fishing village, local residents told us that there was a gang of armed robbers who had been exploiting the unsettled situation to rob from the village residents for the past month. The people said that the robbers were at home and asked the army to arrest them. The RF captain had not troops, so he asked the paratroopers accompanying him to arrest the thieves. I asked the sergeant commanding the airborne detail to let me come along. We captured two of the thieves easily, tied them up, and took them out to the inlet, where a sampan belonging to the family of their ringleader was anchored. Local residents swarmed around to watch. The captain asked the people how he should handle the thieves. Everyone shouted that they should be executed. Quick as a flash, the captain aimed his M-16 at the ringleader, who was kneeling about ten meters away, and fired three rounds. As the ringleader’s body shuddered in his final death throes, the sampan started its engine to escape. An old man who said he was the father of the second thief came forward and asked that he be pardoned because the father said that the others had forced his son to commit these crimes. The other residents also asked that the second thief not be executed. I also suggested to the captain that he release this man. Just like a scene out of a movie, the captain untied the man and released him, just like a “not guilty” verdict in a trial in the United States. Much later, while watching a Hong Kong movie, I suddenly thought that the paratroopers were taking Bao Cong [the character] out to execute him in Phan Rang.

When I got back to battalion headquarters I reported everything that had happened on my trip. Major Trieu ordered me to continue to serve as liaison officer at brigade headquarters, which was located next to the Air Force Combat Operations Headquarters. Using the Air Force’s excellent radio equipment, I made contact with a U.S. warship off the coast through a Vietnamese naval gunfire support officer. I reported everything that was happening and, because we had no artillery of our own, I requested that the ship provide naval gunfire support if fighting broke out. The warship accepted my request in principle, but later they ignored us, because the U.S. had already washed its hands of any involvement with its former ally.

On 9 April 1975 VNAF conducted its last and its largest troop evacuation. Lieutenant Colonel Le Van But used 40 UH-1B helicopters, along with 12 helicopter gunships and eight Chinook helicopters from Bien Hoa Airfield to fly up to Khanh Duong and pick up in a single lift virtually all of the missing 3rd Brigade personnel, almost 600 men. Most of them were from Lieutenant Colonel Bui Quyen’s 5th Airborne Battalion, and there were also some men from the 2nd and 6th Airborne Battalions. As for the personnel of the airborne artillery batteries, only a few of them found their way back down the highway and arrived back at the unit. The rest were either killed in battle or where taken prisoner, like Captain Nguyen Thai Chan who spent a decade in prison before he was finally released.

A few days later, when the entire 2nd Airborne Brigade arrived to replace the 3rd Airborne Brigade and when Lieutenant General Nguyen Vinh Nghi arrived to serve as Front Commander of the Phan Rang Front, my battalion was ordered to return to Nguyen Hue Base, our rear base, to receive replacement personnel after almost three years of fighting in Central Vietnam.
Looking out of the window of the aircraft at Phan Rang, I saw Route 1 lined with its long rows of coconut palms running parallel to the coast. I could still picture in my mind the scene from more than a week before, when the area below me had witnessed a night of tragic flowered lanterns, lighting the road in an orderly evacuation conducted for the sake of freedom and for the people. We sat up and gripped our weapons to continue to fight.

By Nguyen Van Lap