Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library

Kontum: The Battle to Save South Vietnam

Thomas P. McKenna
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 376
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    In the spring of 1972, North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam in what became known as the Easter Offensive. Almost all of the American forces had already withdrawn from Vietnam except for a small group of American advisers to the South Vietnamese armed forces. The 23rd ARVN Infantry Division and its American advisers were sent to defend the provincial capital of Kontum in the Central Highlands. They were surrounded and attacked by three enemy divisions with heavy artillery and tanks but, with the help of air power, managed to successfully defend Kontum and prevent South Vietnam from being cut in half and defeated.

    Although much has been written about the Vietnam War, little of it addresses either the Easter Offensive or the Battle of Kontum. In Kontum: The Battle to Save South Vietnam, Thomas P. McKenna fills this gap, offering the only in-depth account available of this violent engagement. McKenna, a U.S. infantry lieutenant colonel assigned as a military adviser to the 23rd Division, participated in the battle of Kontum and combines his personal experiences with years of interviews and research from primary sources to describe the events leading up to the invasion and the battle itself.

    Kontum sheds new light on the actions of U.S. advisers in combat during the Vietnam War. McKenna's book is not only an essential historical resource for America's most controversial war but a personal story of valor and survival.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-3401-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Maps
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Prologue Kontum: Now and Then
    (pp. 1-4)

    If you were to visit Kontum today, you would probably find a peaceful, bustling Central Highlands city of around 35,000. Most of the inhabitants would belong to the various ethnic minorities, the people the French called “Montagnards.” The main agricultural products would be coffee, tea, cassava, rubber, and lumber. This pleasant city has a gentle climate. It would be difficult to find any evidence of—or even to imagine—the major battle that took place here long ago. During the last two weeks of May in 1972, Kontum was the scene of a violent struggle between the equivalent of three...

  6. 1 Autumn in the Highlands, 1971
    (pp. 5-22)

    I went to war in a first-class seat on a chartered, civilian jumbo jet. It was September 1971, and I was an infantry lieutenant colonel going back to Vietnam for my second one-year tour there. The airplane was full of military personnel, and the officers were assigned seats in the first-class section. Sitting next to me was an infantry colonel, an army aviator, who introduced himself as Robert S. Keller. He was going to be the senior adviser to the 23rd ARVN Infantry Division. I was going to be the G-3 (operations) adviser to that same division. Colonel Keller would...

  7. 2 Fighting in Phu Nhon
    (pp. 23-31)

    A steady stream of NVA soldiers and equipment was flowing toward us down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Staff Sergeant John L. Plaster was a Special Forces soldier in the Studies and Observations Group (SOG) running secret operations deep into Laos and Cambodia. In early October 1971, he was flying as a Covey rider (an airborne controller) with a forward air controller (FAC), Captain Glenn J. Wright, whose call sign was “Covey 593.” They were over Highway 110 E in Laos where that part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail ended at the triborder area—the place where the borders...

  8. 3 A Hundred Tons of Bombs
    (pp. 32-39)

    We resisted using tactical air strikes against any targets we could hit with our artillery. However, the ARVN artillery had some limitations. During the briefings that the high-ranking US officers visiting II Corps received, some of them complained about the ARVN artillery’s performance. These officers were invariably the ones who had served one or more previous tours in Vietnam with US units that had had an unlimited supply of 105-mm rounds for training and firing. In contrast to that unrestricted flow of ammunition, by 1972 the ARVN artillery was limited to 20 rounds per tube (gun) per day,¹ which severely...

  9. 4 The Looming Threat
    (pp. 40-43)

    The heavily armed NVA was moving into position to attack us.

    During 1971, the Soviets sent 350 ships loaded with war material — a million tons of it — to North Vietnam.¹ By 1972, they had replaced all the equipment previously lost by the NVA and VC. The NVA now had more tanks and heavy artillery than ever before.² An ARVN lieutenant general described the warning signs, the NVA’s plans, and the dire consequences if the enemy’s coming offensive succeeded:

    Starting in the fall of 1971, intelligence reports began to stream into II Corps Headquarters revealing the enemy’s preparations for...

  10. 5 The Year of the Rat
    (pp. 44-56)

    New Year’s Day! It was now 1972, the Year of the Rat in the Asian calendar.

    Around 140,000 American troops still remained in Vietnam, but only 20,000 of them were in combat units.¹ In January, President Nixon announced the withdrawal of 70,000 more Americans to reduce total strength to no more than 69,000 by 1 May.² Those cuts were soon translated into actions down at our level. The US military telephone switchboards closed on 3 January, and all circuits were transferred to ARVN. From now on, all military telephones, lines, and switchboards would be operated and maintained by ARVN. This...

  11. 6 The North Vietnamese Invasion
    (pp. 57-73)

    When the Communists would be able to launch their invasion depended in part on the weather. Enemy activity in the Highlands usually peaked from February to April because that was a period of good, dry weather not seriously affected by either monsoon cycle. The monsoon rains started in May, and they would make moving supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and maneuvering in the jungle much more difficult.

    At the Communist Party’s Nineteenth Plenum in Hanoi late in 1970, there was discussion about whether to give priority to invading the South or to rebuilding the North. A year later...

  12. 7 Attacking in An Khe Pass
    (pp. 74-81)

    Highway 14, the vital main supply route between Pleiku and Kontum, went through the Chu Pao Pass, a place the Americans called “Kontum Pass,” north of Pleiku and about ten kilometers south of Kontum. Chu Pao Mountain dominated the pass, and it was a natural fortress full of caves, making it easy to defend and difficult to assault. The Americans called it the “Rock Pile.” In early April, the 95B NVA Regiment seized the pass and concentrated its new, heavy anti-aircraft artillery around its positions on the Rock Pile. The anti-aircraft fire at this location was so intense it limited...

  13. 8 Our Firebases Fall
    (pp. 82-94)

    Although the advisers were supposed to just advise and in fact had no command authority over the ARVN forces, John Paul Vann, a civilian US State Department Foreign Service officer, exempted himself from that rule and essentially assumed command of all the South Vietnamese forces in II Corps during the Easter Offensive. Lieutenant Colonel Stanislaus J. Fuesel, the II Corps artillery adviser, said, “If I had attempted to do what Vann did, he would have fired me.” Indeed, although Vann tried to give the appearance of only advising—or at least working through—Lieutenant General Dzu, it was clear who...

  14. 9 The Collapse at Tan Canh
    (pp. 95-113)

    The ARVN 22nd Infantry Division was a large division with four rather than the usual three regiments and four rather than the usual three battalions in each regiment. In February 1972, the division commander was Major General Le Ngoc Trien, an officer who was tired, burned out, and actively lobbying for a new assignment. His deputy, Colonel Le Duc Dat, who was stationed in Kontum, wanted to be the division commander and had enough political influence to get the job despite John Paul Vann’s lobbying for another candidate. Vann had known Dat when he was a province chief in III...

  15. 10 A Debacle at Dak To
    (pp. 114-124)

    The ARVN base at Dak To II was five kilometers due west of Tan Canh. There was a small airstrip on slightly higher ground to the north and a steep mountain north of the airfield. The 22nd ARVN Division’s 47th Regiment defended this base. Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Brownlee Jr. was the regimental senior adviser. His deputy was Captain Charles H. Carden. The regimental CP, most of the regiment’s 1st Battalion, and part of the 9th Airborne Battalion were at Dak To II. C Company of the regiment’s 1st Battalion was well to the south, and the remainder of the...

  16. 11 A New Team for the Defense
    (pp. 125-143)

    Tan Canh and Dak To II were now held by the enemy, and the 71st and 95th Border Ranger Defense Battalions at Ben Het, the 90th at Dak Seang, and the 88th at Dak Pek were suddenly behind enemy lines. They could be resupplied only by air.¹

    Brigadier General John G. Hill Jr., Brigadier General Wear’s replacement, had graduated from West Point in 1946 and had earned the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star in Korea. He was an experienced fighter, and Vann would need a fighter in the battle ahead. Hill was also a qualified army aviator. General...

  17. 12 Closing in on Kontum
    (pp. 144-152)

    After Tan Canh and the outposts fell, John Paul Vann thought his reputation and his career were on the line. He had to win in Kontum or be sacked. That sort of pressure might have crushed a lesser man, but Vann rose to the challenge. It brought out his strengths as a commander, and he used his energy, drive, and personal involvement to ensure that Kontum would not fall.

    During daylight, when an Arc Light struck north of Kontum, the rising smoke and dust could be seen, the deep rumbling of the explosions could be heard, and the vibrations could...

  18. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  19. 13 Cut Off and Surrounded
    (pp. 153-165)

    Mr. Vann said that after the fall of Tan Canh and Dak To II the situation in Kontum was so serious and morale there was so low that if the NVA had brought 50 battery-powered tape recorders to play recordings of tank noises—grinding and clanking and motors revving up—over loudspeakers outside the city, the entire garrison and population would have fled in panic.¹

    In early May, General Abrams told his commanders,

    In the last few weeks, in my conversations with General Vien, and with the President, I’ve said it straight, and called it for what it was worth....

  20. 14 Tanks Attacking!
    (pp. 166-185)

    Early on 13 May, I flew from Pleiku to Kontum sitting on the floor of a USAF C-141 Starlifter with 490 ARVN soldiers and my Jeep, which the air force loadmaster had tied down. The interior of the airplane was rigged for cargo delivery, so there were no seats, seatbelts, or other restraints. The number of passengers it carried may have set a record for C-141s. When almost 500 ARVN soldiers walked off the airplane, it reminded me of the circus act in which a dozen clowns get out of one small car. It was 0520 on Saturday, 13 May,...

  21. 15 Struggling to Hold It Together
    (pp. 186-207)

    At 1950 on 15 May, the incoming fire increased in caliber and volume. Our regiment’s front-line elements on the Round Hill were being hit with direct fire from the NVA tanks’ 100-mm main guns. At 2016, four to six T-54s were spotted about a kilometer to the northeast on the forward slope of a hill the other side of Highway 14. A Spectre gunship was on station and unsuccessfully attacked the tanks with 40-mm cannon fire. The Jeep-mounted TOWs fired at the tanks and thought they scored two hits. Both Spectre and a USAF FAC later reported seeing a tank...

  22. 16 “Brother, This Is Going to Be It!”
    (pp. 208-216)

    TheWashington Postreported on 27 May 1972, “Kontum, once a pleasant town with abundant fruit trees and gentle climate, has been abandoned by more than 80 percent of the 30,000 people who lived there before the offensive.”¹ Under the headline “Kontum Is Next—and It Knows It,”Stars and Stripessaid:

    KONTUM, Vietnam (AP)—This city in South Vietnam’s central highlands is living on borrowed time and a fervent hope that defenses which crumpled elsewhere will hold here. North Vietnamese forces, which have captured with ease almost every objective they sought in the highlands, are thus far content to...

  23. 17 “You Are Going to Be Overrun!”
    (pp. 217-230)

    Kontum was surrounded by around 5,000 enemy troops with tanks.¹ We were being constantly pounded by intermittent artillery and rocket fire, and at 0100 on 26 May the tempo picked up. As we lay on our cots in the CP bunker, Major Lovings looked at his watch and started counting. An enemy artillery round was hitting us every 30 seconds. Nearly a thousand artillery and rocket rounds hit Kontum that night.²

    At 0300 hours, the enemy launched human-wave attacks from the north against the positions of the 44th and 53rd Regiments. The enemy artillery continued pounding us, while their infantry...

  24. 18 The Dirty Job of Killing
    (pp. 231-237)

    Before dawn on 28 May, we were hit with around 400 rounds of mortar fire but the attacks by fire tapered off and there was no major ground attack against the 44th Regiment. During the day, about 100 large-caliber rounds hit inside the city. They were apparently fired indiscriminately rather than aimed at the airfield and other military targets. One round hit the Highway 14 bridge over the Dak Bla River south of the city and slightly wounded an American adviser.¹

    The II Corps advisers knew air support would be needed in Kontum before dawn on 28 May. However, early-morning...

  25. 19 All Over but the Shooting?
    (pp. 238-244)

    Enemy activity tapered off on 29 May. The previous night was the first one since arriving in Kontum that we were not bombarded and then hit with major ground assaults supported by tanks. However, the front line was still only 100 meters from our bunker door. The perimeter was being pulled in so it would be easier to defend and to prevent enemy infiltration. It seemed to be the smart thing to do, but it could also be viewed as a tightening of the NVA noose around us. The relief force pushing up Highway 14 was not making much progress,...

  26. 20 Finishing the Job
    (pp. 245-255)

    John Paul Vann was elated. He was vindicated. His plan had worked. The Arc Lights and tactical air killed tens of thousands of the enemy, destroyed their supplies, and broke up their attacks. The USAF, VNAF, and the Hooks brought in our necessary supplies. Colonel Rhotenberry and the other advisers did their jobs, and Brigadier General Ba and his 23rd Infantry Division had held. Kontum was saved. Although some pockets of enemy resistance remained, around noon on Wednesday, 31 May, Mr. Vann declared that the main battle for Kontum was over. At a press conference in the Team 21 mess...

  27. Epilogue: The End of the Fight
    (pp. 256-268)

    Mr. Vann came to Kontum every day in early June, and every day he would complain to Colonel Rhotenberry about the NVA troops still in the city, “Hey, Rhot, haven’t you gotten this goddamned city cleared yet?” Starting around 2 June, the weather was bad enough to ground tactical air support. So the ARVN soldiers had to clear out the remaining enemy with more days of bunker-to-bunker fighting. Finally, the last NVA holdout in the city was killed on 5 June 1972, and the next day Brigadier General Ba declared the city free of enemy soldiers. When Vann came to...

  28. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 269-270)
  29. Glossary: Abbreviations and Military Jargon
    (pp. 271-276)
  30. Notes
    (pp. 277-314)
  31. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 315-324)
  32. Index
    (pp. 325-344)