Ex­cerpt From A War Ac­count 1-2-3-4.75

Oi Vietnam - - The Bulletin -

On the morn­ing of March 16, the US Em­bassy was shocked by the news that the Army Corps had with­drawn from Pleiku. Gen­eral Times flew a he­li­copter im­me­di­ately to Pleiku to res­cue an American con­sul, Dao, and staff mem­bers of the CIA. Times looked out of the he­li­copter into the chaos be­low him: “In just a sin­gle night, all the routes con­verg­ing into Road 7B have be­come streams of an­ar­chy and fear. It re­sem­bles a great colony of ants mov­ing in a whirlpool of petrol fume and dust.”

Fan­ning out of the de­stroyed pro­vin­cial cap­i­tals and town­ships of the High­lands were streams of fright­ened peo­ple, their num­bers stretch­ing back as far as the eyes could see. The with­draw­ing army was be­ing in­ter­cepted at the foot of Cheo Reo Pass. All of a sud­den, an AK spat gun­fire from the top of the Pass, and Ly felt as if the earth was sink­ing un­der his feet. The el­e­ment of sur­prise—the one fac­tor of the plan upon which ev­ery­one had re­lied—no longer ex­isted. The en­emy was yet to un­leash their en­tire at­tack, but it was enough to se­verely hin­der the with­drawal op­er­a­tion.

Ly felt that he had to think less and act more. In such a short time since his leav­ing Pleiku, Ly had wit­nessed so

much. Roughly half a mil­lion civil­ians, in­clud­ing the res­i­dents of Pleiku and oth­ers along the route, were be­ing swept into the with­drawal. No or­der or for­ma­tion ex­isted any­more. The streets were lined with masses of peo­ple and ve­hi­cles—a frantic scene. Many died as the crowds tram­pled over each other to es­cape. Sol­diers ne­glected their mis­sion to es­cort ev­ery­one to safety and moved to the front of the evac­u­a­tion. Ve­hi­cles were heav­ily dam­aged in at­tempts to ma­noeu­vre the ter­ri­ble roads. Many of the el­derly and chil­dren were killed as ve­hi­cles ran over them. Sol­diers be­came frus­trated at their com­man­ders, in­clud­ing Thieu, and threat­ened to fire upon them. An ar­tillery Bat­tal­ion Com­man­der was shot dead by his rangers as they stole his watch.

Cavalry Squadron 18 and Ar­mored Squadron 21, to­gether with hun­dreds of troops from Ranger Leagues 6, risked their lives to open the bar­ri­cade, but they were driven back to the foot of the hill. Gen­eral Tat and Colonel Nguyen Van Dong, Com­man­der of Cavalry Reg­i­ment 2, rushed to Ly:

“Colonel Ly, what should we do now?”

“We have to open the bar­ri­cade!” Ly tensely or­dered. “Call air sup­port and use our strike power to launch an at­tack on the hill­top.”

Tat hes­i­tated:

“This mis­sion was meant to be top-se­cret, and only ver­bal com­mands were to be is­sued. I fear that we would com­pro­mise this if we were to phone Saigon and Nha Trang to call for air sup­port...”

Ly brushed Tat’s con­cerns aside:

“It’s not a se­cret any­more, the en­emy is al­ready at­tack­ing us! We need to do this now or we’ll all die.”

Colonel Dang Dinh Sieu, Deputy Com­man­der of the Cavalry Reg­i­ment, also ran away. Ly, Tat, Dong and Sieu, fol­low­ing a dis­cus­sion on how to move for­ward, called Phu at Nha Trang to send over the bombers.

When Ly and Tat took small group of re­main­ing troops to a high­landers’ vil­lage, the sun had set be­hind the moun­tain. The first round of bombs dropped by Gen­eral Sang’s Air Force divi­sion hit Com­mando League 6 in the mid­dle of the Pass, as troops were in the mid­dle of restor­ing the for­ma­tion for a fresh at­tack on the bar­ri­cade.

One Com­mando Com­pany and three ar­mored cars were de­stroyed. The troops re­treated in fear. Com­man­dos and cavalry men also ran for their lives with­out fo­cus­ing on opening the bar­ri­cade. Colonel Dong, Com­man­der of Cavalry Reg­i­ment, silently got out of the car, changed into civil­ian clothes, and dis­ap­peared. Ly, Tat and Sieu ran back to look for him and found his car with the en­gine still run­ning. But only his uni­form, hat, stars, shoes and shot­gun re­mained in­side the car. The three men looked at each other, shak­ing their heads in frus­tra­tion and shock.

The last rays of light dis­ap­peared over the for­est. The fight­ing ceased and the High­lands af­ter­noon sky was calm. As rangers and cavalry men freely ran away with their fam­i­lies through the for­est to Phu Bon, Ly or­dered his troops to take shel­ter at a vil­lage in the High­lands, par­al­lel to Route 7B, two kilo­me­ters to the south east of Phu Bon. Out of hunger, thirst and gen­eral des­per­a­tion, the troops robbed and mur­dered the vil­lagers, leav­ing be­hind a scene of hor­ror…

The sec­ond bomb­ing raid to sup­port the at­tack to open Cheo Reo bar­ri­cade oc­curred the next morn­ing, dec­i­mat­ing an­other bat­tal­ion of rangers and some more ar­mored cars. As a wave of tat­tered evac­uees flooded into Phu Bon, the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal im­me­di­ately fell into chaos. Rob­bery and shoot­ing be­came an epi­demic in the city. The streets were jammed with traf­fic and be­came com­pletely con­gested as more peo­ple and ve­hi­cles con­tin­ued to con­verge onto them. It was dusk. When the Lib­er­a­tion Force’s first bar­rage of shells hit the cen­ter of the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal, the chaotic at­mos­phere reached its cli­max. In the dark night, the with­draw­ing troops con­tin­ued to move with ur­gency, bring­ing along tens of thou­sands of Phu Bon res­i­dents. Heavy weaponry had to be left be­hind; it was too late to de­stroy it. From then on, seven com­mando leagues, three cavalry squadrons, two in­fantry reg­i­ments, and the ma­jor­ity of II Corps had been wiped out. Ly and Tat, both ex­hausted and ragged, ran for their lives among the rebel troops.

If Route 7B was “the Route of Hell,” Song Ba Val­ley was “the Val­ley of Death.” Later at noon, Ly was shocked when he ar­rived at the river. The 300-me­ter-wide river had no bridge, as pre­vi­ously promised by the en­gi­neers. He could only clutch at his head and scream. Ly’s squared-shaped head was cov­ered in sweat, hot un­der the burn­ing sun. He wiped the beads of sweat off his eyes. Be­hind Ly, tens of thou­sands of evac­uees were hud­dling to­gether. In front of him, the Ba river was flow­ing swiftly like a gi­gan­tic white rib­bon stretch­ing end­lessly. Stand­ing shoul­der to shoul­der with Ly was Tat. Colonel Sieu, Deputy Com­man­der of Cavalry Reg­i­ment 2, had also taken unau­tho­rized leave from Phu Bon.

While Ly called Phu over the phone for re­in­force­ments, Tat flung him­self along the edge of the river, wav­ing his hands as he cursed: “Damn you, en­gi­neers! Damn you!”

The Chi­nook he­li­copter trans­ported per­fo­rated steel planks for the en­gi­neers to bridge the river. A swarm of other he­li­copters were trail­ing each other to search for Song Ba Val­ley, throw­ing down bread and dry pro­vi­sions in at­tempts to save the tens of thou­sands of peo­ple suf­fer­ing from hunger and thirst. The liv­ing had noth­ing to eat, and the dead had nowhere to be buried, while the dy­ing were left curled up on the earth to breathe their last few gasps of air. Some moth­ers could not fathom leav­ing be­hind the dead bod­ies of their chil­dren. They walked around con­fuzed, mad­dened by their sad­ness, car­ry­ing in their arms the cold, pale bod­ies of their sons and daugh­ters who had passed away days ear­lier. Dur­ing the day, the sun was like a huge cast-iron stove spit­ting fire onto the earth; at night time, the smell of the soil and moun­tain mist rose and pen­e­trated the air. Song Ba Val­ley be­came a gi­gan­tic ceme­tery of death—death by hunger, by dis­ease, and by mur­der, as peo­ple were re­duced to fight like wild beasts in or­der to seize the last of the avail­able pro­vi­sions.

An ex­hausted Ly fainted as soon as he boarded a he­li­copter. The HU-1A, sent by Phu, took a gi­ant risk by land­ing in the mid­dle of a frantic crowd to res­cue Ly. Tat was nowhere to be seen. When the he­li­copter took off, the makeshift float­ing bridge had just been com­pleted. Tens of thou­sands of peo­ple rushed across, although hun­dreds of them fell and were thrown into the deep river.

The next day, the val­ley echoed with the fright­en­ing cries of hun­gry ravens. Hun­dreds of dead bod­ies were float­ing on that long sec­tion of the river. When the ravens smelled the rot­ting flesh, they ar­rived in flocks. Streams of peo­ple con­tin­ued to cross the bridge...

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