Excerpt From A War Account 1-2-3-4.75
On the morning of March 16, the US Embassy was shocked by the news that the Army Corps had withdrawn from Pleiku.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.”
“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...