Nicely framed family photos covered the small living/dinning room wall. A full-size bed made the room even smaller. Inside an old two-room house in the middle of a Southern village, no air conditioning and no computer, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Capt. Ta Hao Duc was happy living like this as a war hero.1 Excited and a little nervous, Captain Duc showed us the enlarged photos on the wall. “This is my father, a two-star general,” he said as he proudly pointed to an old man in a NVA uniform with many medals on his left chest. Pointing to others, “They are my children.” Captain Duc told me their stories one by one in the same complacent way. All three of his kids went through their colleges on government scholarships. Two of them worked in Ho Chi Minh City as engineers, and one at Da Nang as a lawyer. Satisfied and smiling, Captain Duc sat down with me. He was happy indeed. That’s probably what he had fought for: carrying on the legacy and pride from the last generation and bringing new opportunities to the next.2
As a young North Vietnamese, Ta Hao Duc was drafted into the NVA in 1965 and sent to South Vietnam that summer via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. From 1964 to 1968, North Vietnam supported the Viet Cong by sending more NVA regular troops to fight a guerrilla, or “people’s,” war against the American and ARVN forces in South Vietnam.3 In 1964, the NVA sent infantry regiments to the South. In early 1965, the 325th Division entered South Vietnam. In May and June, the 305th Division had entered the South via the Ho Chi Minh Trail.4 By the end of 1965, the NVA had ten infantry regiments in South Vietnam. After 1966, the Northern regular troops joined Viet Cong guerrilla troops and became the main strength of the Communist forces in the South. When the Tet Offensive campaign took place in early 1968, the number of NVA regulars in South Vietnam had reached 400,000 men.5 Both the NVA and the PLAF suffered heavy casualties. Captain Duc’s story describes the engagements with the ARVN and U.S. troops in the Central Highlands in general, and emphasizes the Battle of Ia Drang. The details provide some insight into the NVA military strategy, combat tactics, and operational problems during the mid-1960s. It may explain why the NVA and PLAF suffered heavy casualties during these battles.
Capt. Ta Hao Duc
First Company, Thirty-first Battalion, NVA (North Vietnam)
I joined the People’s Army of Vietnam [PAVN, or NVA] in early 1965 because I needed to. First of all, the American air raids [Operation Rolling Thunder] against North Vietnam were so intensive that we couldn’t go to school anymore. I felt very sad when I saw that our neighborhood was burning, and that many people died during the bombings. I agreed with our government that we should keep the war and Americans in the South. All the teenagers joined the army at that time. Second, my father served in the army for most of his life and ranked as a two-star general.6 All of my older brothers had joined the services. I must follow the family tradition. Third, in the North, service was something necessary for your career development, like a college degree. No military service, no good job for you in the future. You need to earn it by fighting the enemy and showing your loyalty to the Communist Party and Uncle Ho. After an infantry training for a couple of months near Hanoi, I reported to the First Company, Thirty-first Battalion, of an infantry regiment. In the company, I learned more about small arms, demolition, and basic defense engineering. During that time, I also heard the men in my company talking about going down to South Vietnam and fighting a war against America. I was excited about participating in the ground war that had been going on in the South for years.
In the summer of 1965, the First Company received the orders that we would move to South Vietnam. Our battalion command sent some instructors to our company talking about the war situation and enemy troops in the South. We learned a lot about the American forces and their weapon systems. We also knew at the time that we might stay in the South for a long period of time. Before the end of the dry season, our company traveled from north to south by train. Then we entered Laos and continued our road trip through the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Sometimes we rode in the trucks, and sometimes we walked by foot. We traveled over five hundred miles crossing Laos, and entered Cambodia. From there, we crossed the border and moved into South Vietnam.
After we arrived in the South, we were under a joint NVA-PLAF command.7 At first, we engaged mostly with the ARVN troops. When the rainy season began in June, our company received a new order from the joint headquarters: to destroy the enemy’s “strategic hamlet villages” in the tristate region. In the spring of 1965, the “puppet” RVN government and its army continued their so-called pacification program design to bring security and local self-government to rural South Vietnamese people. During the dry season, they occupied many villages, purged the pro-Communist farmers, armed the villagers, and helped them to fortify their villages. The pacification protected the ARVN bases and lines of communication, and sought out the Viet Cong and the NVA in the surrounding areas. In the rain season, the ARVN troops pulled back to their bases and left the progovernment farmers on their own in their “strategic hamlet villages.”
We had a chance to retake these villages during the rainy season. It was the first time we moved into enemy territory, but there wasn’t much action. The armed farmers in their strategic villages rarely confronted the North Vietnamese regulars. When they saw us coming, they hid their weapons and acted as ordinary villagers. We usually gathered the villagers and tried to single out the government agents and hostile village leaders. Then we executed the bad guys and destroyed their defense works. As long as we didn’t burn their houses and take away their food, the villagers didn’t fight back.
That summer, our company participated in several ambush and smallscale defensive operations. In 1965, the NVA-PLAF command believed that the U.S. and ARVN troops in the South outnumbered NVA troops, and that the enemy had superior firepower and advanced air, naval, and armored forces. Thus, our troops avoided a frontal or formal battle with the U.S. troops, but engaged in traditional guerrilla warfare tactics, such as ambush, hit-and-run, night attacks, cutting transportation and communication lines, and attacking enemy weak points. We harassed the U.S. and ARVN troops, made the war as costly for the Americans as possible, and protected the civilian population as best we could.
In mid-July, the First Company was ordered to defend the village of An Theo. It was a strategic point in the area. After losing it to the NVA and PLAF in June, the ARVN now tried to take it back. The battalion command ordered our company to move into An Theo overnight. Then we spent a couple of days strengthening the defense works with the help of local Viet Cong and villagers.
On July 18, the ARVN troops arrived. They attacked An Theo a couple of times in small groups, but our company defeated them. Then they stopped their attack, but did not withdraw. They were waiting for their reinforcement. Next day, more ARVN troops arrived with heavy artillery pieces and armored vehicles. On July 20, the ARVN launched a larger scale offensive against An Theo. They had at least three companies with seven armored vehicles. Their artillery pieces bombed the village with more than two hundred 105 mm shells and charged our defense positions several times. Their intensive artillery shelling destroyed most of our defense works. We had to move into underground tunnels to continue our defense. Having failed to take over the village, the ARVN troops stopped their attacks by the evening. They pulled out their troops and didn’t come back the next day. We successfully defended An Theo. However, our company and local Viet Cong suffered heavy casualties during the three-day battle. We received our new recruits regularly from the North.
In the fall of 1965, the NVA developed a new strategy, the so-called formality strategy, or a formal warfare strategy. The new strategy included plans and tactics of frontal engagements, medium-scale offensive campaigns, attacks on the cities, and elimination of an entire enemy unit, like a company or even a battalion. Meanwhile, there were different opinions in the command. We heard about the strategic debates at the high command. Anyway, the new strategy lasted for almost three years until its peak, the Tet Offensive campaign of February 1968. Both NVA and PLAF suffered the heaviest casualties since the beginning of the war.8 Then the high command believed that the offensive strategy was too costly to continue. Thereafter, the NVA returned to its traditional guerrilla warfare.
Since the implementation of the new strategy, our company began to join other companies and engaged in large-scale operations at battalion level. One of the big battles we fought was the Central Highlands Offensive campaign. You called it the Battle of Ia Drang in America.9 At the end of October 1965, the PLAF and NVA launched a joint offensive campaign against Plei Me, an ARVN stronghold in the Central Highlands.10 By October 29, the PLAF had completely encircled the ARVN garrison. In early November, the NVA and PLAF launched our attack on the ARVN troops at Plei Me.
In order to eliminate all the ARVN garrison, the NVA set up roadblocks between Plei Me and Pleiku and between Plei Me and An Khe in order to stop possible ARVN and U.S. reinforcement or rescue efforts.11 Our Thirty-first Battalion was deployed at Hill 558 along Route 21 between Plei Me and Pleiku. One day in early November, our company moved into our positions at the bottom of the hill. We dug some foxholes along our defensive positions between Route 21 and Hill 558. And then we waited. Around noon, we were told that the ARVN reinforcements were coming from Pleiku on Route 21, including an infantry battalion and an armored battalion. We should ambush the ARVN troops at Hill 558 to stop the reinforcements and ensure a victory of the Plei Me attack. I was a little bit nervous since we had not yet engaged in such a large-scale battle in the past six months. I checked my ammo and medic-aid package again and again.
Before long, a couple of the ARVN helicopters flew over our positions. They didn’t detect the concealed NVA troops around Hill 558. About 1400 hours, a long column of the enemy armored vehicles and trucks came along the road. We opened fire when they reached the hill. The enemy troops were in panic under the unexpected attack. They fled to where they came from and left many bodies behind along the road. We were so excited about our successful ambush. Captain Ngu, our company commander, ordered us to refill ammo and send wounded back. He shouted, “Hurry, they will be back.” He was right. About one hour later, the enemy troops attacked our positions with the help of the American helicopters. The American armed helicopters from Pleiku attacked our positions with a fierce bombing and shelling. We had to pull out of our roadside positions, and moved up to the hill for better coverage.
About 1600 hours, two more ARVN battalions arrived as new reinforcements. Then they charged the hill. Even though our battalion fought bravely, we were outnumbered and without any air and artillery support. When it was getting dark, our battalion commanders ordered a withdrawal from Hill 558. We heard next day that the American troops from An Khe also broke the NVA roadblock. On November 14, because of the failures of blockage, the PLAF stopped its offensive on Plei Me. On November 14, more American troops arrived in the Ia Drang Valley and began their counterattacks against the PLAF and NVA. Our command decided to concentrate the PLAF-NVA troops to deal with the American reinforcement.
From November 14 to 19, our company joined the other PLAF-NVA units and attacked American troops at the Ia Drang Valley. During the five-day battle, our company suffered heavy casualties, including thirty-one dead and forty-one wounded. We were replaced by our reserve troops. Our battalion also pulled out of the attack due to its heavy casualties. On November 19, the command decided to withdraw all the units from the Ia Drang Valley. Then we moved west, toward the South Vietnam-Cambodia border. That was a major withdrawal from the Central Highlands. On November 19, our company received new orders to escort a NVA field hospital moving west to the liberated area [the PLAF-controlled areas]. In the afternoon, the American helicopters discovered the field hospital and our battalion headquarters, which retreated with us. The helicopters’ firepower inflicted large casualties on our troops. I was shot with multiple wounds on my right shoulder and my neck. I was lucky to receive immediate medical assistance, since our company was escorting the doctors and nurses of the field hospital.
The field hospital couldn’t stay anywhere within the borders of South Vietnam. It kept moving west, crossing the border, and eventually withdrew into Cambodia. I and other wounded moved with the field hospital and left South Vietnam in that winter.
In 1966, I recovered from my wounds. I left Cambodia and returned to my unit in 1967 in South Vietnam. I was lucky to be transferred back before the American forces intensified their air raids and bombing in 1969 and eventually invaded Cambodia in the spring of 1970.
Our battalion fought in seven provinces of South Vietnam. I was promoted to sergeant, lieutenant, and then captain. Although I was wounded again in 1973, I remained in active duty until the war was over in 1975. We returned back to the North in the same year. I retired from the army in 1976 during the demobilization and I got married in Hanoi later that year. I talked to my wife and came down to the South in 1978. I knew the South better than the North since I had spent about ten years of my young adult life here. Also I could get a better job here after we won the war and took over everything during its reconstruction in the late 1970s. I worked in the village office in 1979–1985, and then in the town government from 1986 to 2002. I retired from the government position in 2005. I receive government retirement, military pensions, and disability compensation every month. I’m very happy living in this village with my wife. We may have to move to one of the cities since our children need our help. One of them is expecting their first baby.
Excerpted from Voices from the Vietnam War: Stories from American, Asian, and Russian Veterans by Xiaobing Li.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, The University Press of Kentucky.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher.
1. Interviews by the author at TP Longxuyen, An Giang Province, Vietnam, in June 2006. Tran Li was the translator.
2. For further reading on the NVA mobilization, see William J. Duiker, Vietnam: Revolution in Transition, 2nd ed. (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1995), and Duong Thu Huong’s historical novel from the Communist Vietnamese perspective, Novel Without a Name (New York: Penguin, 1996).
3. The “people’s war” is one of the military strategies for a weak army to fight a stronger opponent, or a foreign invading force, by mobilizing the entire population to engage in the war. For its definition and the PAVN experience, see Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, People’s War, People’s Army (New York: Bantam, 1962).
4. The Ho Chi Minh Trail began to play a major role in the North’s infiltration and transportation to the South in the spring of 1965. Hoang Khoi, The Ho Chi Minh Trail (Hanoi, Vietnam: Gioi Publishers, 2002), 51–52.
5. For further reading on the NVA’s deployment and operation in South Vietnam, see John Prados, Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945–1975 (Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas, 2009), and Mark Atwood Lawrence, The Vietnam War: A Concise International History (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008).
6. Captain Duc’s father was born in 1924 and served in the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN or NVA) from 1953 to 1979 as an officer, rising to the rank of a two-star general. He had retired from the NVA and lived in Hanoi when the author interviewed his son, Captain Duc, at Longxuyen, An Giang, in June 2006.
7. From 1965 to 1968, the NVA and PLAF had set up a joint command to coordinate their military operations. After the spring of 1968, the PAVN took over the command of the Communist military operations in South Vietnam.
8. Before the Tet Offensive campaign, the PLAF had carried most of the fighting in the South. During the Tet, the PLAF troops suffered such heavy casualties that the NVA took over the major operations thereafter.
9. The Battle of Ia Drang was the first major engagement of the U.S. ground forces in South Vietnam. From November 14 to November 18, 1965, the U.S. Army’s First Cavalry Division (Airmobile) fought against a large number of the NVA-PLAF troops in the Ia Drang Valley. The U.S. troops suffered 534 casualties, including 234 dead. The NVA-PLAF casualties were estimated to be over 2,500. For more details, see Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young: Ia Drang—The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).
10. Plei Me (also called Plei Mei), about forty-four kilometers southwest Pleiku, was a strategic point in the Central Highlands. The siege of the ARVN camp by the PLAF-NVA troops led to the U.S. First Calvary Division’s first major battle in the Ia Drang Valley. See Michael P. Kelley, Where We Were in Vietnam: A Comprehensive Guide to the Firebases, Military Installations and Naval Vessels of the Vietnam War, 1945–75 (Central Point, Oreg.: Hellgate Press, 2002), 5–411.
11. Pleiku, a city about 225 miles northeast Saigon, was an important strategic point in South Vietnam during the war. It had a U.S. Air Force base, airport, hospital, and ammo depot, the U.S. Army’s Fourth Division headquarters, and the ARVN’s II Corps headquarters. See Kelley, Where We Were in Vietnam, 5–412.