The Battle of Minh Thanh Road was one of five major actions in which the Big Red One engaged and soundly defeated all three main force regiments of the 9th VC Division during Operation EL PASO II in June and July 1966. For the first time in the Vietnam War, three carefully laid regimental-size enemy ambushes against road columns were turning into crushing VC defeats.
The last and most violent battle, as well as the greatest VC defeat at that time, was on the road from An Loc to Minh Thanh in Binh Long Province, 70 miles north of Saigon. The enemy force was the battle-tested 272d Main Force Regiment, the elite regiment of the 9th VC Division.
The concept of the operation was inspired by two considerations,. First, the 272d Regt had been badly punished by the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry, on National Highway 13 in early June, and it is the nature of this regiment to seek revenge. Secondly, intelligence sources had identified the 272d Regt as being active to the west of Hwy 13 in north central Binh Duong Province and north of the Minh Thanh Road. Additionally, the unit had received 800 replacements from North Vietnam after its 8 June defeat.
COL Sidney B. Berry Jr., then 1st Brigade Commander, was given the mission in early June of developing a plan to draw the 272d Reft into battle. COL Berry's order for Operation Olympia/ElPaso II was issued 6 July. The mission was to use deception to position forces and conduct reconnaissance in force to bring major enemy forces into battle along Minh Thanh Road, enabling the brigade to destroy them by offensive action.
The concept provided for rapid reaction by air, artillery and infantry against attacking VC forces, while the Calvary stood off the initial assault.
Extensive reconnaissance and war-gaming took place in order to determin which ambush sites would be most likely and what would be the appropriate reaction to each one. The main consideration here was the availability of suitable landing zones for rapid reinforcement of the column after initiation of contact and moves to cut off routes of withdrawal. The analysis of likely enemy ambush sites revealed several possibilities along Route Knife. The most dangerous site, and therefore the most likely one, lay on the north side of Knife between Check Points Tom and Dick.
In order to improve the odds that the 272d Regt would, in fact, strike along Route Knife, it was decided to leak information that a small armored cavalry column was going to travel the route to and from Minh Thanh for the purpose of retrieving bulldozers and trucks, which had been improving the airstrip there. Next, it was decided to add a deception plan to the operation, which would cover and explain the deployment of artillery to Artillery Base I.
The deception plan, which would become Phase I of the operation, involved an airmobile feint into a landing zone near Sroc Con Trang, north of Artillery Base I. on 8 July. On 30 June the Big Red One had captured a VC Plan to attack and annihilate a US Battalion on this LZ. Thirty minutes after the feint in which 30 choppers would actually touch down following a normal TAC air and artillery preparation, a B-52 strike would hit the areas of which we suspected the presence of the 273d Regiment of the 9th VC Division. Enemy casualties from this stike were to be regarded as a bonus effect of the deception.
Phase II would commence 9 July with Task Force DRAGOON, commanded by lTC Leonard L. Lewane, conducting a reconnaissance in force from An Loc along Route Knife to Minh Thanh. Forces in the task force included B and C Troops, 1st Sqdn, 4th Cav, and B Company, 1st Battalion, 2d Infantry (LTC Richard L. Prillaman, Bn CO). In the event that the enemy chaose to ambush the column on either the initial or return trip, forces of the 1st Bde would be positioned to respond immediately as required. Commitment of initial battalions would be against the immediate enemy flanks. Remaining would be committed to the battle area as needed. Landing Zones and blocking positions were choosen astride likely enemy routes of withdrawal. They would be occupied on order.
The 1st Bde began positioning reaction and supporting forces 7 July. Headquarters, B and D Batteries, 8th Battalion, 6th Artillery, and A Battery, 1st Battalion, 5th Artillery, moved to Artillery Base 1. The 2d Battalion, 2d Infantry, Commanded by LTC Jack L. Conn, commenced and airlift infiltration movement to Minh Thanh. On 8 July it joined the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry, commanded by MAJ John C. Bard; and C Battery, 33d Artillery, which had been in the area for over a week.
Later on that day Headquarters Battery, 5th Artillery; and C Battery, 1st Battalion, 7th Artillery, moved to Artillery Base II. Security for the artillery at Base II was provided by C Company, 2d BN, 2d Inf, and a Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) APC Troop. When he had completed the simulated air landing called for in Phase I. LTC Robert Haldane moved his 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry, into position around an abandoned airstrip near Artillery Base I.
The 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry, commanded by LTC Rufus C. Lazzell, was moved from Lai Khe to Quan Loi by air and came under operational control of the 1st Bde. Radio Hanoi had described the Armored columns of the Big Red One as being like "walls of steel that even ants cannot penetrate". The battle of 9 July lends weight to that observation.
At 0900 hours, following a two-hour wait for the overcast and ground fog to clear, Task Force DRAGOON began it's march along Route Knife. C Trp, 4th Cav, commanded by CPT Steven Slattery, led the column, followed by CPT David Kelly's B Trp. The soldiers of B Co, 1st Bn, 2d Inf, were mounted on C Trp's APC's.
Initially, C Trp marched with two platoons flanking the road, followed by the Command Group and the 3d Platoon. But as the force approached the suspected ambush site, the thick underbrush and jungle growth forced all elements back on the road.
As the column moved along, it was preceded by artillery barrages some 300 meters to it's front and flanks. Armed helicopters also provided reconnaissance by fire in the forward and flank areas. Observation helicopters made repeated low-level passes with negative results.
As the column neared the bridge at Check Point Dick, engineer mine detector teams examined the area and found the bridge to be mined. The teams cleared the bridge and LTC Lewane moved the column on. The Big Red One troops did not have long to wait for action. At 1050 hours a forward air Controller (FAC) spotted 10 VC crossing the road from north to south, 750 meters ahead of the armor.
At 1110 hours Lieutenant John Lyons, who was leading the column with his 1st Platoon, saw 5 more VC crossing in the same direction. Moments later, he reported 10 more of the enemy and had them taken under fire from his lead tank. The battle had begun (See Diagram 1)
The 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry, received it's orders at 1130 hours to move to landing zone ND by helicopter, then to attack to the southwest on the north side of the road. The battalion would hit the enemy's flank. The 1st Bn, 28th Inf, commenced movement at 1210 hours and closed at 1230 hours. It was placed under OPCON of LTC Lewane of the 4th Cav on landing.
LTC Berry also alert the 1st Bn, 16th Inf, for movement, and at 1336 hours it was ordered to commence a heliborne assault on landing zone NC and to be prepared to move to N5 or N6 on order. The battalion closed at 1430 hours and was immediately dispatched to N5 with orders to orgainize a blockign position. It was slowed in its movement by the dense jungle and did not close its positon until late afternoon, thus some of the enemy were able to escape to the northwest. During a fight against a VC rear guard in a fortified position, LTC Lazzell was wounded by a .50 caliber round. LTC Berry assumed tempoary command until a replacement, LTC George M. Wallace III, could be flown to the area. At 1200 hours the commander of the 8/6 Arty, LTC John R. McGiffert, flying in a light observation Helicopter, directed 8-inch howitzer fire on a VC anti-aircraft position and destroyed it. LTC Berry brought the 2d Bn, 2d Inf, into landing zone NC blocking position at the LZ upon clearing at 1755 hours.
While the blocking positions were being established and the maneuver battalions were being brought into the battle, the 4th Cav had double-banked B and C Trps along the road, where they were involved in an intense fight with the VC on both sides of the road. The enemy used mortars, recoilless rifle and numerous automatic weapoons in an attempt to overrun the column and managed temporarily to swarm two APC's. Two other carriers were destroyed by direct mortar hits on the engine compartments.
The 90mm cannister ammo fired by the tanks, together with the .50 caliber and M-60 machineguns, small arms, M-79 grenade launchers and hand grenades employed by the cavalry and the infantry, supported by 2,200 rounds of artillery and the tactical airstrikes, proved to much for the VC. The enemy started to break contact about 1330 hours. Prisoners later stated that several units broke and ran. Meanwhile LTC Lewane had committed the 1/28 Inf against the east flank of the ambush site. The covering force of the enemy broke contact with the battalion at 1540 hours. The Big Red One troops then swept southwest along the north side of the road, mopping up as they moved.
At the other end of the ambush site, the 1/18th Inf sliced into the worn flank of the VC and overran element of the covering force in heavy combat in trenchs and bunkers. The next morning a police of the battlefield disclosed small groups of fleeing enemy, abandoned trenches and bunkers and the following statistical count; 239 enemy killed in action; eight VC captured; 23 crew-served weapons and numerous small arms captured. The highlights of this victory are many. First, armor was used as a fixed force, while infantry battalions were used as the maneuver elements. The fixing force was too strong to overrun, thus forcing the enemy to fight a prolonged but unsuccessful battle, while maneuver elements hit his rear and flanks.
Second, the plan was based on an accurate assessment of the enemy's intentions. Third, all commanders were prepared to respond to several courses of action as a result of the through wargaming which proceeded the battle.
Fourth, the use of fire coordination lines along the road provided for simultaneous and continuous air and Artillery support.
and Fifth, the inherent mobility of the infantry division, when provided sufficient lift capability, facilitated the rapid deployment of the maneuver and blocking elements. Of equal importance were the lessons learned for future application. In order to bring sufficiant firepower to bear on a numerically superior force at the ambush site, it is imperative that artillery and tactical air fire support be directed against the enemy's main force, immediately and continuously.
The enemy's main direction of attack must be acertained early in order to permit the maneuver of blocking forces to the enemy's routes of withdrawal. In this battle, many of the enemy's committed forces infiltrated from the battle area before blocking forces fully closed the trap. In other engagements, the VC would fight for four to six hours. Possibly the most important lesson learned from this battle is that the use of armor in breaking an enemy ambush can be decisive. When led by tanks, a cavalry column can take the punishment and respond with adequate firepower during the critical early period until infantry battalions can be introduced by helicopter or foot movement to the battle area. The price the enemy paid was high; prisoner interrogations indicated that the 9th VC Div lost over 2,000 men in it's three ambushes and two other battles with the Big Red One in June and July 1966.
Finally, it was not the excellance of the planning but the valor of the troopers of the 4th Cav and the Infantry soldiers that brought victory. weapons