|The Retreat from the Central Highlands|
Tram Vam Cam, 45, is a native of Quang Luong village, Thieu Phong district, Quang Tri province. He served in the puppet army under French rule from 1950 to 1955 and when the French colonialists quitted he continued his army career until he was taken prisoner by the Liberation Army on April 1, 1975, following a breathless flight from Pleiku through Hau Bon to Tuy Hoa. He was then Brigadier General, assistant to Lieutenant General Pham Van Phu, Commander of the Second Army Corps. The days when his forces were under attack have been related in his own words as follows:
"An emergency briefing was called at 11:30 a.m. on March 9, 1975, by Lt. Gen. Pham Van Phu. I was present, together with Brig. Gen. Le Trung Tuong, Commander of the 23rd Division, Col. Vu The Quang, his second-in-command, Col. Pham Duy Tat, Ranger Commander of the Second Corps Area, Brig. Gen. Pham Ngoc Sang, Commander of the 6th Air Force Division, and the colonels commanding the various military sub-sectors in Buon Me Thuot and Pleiku. Phu reported intelligence concerning an imminent attack by the Liberation Army on the Central Highlands. We discussed possible objectives at great length. By now we had learned of the existence of three Liberation divisions in the region, one of them - the Second Division - was positioned directly opposite to us, in Pleiku. Another - the Third Division - was reported to have moved to Buon Me Thuot, which put us on the alert, because we knew we had a tough adversary to deal with.
"Besides, unconfirmed reports were mentioning the dispatch of another Liberation division, the 10th, to the Central Highlands.
"I suggested that Buon Me Thuot be strengthened, and was seconded by Brig. Gen. Tuong, who proposed sending the main regiment of the 23rd Division - the 45th. But the motion was rejected by Phu, a great believer of airborne tactics. He said that as soon as we came under attack reinforcements would be lifted in, and in the meantime, our reserves should be maintained at Pleiku. As we were also expecting only small Liberation forces in Buon Me Thuot, after considering the other aspects, we rallied to Phu's view that Pleiku remain objective number one.
"So we were stunned by the violent attack on Buon Me Thuot at 3 a.m. the following day, March 10. Reports from Col. Quang to headquarters said that the situation was worsening every minute, that Liberation artillery barrages were highly accurate, that the fast-moving tanks of the Liberation Army had already crushed the 53rd Regiment of the 23rd Division, the reinforced 21st Ranger Group, seven territorial battalions, and a whole armour regiment. Besides, all approaches to Buon Me Thuot had been interdiected. The same day the 7th Ranger Group was sent from Saigon as reinforcements, but was redirected immediately to Pleiku by Phu, who had very little confidence in Ranger performance and sent the 45th Regiment in Pleiku in its place. We expected it to arrive the same day, banking a great deal on the helicopters. The lift, however, took four whole days on account of intensive ground fire.
"The fall of Buon Me Thuot greatly affected our morale, Most of the men of the 23rd Division have their homes there, and we were flooded with demands for leave from the 44th Regiment in Pleiku. There were innumberable AWOL's, mostly from the territorial troops, but even from staff officers. What scared us most, however, was the lack of support resulting from the fast disintegration of the territorial forces.
"We lost Buon Me Thuot because of the complete secrecy of your movements, which induced us to make errors so that we were unable to react. As soon as your armour turned up with an entirely different tactic, we would find it was impossible to change the course of things.
"Phu went to Cam Ranh on the morning of March 13 for a conference with Messrs. Thieu, Khiem and Vien. Back in Pleiku he sent for us. He began the briefing by declaring, with great solemnity, "I've got Mr. Thieu's approval to promote Col. Pham Duy Tat, Commander of the Ranger Forces in the Second Corps Area, to the rank of brigadier general. This is his star." Then he stated: "Mr. Thieu also ordered the evacuation of Kontum and Pleiku. " That was the last straw, and confusion could be read on every face. We wondered what had prompted them to take this foolish decision, and very much doubted, with due consideration for military secrecy, the sagacity of choosing the long abandoned Plkeu-Phu Bon road. Phu isnisted that the retreat be completed within three days beginning the next day. He and the corps command would go by air allegedly to set up a forward command at Nha Trang to plan the return to Buon Me Thuot. The rest would be placed under my command and would start on D Day by road. The first column included three Ranger groups, one armour regiment, and one engineer group. Its mission was to protect Phu Bon and build a road from Phu Tuc to Tuy Hoa. The second column was composed of the rest of the corps command, three artillery battalions, the 21st Armour Regiment entirely equipped with M-48 tanks, two motorized companies, and infantry. The third column consisted of three ranger groups, one armour regiment, and support artillery. The Air Force had its own plan.
He ordered me to take the staff to Tuy Hoa and place the troops and vehicles under Brig. Gen. Tat's command. At 18 hrs and aircraft was sent in by Phu to take me and 14 other officers away. All through the journey we were constantly harassed by violent ground fire. The next morning I flew back to Phu Bon on an observation mission. Shooting had ceased, but from our high altitude we could see a tragic scene. All the vehicles, trucks, jeeps, tanks and armoured personnel carriers were pinned down; many were burning. It was very difficult to maintain communication with the forces down there, and the only thing we could be certain of was that Col. Dong, the Armour Commander, had abandoned his tank and got lost in the jungle. That was the tragic end of our evacuation. The entire Second Army Corps and all the forces of the Second Corps Area were buried there.
"The last blow to our morale came when we learned of the fall of several provinces in the First Corps Area down on the coast. Our will of resistance was completely crushed. We were astounded by the great mobility of the Liberation Forces. Their armour moved more quickly than ours. Even their infantry could surprise us by taking short cuts through the jungle..."
Vietnam Courier #39 (August 1975)