Small Wars Journal

The North Vietnamese Army Easter Offensive of 1972: A Massacre Near the Rockpile?

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The North Vietnamese Army Easter Offensive of 1972: A Massacre Near the Rockpile?

W. R. Baker

Preface

The Easter Offensive of 1972 caught not only the South Vietnamese military by surprise, but also the military commanders of the United States. In large part because the North Vietnamese offensive at Tet (in February) did not occur as expected, politicians and senior ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) officers were taking a long weekend break and many U.S. senior officers had left or were in the process of leaving South Vietnam for Rest & Recuperation, as well. The supposed country-wide alert issued by ARVN was either obviously ignored or was never really issued.

Not so for the very few Human and Signal Intelligence units remaining in-country who knew better and were reporting main-force NVA activity. In fact, the 571st Military Intelligence Detachment/525th Military Intelligence Group, headquartered in Da Nang, warned ARVN and United States commands throughout the country and elsewhere of who, when, and where the offensive was to begin - publishing the first of many collateral Intelligence Summaries prior to and during the offensive.

In war, the proverb, “Expect the unexpected” is especially true. A few facts seem to be in order to set the stage. What will then follow are things that may have happened, though it will probably take some time to prove or disprove it. Given the character of the NVA and the Viet Cong in many of their previous actions (e.g., Tet 1968), bringing this information to light is warranted because it is consistent with how they acted against ARVN and U.S. forces.

One of the least mentioned events that occurred during the Easter Offensive of 1972 is the surrender of the 56th ARVN Regiment of the 3rd ARVN Division on Easter Sunday, April 2, 1972.

The Easter Offensive began at 0900 on 30 March 1972 as NVA artillery, especially the long-range, Soviet-made M-46/130mm guns, began an intense shelling of ARVN and South Vietnamese Marine firebases. (The first two American soldiers were killed a few hours later.) In many ways, most of the 56th ARVN Regiment and 2nd ARVN Regiment were caught in the open as they traded positions to familiarize themselves with the different types of terrain and to prevent something called, “firebase syndrome.” The newly-formed 56th had spent only five months in the FSB C-2 area west of QL-1, below the DMZ, while the veteran 2nd (taken entirely from the 1st ARVN Division) had occupied the western fire bases (Fire Bases Khe Gio and Fuller and Camp Carroll) – where U.S. and ARVN generals were convinced any major NVA attack would come from - not through the DMZ.

Two days later (1 April), Camp Carroll was completely surrounded by the 24th NVA Infantry Regiment/304th NVA Infantry Division, supported by the recently permanently assigned 38th Composite Artillery Regiment (newly equipped with five different artillery systems).

Elements of the 1/56, 2/56, and 3/56 Battalions had managed to straggle into Camp Carroll by 1 April. The first human wave assault on Camp Carroll was preceded by sappers on this day, as well. LTC Pham Van Dinh, the commander of the 56th ARVN Regiment, talked with Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam, commander of ARVN’s I Corps, who indicated that there would be no reinforcements and that he was to hold his position. The general apparently cut the phone call short as he left for his evening tennis match. (Lam also commanded the ill-fated Lam Son 719 campaign the year before.) LTC Dinh also talked on the phone with his wife living in Hue, some 65km away.

At 1400 (2:00pm) on 2 Apr, the NVA’s second human wave attack on Camp Carroll came from the west, near the main gate. A little before 1500, “Dinh received a call from the NVA” about surrendering. This was followed-up a short time later by someone who claimed to be the commander of the communist forces in the area who told him that they would overrun “241” (Camp Carroll) if Dinh did not surrender. Dinh asked for time to meet with his Vietnamese staff and commanders to consider surrendering, which the communist commander granted. A little before 1500, thirteen men - the battalion commanders and regimental staff – assembled in the tactical operations center. Ton That Man, of the 1/56, was the only officer to urge continuing the fight. Eventually, after Dinh continued talking, the vote was unanimous to surrender.

The NVA also knew that there were two American advisors assigned to the 56th ARVN Regiment and they knew both were present in Camp Carroll. LTC Dinh was instructed to ensure they surrendered, as well. The U.S. Army advisors, Lieutenant Colonel William C. Camper and Major Joseph Brown, Jr., tried to convince Dinh not to surrender – that things were bad, but they could continue to resist for a while longer. Their words fell on deaf ears, Dinh had already made up his mind.

Each ARVN division had a cavalry squadron attached to it. Elements of the 3/11th Cavalry were in Camp Carroll when LTC Dinh surrendered. As LTC Camper and MAJ Brown were leaving, they noticed some of the 11th Cav soldiers were still armed (the 56th soldiers had been ordered to put down all their weapons). Upon questioning, it appeared that they were not informed of what had transpired. Over twenty 11th Cav troopers accompanied the two American advisors and three 56th ARVN soldiers to a CH-47/Chinook helicopter that was diverted to rescue them.

About 150 ARVN artillerymen manned the batteries of 105mm, 155mm, and a single battery of 175mm guns at Camp Carroll. LTC Camper doesn’t think they surrendered but is uncertain what happened to them.

LTC Camper also knew of an unidentified ARVN battalion operating near the Rockpile when the Offensive began, but nothing else is known about them.

Camp Carroll Surrenders

A “despondent” LTC Pham Van Dinh surrendered his 1500-1800 men and 22 (unspiked) artillery pieces, quad-50s and Dusters, plus an unknown number of 3/11th Cav and artillerymen.

LTC Pham Van Dinh, the commander of the 56th ARVN Regiment, talked with his soon-to-be captors on the phone twice, complying with an order to fly a white flag, prohibit the spiking of artillery tubes and to hold the U.S. advisors in custody (which he did not do). Another version states that Dinh didn’t either have time to spike the guns or he didn’t think about it.

One version has it that Dinh originated the phone call himself on April 1st (and perhaps even March 31st) and negotiated the surrender with the commander of the 38th Composite Artillery Regiment, who spoke for the commander of the 304th NVA Division.

Interestingly, an unsubstantiated report by an unknown ARVN general stated that 1,000 soldiers eventually returned to friendly lines and were absorbed into other ARVN units (all apparently without any documentation). Likewise, ARVN officers told an American officer that most of the captured 56th Regiment soldiers were marched to the Rockpile and executed.

What was originally named the Rockpile by the U.S. Marine Corps, was approximately 10 miles (16 km) from the DMZ and is 16 miles west of Dong Ha. The Rockpile is a rock formation 790 feet (240 meters) high and is one kilometer from Route 9.

A Communist Conspiracy or Just a Series of Coincidences?

Brigadier General Vu Van Giai, the 3rd ARVN Division commander, was extremely upset by the rampant desertion rate in his division.  A communist network helped 3rd ARVN deserters to return southward, out of I Corps, through an underground railroad of safe houses. Both the 56th and 57th ARVN Regiments had many deserters and untrustworthy soldiers assigned to them. Many deserters had originally come from the Saigon and III Corps area. Such a railroad would obviously have had other communist contacts, perhaps searching for defectors, conducting propaganda, and collecting intelligence for NVA and Viet Cong use.

LTC Dinh was a national hero, referred to as the “Young Lion of Hue” for his role in retaking Hue from the NVA and Viet Cong in Tet 1968. As such, he would have been an attractive target to turn and switch sides by the communist North.

Doesn’t it seem odd that two regiments were swapping positions on the very day and the very hour that the offensive started? Not one senior officer (ARVN or U.S.) had even planned to watch over the movement of the units – they surely must have known that it was prearranged.

If any NVA attacks were expected to come from the west, why was the most experienced infantry regiment (the 2nd) trading places (they were headed towards the DMZ) with the least experienced 56th (headed away from the DMZ)?

No covering forces (artillery and air) were even on-call to protect the ARVN units swapping places.

Neither of the exchanging regiments had any experience in relief in-place operations. Their communications equipment was simply turned off and put on trucks a half-hour before the start of the offensive. LTC Dinh was part of the first group to leave for Camp Carroll. Wasn’t all this convenient?

It was an established fact that both the NVA and ARVN monitored each other’s radio transmissions. Did Dinh initiate contact with the assaulting NVA forces as part of a preconceived plan?

While calling his wife on the phone is understandable (if for no other reason than “rank hath its privileges”), was there some other underlying reason for this unusual contact?

Were there others (possibly communist agents) involved in a possible conspiracy to surrender the regiment? Had they passed information on the swapping of firebases to other communist agents?

Aftermath

The next day, Dinh spoke on Radio Hanoi (a broadcast heard by many in the South) asking ARVN soldiers to support the North. There are two pictures from an unknown magazine that show LTC Dinh and his executive officer being welcomed by an NVA officer, probably the commander of the 38th Composite Artillery Regiment who had negotiated the surrender. Presumably, a portion of Dinh’s regiment are applauding behind them in the background, obviously not with a 1,000 or so soldiers, which would have had an even greater propaganda value.

Later, it was revealed that LTC Dinh may have been promoted to a full Colonel in the NVA.

The surrender of the 56th ARVN Regiment, 3rd ARVN Division at Camp Carroll on April 2, 1972, at 1520 (3:20pm), will remain one of the unspeakable acts of cowardice to have ever taken place in military history.  It also presaged other ARVN surrenders and desertions in the II and III Corps areas, despite the disclaimers of some general officers.

A Malmedy-like Massacre in Northern South Vietnam?

A major problem in trying to confirm or refute a massacre by the NVA in early-April 1972 is the fact that a communist government is in place in Vietnam. The Vietnamese government continues to deny anything that puts them in a bad light and has never given a full accounting of the Hue and Dak Son massacres, nor have they indicated who was tried for these atrocities.

Another bloodlust was conducted by a NVA battalion a few miles away from the Rockpile. However, this wanton disregard for human life was witnessed by numerous press and other eyewitness reports that were published in newspapers. These NVA troops were part of a blocking force south of Quang Tri who reportedly killed between 1,000-2,000 soldiers, old men, women, and children escaping southward along QL-1 (the national north-south highway) during late-April and early-May. The commander of the battalion told his troops that anyone coming south were the enemy and they were to kill them all. Was anyone held responsible for this inhumanity or was he given a medal?

It has been 46 years since this 56th ARVN Regiment massacre may have occurred and finding witnesses or participants will be difficult. Civilians who may have lived in the area undoubtedly fled southward when the NVA artillery deliberately rained down on them. The commanders and soldiers of the 24th NVA Regiment, 38th Composite Artillery Regiment and the 304th NVA Division are obvious starting points, if possible.

The sheer number of military and civilians that died in re-education camps and in boats trying to leave Vietnam will also hinder any investigation if some of these people were present at the time of the incident.

The exact location or locations where a massacre may have occurred is unknown. The NVA may have marched the ARVN troops to North Vietnam or even Laos. There is thick vegetation in the Rockpile area, as well.

Though it may take a human rights organization to prove or disprove this possible massacre, it will remain an open question until it is put to rest, one way or another.

About the Author(s)

W. R. (Bob) Baker graduated with the first 96B/Intelligence Analyst class at Fort Huachuca, AZ in 1971. He was then assigned to the 1st Battalion (which soon became the 571st MI Det.), 525th MI Group, headquartered in Da Nang, Vietnam. His further assignments included positions at Fort Bliss, Texas; two tours with the European Defense Analysis Center (EUDAC) in Stuttgart-Vaihingen, Germany; and the 513th MI Group in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.

He left the US Army and worked as an analyst for Interstate Electronics, Northrop-Grumman and Xontec defense contractors before teaching in primary and secondary schools.

Mr. Baker has a bachelor of science degree in Government from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree in Educational Leadership from the University of Dayton. He has authored other Easter Offensive articles and is currently writing a book on this subject.

Comments

The Vietnamese military (their history department) would never reply to inquiries and the U.S. State Department never did, either.

You're right about it being believable, their atrocities were well-known and we were forewarned about them when I arrived in country. I kept files on all the NVA and VC units in I Corps/FRAC - some of the things they did would make a normal person shutter.

It is entirely believable that the NVA committed this atrocity and does it really matter if these ARVN troops were simply annihilated in the jungle instead of slaughtered?  Entire populations like the Armenians disappeared into the desert a  euphemism for the annihilation of the Armenians by the Ottoman Turks.  

This peculiar form of "objectivity" has never applied to blaming US forces sometimes or more more often with the atrocities committed by the VC and NVA communists.    Former Vice President Kerry among others certainly have falsely accused other veterans actions to advance their own political careers.

America has a horrendous record of reporting truthfully the many atrocities committed by the Communists instead blaming the US forces for all atrocities simply because the US presence sustained the war and kept the Communists at bay.