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The Easter Offensive of 1972: A Prelude to Vengeance Achieved
W. R. Baker
The Easter Offensive of 1972, coming at the end of the Vietnam War, is usually an afterthought in most histories of the conflict, primarily because most U.S. troops had already left the country. This does a great disservice to the American and South Vietnamese militaries who remained, particularly to those killed or wounded in-action. Even beyond that, the people of South Vietnam themselves were to experience the cruelty and savagery of the North Vietnamese Army and their terrorist cohorts - the Viet Cong (VC) - for almost a year after the offensive began.
A December 1971 COSVN (Central Office for South Vietnam) resolution concludes with, “…if hit hard enough, the allies will either collapse or be forced to withdraw, enabling the revolution to regain access to the population.” (my emphasis). If the communists had to “regain access,” then they admitted to not having it. Without specifically stating it, the effects of pacification (gaining the support of the rural population for the South Vietnamese government) were obviously working.
Consider that pacification of the rural areas had shown steady positive results since 1968, to the point in late-1971 that almost 90% were considered pacified. The Popular and Regional Forces (PF/RF) had come far in protecting their local areas from the Viet Cong (VC), in many areas these terrorist units were filled-out by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops.
As part of my adopted daily routine with the 571st Military Intelligence (MI) Detachment, 525th MI Group in South Vietnam in 1971-1972, I kept track of all NVA and VC forces in I Corps (which became the First Regional Assistance Command - FRAC).
Two years before I arrived, Col. Andrew R. Finlayson, USMC (Ret.) remembered, “Although the local VC never stopped committing atrocities in southern Quang Nam Province … they outdid themselves in early March (1969) with a particularly vicious and egregious example of the kind of terror they were capable of inflicting on civilians. In a refugee camp 10 miles south of An Hoa, the VC came into the camp after dark, taking advantage of the South Vietnamese forces who would normally have provided security for the camp. The VC burned down thirty-one houses and murdered nine adults and twenty-two children. As they left, they warned the refugees that unless they returned to their farms in VC-controlled areas, they would return and kill all of them. Such acts, while not always on the same scale, were routine in areas where the local VC held sway in the province and provoked a profound fear among the population.” (Finlayson, 2014: 77-78). Of course, a much more formatted report would have found its way into the large files I kept on each unit and/or province, but notice Finlayson wrote “the local VC never stopped committing atrocities.” Multiply this statement a few times daily for every province and you can imagine how large these files became in a relatively short time. This does not include any of the VC’s unreported acts of violence throughout the provinces of I Corps, especially in areas that the Saigon government did not control.
The 571st MI Detachment was fortunate on several occasions to be able to provide timely and accurate information which led to the destruction of Surface-to-Air Missile sites, arms caches, and the infiltration of NVA and VC units. One example while I was there was the recurring sightings of a so-called “Salt and Pepper” VC Armed Propaganda Team – a pair of presumed U.S. soldiers (one white, one black) carrying AK-47s. These two apparent military turncoats (though some has suggested they might have been French) were always reported west of Chu Lai and were of such high priority that U.S. Special Forces would conduct an immediate search after I notified them. Despite the 3-4 reports I received about them, they were never caught.
A major problem in trying to confirm or refute the Rockpile massacre of 1,500-1,800 ARVN troops of the 56th Regiment/3rd ARVN Division by the NVA in early-April 1972 is the fact that a communist government is now in place in Vietnam. The Vietnamese government continues to deny anything that puts them in a bad light and has still never given a full accounting of the Hue and Dak Son massacres, nor have they indicated that anyone was tried for these atrocities
Another bloodlust was conducted by at least one 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 (albeit tucked well inside them). These NVA troops were part of a blocking force south of Quang Tri that 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.
Throughout South Vietnam, VC execution squads quickly roamed the country where areas recently occupied by NVA troops dominated, finding people who could identify any VC and those who would likely take over or resume their South Vietnamese government positions if there were to be a ceasefire.
These are a few examples of specific instances of what occurred in the first few months of the offensive.
- In Quang Ngai, Local Force VC Sappers burned down 15 villages adding to the 30,000 people made homeless in May.
- A “People’s Court” in Binh Dinh executed 45, after they dug their own graves sometime in the summer of 1972. The VC also engaged in bayonet practice of at least three men, as well. In another instance in what has been called the “Binh Dinh Massacre,” between 250-500 people where tried and executed from among 6,000-7,000 collected and executed or impressed into servitude by VC/NVA forces in the An Lao and An Hue areas.
- Forty-five people were buried alive in the Tam Quan District, as a local politician was beheaded in Bon Son village.
As of May 8, 1972, 700,000 people had fled the communist onslaught, mostly from Quang Tri and Thua Thien Provinces, which created a massive refugee problem. Also in this first month, it was estimated that 20,000 civilians were killed.
The terror campaign against civilians didn’t stop after the first few months of the offensive. In early September, a VC demolition squad attacked the largest refugee camp in Vietnam northwest of Da Nang. The camp held some 50,000 civilians and this attack killed 20 and wounded almost a 100.
Though there are many reasons given as to why North Vietnam didn’t simply wait until all U.S. forces were out of South Vietnam before making their assault against the South, one reason that has never been put forward is vengeance. A ruthless vengeance against the people of the South who hadn’t yet been beaten or enslaved, people who were trying to construct a viable democracy, and a people who had asked the greatest democracy on Earth for assistance and we answered the call. It was a vengeance that was consummated two years later when 185,000 people died in re-education camps, the 65,000 executed outside of these camps, and the 250,000 who died in the ocean trying to escape the horrors imposed on their country.
There has been no clamor for justice, no United Nations condemnations, no war trials - the sound of silence is deafening.
Andrew Finlayson (2014). Rice Paddy Recon: A Marine Officer’s Second Tour in Vietnam, 1968-1970. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.