THE LAST BATTLE
by Commander Thong Ba Le, South Vietnamese Navy
I was sitting sadly by the wooden pier of the Naval Support Base with
sorrows coursing through my mind. The disappointed feeling like waves upon
waves undulating in my head. I felt uncomfortable with the wet uniform that stuck
to my body. It was late in the afternoon, the sunlight pierced through dark
gray clouds flowing to the far horizon. These clouds had produced a
thunderstorm and heavy rain when they passed by this remote countryside early
I kept breaking wild grasses with my fingers and threw them into the strong
current of the river filled with broken lotus flowers and seaweed flowing to
the sea. I did not notice that my hand started bleeding caused by the sharp
edges of the grass. I did not even feel any pain because my heart was tormented
by more agonizing situations that was happening to my country. I was
disappointed in myself as a warrior and in the fact that I could not do any
better to save my country from falling apart.
I suffered a great deal by the circumstances around me, my eyes blurred with
tears running down my cheeks. I hated everything that created or caused the
problem and felt mentally weak. The whole thing could not be saved and was
uncontrollable. I knew the collapse of this nation was not the fault of the
patriots who vowed to defend it until they died. This morning I knelt in front
of the flagpole at the Rung Sat Special Tactical Zone, among other soldiers
pledging their oath.
The bad news from the frontier of the northern part of central Vietnam were
telling stories of the chagrined Commanding officers who fled their units
before the advancement of the enemy. Many regiments, battalions of Army, Marine
Corps, and Airborne were self-disengaged because their leaders were cowardly
running away before the Communists’ attack.
I exhaled sadly and avoided thinking about my children who were left behind
in Hue city when the evacuation occurred over a month ago. Until now, I had no
idea if they were still alive or dead. My duty as a senior officer did not
allow me to leave my base and go to my hometown to pick up my four children who
lived with their grand parents. Having to choose between my duty as a Naval
officer and my responsibility as a father, I had chosen the first. I was
spiritually pained as I accepted my decision as part of my honor. Because I
became a career officer to defend my country, I had set my top priority for my
job. "Country-Honor-Responsibility" was a fundamental part in the
blood that essentially nourished my life. I was proud in recognizing that
objectives in life were linked to this spiritual devotion.
The wounds from the sharp grass were still dripping blood from my fingers; I
continued to snap the wild grasses. My mind was drifting along with the muddy
current of the Nha Be River. It was 6 o’clock in the evening, I heard in the
distance, the battery sound of a 105-millimeter gun of the artillery friendly
unit located in Cat Lai area. In the river, there were all kinds of boats and
ships sailing toward Vung Tau, a coastal resort at the Soai Rap and Long Tao
As I walked toward the headquarters, a Non-commissioned officer saluted and
handed to me a message from the Vietnamese Navy headquarters. I read carefully,
signed the confidential instruction and returned it to the petty officer, then
proceeded to the rear of the Naval base.
The airplane runway located over there used to be an airfield for landing
and take off for the U.S Advisors’ Cessna type aircraft. This airfield was not
used any more since the U.S Navy transferred the base to the Vietnamese three
years ago. At the end of the runway, near some warehouses, were two helicopters
sitting lonely in the last sunrays of the day. The pilots, who flew out from
Tan Son Nhat airport when this place was under heavy artillery bombardment by
the North Vietnamese Communist, left them behind in the early morning. They
stopped by this Naval base to request replenishment and refueling then
continued their journey to the sea, perhaps flying to Con Son Island to
I came close to the fences that surrounded the base and looked at the
terrain. After reevaluating the defense system in this rear portion of the
base, I decided to send two reconnaissance platoons to ambush the enemy; one
platoon would spread out at the direction behind the civilians and one group at
the riverside. While I watched, the wind blew from the river over the plain of
wild tall grasses that created long green waves swelling to the other side of
the field. Because mines were planned in this side of the field, I was
confident that it would be costly for the enemy to attack the Naval Base from
After carefully reevaluating the defense strategy and checking all fronts, I
returned to the operation center and gave orders to the officer on duty of my
decision to send two platoons out for the ambushed mission.
It was getting dark and pigeons had returned to their nests on the roof of
the warehouses. They snuggled each other while watching sailors walking
in-groups below. Suddenly there were sounds of artillery echoing from Cat Lai.
It was not the sound of friendly forces shooting 105-millimeters guns. Instead,
it was the 122-millimeters rockets from the enemy that I heard so many times
while commanding units at the DMZ. Almost every night I had to seek cover in
the bunker when the Communists bombarded my base with this type of rocket. Then
from the direction of Cat Lai Naval Base, I saw fire illuminating up a corner
of the horizon and more and more gunshots were heard from the distance. I knew
that the Naval base would soon be under heavy attack by the enemy.
I quickly left the operation center and ran to the pier. When I got there, I
saw many gunboats of the River Assault Group being deployed in the river toward
Cat Lai. Farther in that direction, there were rubber boats teaming to my base
with Navy personnel onboard. I recognized that they were UDT soldiers from the
Seal Force. I waved to Commander H. whom I knew very well. We fought side by
side in the northern front some years ago. We hugged each other when the boat
reached alongside the pier. It was too long not to see a comrade-at-arms. My
friend told me of the bad situation in Cat Lai and predicted that the defense
of Naval base might collapse in a matter of an hour.
After discussing and exchanging news about the whole figure of the battle,
Commander H. requested refueling for his boats so his troop could have enough
gasoline to reach Vung Tau. We shook hands firmly, Commander H. was so
emotional when saying good-bye and good luck to me, and H. kept waving and
looking back until the boat turned the curve of Long Tao River. My friend went
to sea and I stayed to continue defending my post.
I fell so heartbroken to see my friend leaving in such hurry. I talked to
himself: "Perhaps this is the last time we see each other, wasn’t it? My
friend, you have your belief and your own reason to leave, I do too. My
situation and my idealism of "never give up the ship" is my reason.
Besides, we have not fought yet, we ought to fight and fight to the last drop
of blood. It was too sad, wasn’t it, my friend?
There was over a million good soldiers, Navy, Army, and Air force who had
fought the war fiercely and bravely all over the Motherland of Vietnam. Now,
because of a few bad leaders who were cowardly and selfish, afraid of being
killed, the power and the will to fight of the whole armed forces soon were
disengaged before the attack of enemies.
It was too sad, oh my Vietnam! Oh, Spirit of my Country! Oh all the Soul of
the Ancestors and Heroes!
I wanted very much to end my life, being overwhelmed with the feeling of
shame of losing this battle. However, I contemplated that to die at this moment
was to run away from my responsibility, instead of continuing to fight until I
could no longer do so. Then if I died, I would be pleased and proud of having
fulfilled my duty with the ancestors whom I hoped to see in the other world.
The noisy sound from the headquarters brought me back from my thoughts. I
hurried back to the flagpole area and gave the order to gather all personnel so
I could inform them of the current situation. I made the announcement that
whoever wished to accompany the Vietnamese Navy convoy to sail to sea were
allowed to go immediately. The rest, who decided to stay and fight with me,
would be sent to the defensive posts. I then dismissed my troop and was
informed that only about one third of my sailors requested to leave. Two thirds
had volunteered to continue to fight with their Commanding officer. I was so
proud of these soldiers. I also ordered the release of all sailors who were
being held in the military prison. I armed them so they could join their
comrades-at-arms in defending their base.
After I finished setting up the General Quarters, I was notified that the
Vietnamese Navy Fleet was about to pass by the Naval Base, sailing in the
direction of Vung Tau. I stood on the pier, watching small ships and big ships
parading in front of me. There were hundreds of people on board, military
personnel and civilians shouldered side by side from the stern to the bow,
crowding on upper decks and lower decks.
I felt pain in my stomach, so agonizing as though my guts were being cut out
by a sharp knife; my intestines were being twisted up by an invisible rope. I stood quietly in the dark, witnessing the disappearance of the last
ship in the convoy of South Vietnamese Navy Fleet. I tried to grasp my
belief that was fading inside my soul, but it seemed hopeless. It was true that
we were going to lose the fight, not in the battlefield but the enemy had won
because our defense was self-disengaged. Then I remembered of my duty and
responsibility to be ready for the coming task that I must face. I took a deep
breath and walked sadly and slowly back to the operation center.
I continued to communicate with friendly regional forces to coordinate the
defense of the Rung Sat Special Zone against the future attack of enemy. The
Master Chief petty officer informed me that there was a young officer to see
me. I greeted my junior officer who worked under my command in Danang a long
time ago. This young officer brought his ferrous cement junk boat from his
Coastal Junk Force to convince his Commanding officer to leave the country. I
thanked my young friend, smiled, and refused. We talked a little more then
said goodbye. I wished the young officer well and walked him to the boat at the
pier. The officer waved as his junk boat glided away to join his unit that was
evacuating on Soai Rap River.
The sky was filled with bright stars above, the crescent moon hung in the
southern part of the dark sky, streaming pale beams from the universe. The
end-of-spring wind from the river softly blew the dark mane of a 34-year-old
man who looked older than his age. I had grown up through the war, witnessing
and engaging in many historical events of my country, especially in the past
few months. I was the witness of the changes of life in people who had reversed
their belief to the point that I could not imagine and made me wonder so much
of the perspective in life.
When I arrived at the operation center, I was informed that it was calm on
all fronts and the Regional force had three battalions scattering around Rung
Sat Special Tactical zone. They had been under enemy rocket attack but without
any serious damage. Based on my experience, I knew that the Communist would
launch their attack after midnight and continue until 6 o’clock in the morning.
They would have 6 hours to fight before dawn.
As I predicted, it was about 11:45 PM when I heard the gunshots come closer
from the direction of the Nha Be fuel depots. Then before a new day began, a
122-millimeter rocket, then a second, a thirdÖ started falling everywhere and
exploded when they hit targets in the base. The village located just outside of
the Naval Base was hit and burned in vigorous flames. Two rockets fell onto two
guarded posts and destroyed them. The enemy continued bombarding important
locations of the base with rocket after rocket damaging the two helicopters,
destroying the ammunition storage, the airfield runway, and warehouses.
I led a platoon of sailors to re-enforce the defense of the rear front. We
were running under the roar of rockets that were falling around. One sailor,
just released from the prison, took off his helmet and handed it to his
bareheaded Commanding officer. I thanked him but refused to take it. We
continued on their route to the defended post near the fence. When we heard the
terrible noise of rockets falling, we ducked on the ground, waited, then got up
on our feet and ran again. From time to time, there were explosions so close
that dirt and rocks covered our faces and heads. Normally it took about 10
minutes to travel from the operation center to this post; now it seemed like
forever. Twenty minutes had passed but we had not yet reached the fence.
Finally, we arrived at the post. This was a strong defended post with heavy
armed artillery such as 12.7 millimeters machine guns, M79 grenade launchers,
and communication equipment. From here, I could observe the whole area behind
the base and toward the civilian village. I assessed and evaluated the
situation here then decided to evacuate lightly injured personnel to the base
The other posts reported the damage; beside the destruction caused by enemy
rockets to warehouses, ammunition storage, only a few personnel were lightly
injured, no fatal casualties were reported so far. The enemy only bombarded off
and on and it seemed that they had not begun to launch ground attack. Perhaps
they were waiting to regroup before sending their massive offensive attack or
maybe they just wanted to scare the defender by bombarding them with rockets
and destroying everything in the base as they did with other units in the
Center of Vietnam. I predicted that the enemy would continue bombarding even
heavier until daybreak.
I radioed to the operation center and was notified by my officers that all
units located in the Rung Sat Special Tactical Zone were also under enemy
attack either by rockets or by ground forces. Some units suffered heavy
casualties. One front was over-run and was trying to open an escape route
toward the riverside. Enemy units, who were now moving along the riverbank and
advancing to Nha Be fuel depot, occupied the Cat Lai Naval Base. Gunboats of
the River Assault Group were shooting to stop the enemy with their naval
firepower. There were a few boats being hit by B40, the Russian rocket
launcher, and under fire.
I decided to return to the Control and Command center with some sailors.
While running across the airfield, at about 2 o’clock in the morning of April
30, 1975, I was surrounded by all kinds of gunshots and artillery sound. With
explosions so loud, they reminded me of the 1968 Tet offensive event in Hue
when I had to hide under ground for almost 28 days in the enemy controlled
sector of the city.
There were rockets falling around me while my mind was occupied with the
previous experiences. The rockets fell and destroyed camps, houses and caused
large fires everywhere. The fire engine and damaged control personnel were
trying to extinguish as much as they could under the danger of being killed by
falling rockets from the sky. Then at about 3 AM, there were rounds of rockets,
one after another, precisely hitting important targets of my Naval Base as
though being guided by the unknown internal artillery controller.
I knew that the enemy had increased its pressure upon my defense. The left
front reported being hit. They requested me to evacuate and withdraw. I
complied with their request, but suddenly, all power was cut off. Lights went
out, cable radios were interrupted, and communications between me and the units
were terminated. Realizing that rockets had just destroyed the main generator
house, I called all units from PRC-25 and ordered all hands to pull back and
withdraw aboard boats that were ready at the pier to go out off shore. I then
accompanied my staff members who carried maps and encoded materials and got
aboard the Command and Control armed gunboat of the River Amphibious Group.
The withdrawal to the boats under enemy gunfire and the embarking lasted
about an hour without incident. My troupe then joined the naval units of the
River Assault Group and deployed along the river to fight back enemy who were
shooting from Thanh Tuy Ha side. Gunshots from big and small weapons were so
noisy in the darkness of a cool night. Tracer bullets drew multiple tracks in
all directions then exploded when they hit the unknown targets on both shores
of Nha Be River. Flares illuminated the sky like fireworks displayed in an
official national holiday.
The sound from communicating radios mixing with the noisy gunshots, the
yelling of crews of boats being hit by bullets had created a scene of war like
one seen in a movie. The enemy was surprised to meet such a strong defense from
the small units of