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 today.

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 River mouth.

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 regroup.

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 this direction.

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 hospital.

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