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XUAN LOC: The Meatgrinder Battle of the Vietnam War, 1975
It was the final curtain of a very long standing play spanning 30 years. Nobody would have ever guessed that it would end at Xuan Loc, let alone with the South Vietnamese 18th Division, known to be an unreliable unit. Yet, it was here at the small town that the division stood and the world watched in amazement the defiant, heroic last stand from April 9 to 21. The NVA really had not planned for such a battle, they too, were surprised for their Spring Offensive was steamrolling everywhere and now focusing on Saigon with huge forces. For the NVA 4th Corps with three divisions, they had been meeting little resistance as they traveled down Highway 1 and Highway 20. The ARVN 18th had already repulsed the NVA in mid-March but now had fallen back into their defensive positions in and around Xuan Loc. Then the miracle began. Xuan Loc was important to the NVA, vital to the ARVN. For the NVA, the main road to Bien Hoa and Saigon went through the town and they wanted to take the key airbase at Bien Hoa. For the ARVN, they were blocking the way and desperately needed a victory to maintain troop cohesion. The NVA chose to engage and use the battle as a “meatgrinder” to wear down the last ARVN blocking force. The ARVN soldiers were brilliantly defiant. It became a prideful battle for them and the NVA had to commit 40,000 men to take on a single division that simply refused to budge. ARVN air support was amazing and dropped daisy cutter and CBUs causing heavy NVA casualties in one swoop. The town changed hands many times. Eventually, numbers prevailed as losses mounted. By the 21st, the 18th Division had withdrawn safely to defend the Bien Hoa airbase.
In more detail........
It all began April 9th, when NVA Infantry and tanks were preceded by an artillery bombardment of about 4,000 rounds, one of the heaviest in the war. With tanks firing down the streets, hand-to-hand fighting developed in a fierce battle that lasted until dusk. By that time, the 43d ARVN Infantry had driven most of the shattered enemy force from the town, and the 52d ARVN Infantry base on Route 20 was still in friendly hands. The enemy resumed the attack the next day, this time committing the 165th Regiment of the 7th NVA Division along with regiments from the 6th and 341st NVA Divisions. Again the attack failed.
By the 12th, NVA losses had been at least 800 killed, 5 captured, 300 weapons captured, and 11 T-54 tanks destroyed. The small town of barely 5,000 lay in total ruin, Most of the locals had long vanished. Some say it was a Vietnam "Stalingrad" on a small scale. In Saigon, its leaders continued to wait, wait for the American supplies and more importantly, their B-52s to raze the area. Demolish the enemy.
By the 14th, Xuan Loc was held by the entire ARVN 18th Division, 1st Airborne Brigade, three Ranger battalions and two tank task forces. Communist losses were well over 1200 men, 30 T-55 tanks and over 200 weapons had been captured including a 37mm gun, ten mortars, several recoilless guns and 25 B-40 grenade launchers. The South Vietnamese Air Force had flown two resupply missions into the besieged town; on 12 April, CH-47 helicopters brought in 93 tons of artillery ammunition and on the 13th, 100 tons. The VNAF reactivated some A1-E fighter-bombers and used a modified C-130 transport to drop 15,000-pound bombs (flown in by the U.S. Air Force) on enemy positions. These airplanes flew against some of the most intense antiaircraft fire of the war.
Miles away, in Saigon, frantic activity prepared for the expected worse, despite the events at Xuan Loc. The inner defenses of Saigon were manned by territorials and a few regular formations, some of which had been recently reconstituted. Three Ranger groups were on the western approaches. The new 8th Ranger Group had its 1,600-man force near Phu Lam on the edge of Saigon where Route 4 enters the city from the Mekong Delta. Southwest of Phu Lam on Route 4 near Binh Chanh was the 6th Ranger Group, recently reorganized with about 2,600 men. North of the city was the newly organized 9th Ranger Group with about 1,900 men protecting Hoc Mon District only five kilometers north of Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Each group had four 105-mm. howitzers but little fire-direction equipment, and all were short of radios and machine guns.
After a week of resisting all NVA attacks, the 18th Division and others were ordered to start a withdrawal from the town to Trang Bom and Bien Hoa. This was because But the NVA force was growing rapidly. Elements of five NVA divisions were now in Long An and southwestern Hau Nghia: the 3d, 5th, 8th, and 9th Infantry Divisions and the 27th Sapper Division. Additionally, the 262d Antiaircraft Regiment and the 71st Antiaircraft Brigade had batteries near the Long An-Hau Nghia boundary.
As the ARVN troops pulled back from Xuan Loc, much material was left, the armor task forces had lost half of its tanks and had no replacements. The 15th and 18th Armored Cavalry Squadrons had only six APC carriers. The 22nd Armor still possessed 25 M-48 tanks.
NVA 130-mm. gun batteries were seen in the jungles north of Route 1, also moving toward Bien Hoa and on April 15th and 16th, the air base was hit by 122-mm. rockets damaging 6 F-5s and 14 A-37s. By the 20th, the huge airbase at Tan Son Nhut was evacuated as enemy troops approached and pounded its runways.
Vietnam fell to the Communists by the end of the week, ending American involvement after 15 years of skirmishes and battles.