Death of a Headquarters

Killing the Command and Staff of the 2nd NVA Division

The Que Son Valley

5 December 1967



       In late November 1967, elements of the 196th Brigade and the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division operated forty kilometers south of Da Nang in a contested area known as the Que Son and Hiep Duc Valleys.  U.S. units had several contacts with elements of the 2nd NVA Division that month, though by the end of November, the NVA appeared to have withdrawn into the hills.  Colonel Hubert S. Campbell had just taken command of 3rd Brigade and made a point of trying to find the NVA with his intelligence officer, Major Earle Spry.  


       His reconnaissance element, Bravo Troop, 1/9th Cavalry searched for evidence of the NVA every day.  Captured documents and Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) indicated the division had based itself in the western hills of Que Son.  A CIA assessment even identified this area as a traditional NVA base, though Bravo Troop was unable to locate much evidence.[1]  Some grew concerned the trail had run cold.  


       U.S. intelligence knew the Commander of the 2nd NVA Division only by his alias, Colonel “Le Thach.”  His true name was Le Huu Tru, and he took command of the division in the summer of 1967.  The forty-five-year-old NVA officer enjoyed playing the guitar and Vietnamese chess with his subordinates during brief periods of rest.  He was often seen matching wits over the game with his Executive Officer, Senior Colonel Bao.  


      Colonel Tru was busy finishing preparations for a large operation in the valleys set to begin at the start of January 1968.  He planned to employ his division in its entirety, which was rare.  The 3rd and 21st NVA Regiments would operate in the Que Son Valley to attack the 2/12th Cavalry and elements of the 5/7th Cavalry.  His main objectives were an American base in the western valley called LZ Ross.  He would launch a secondary attack against a smaller, remote base called LZ Leslie.  His remaining maneuver unit, the 1st VC Regiment, would attack elements of the 196th Brigade in the Hiep Duc Valley.  These strikes would help set conditions for the upcoming Tet Offensive at the end of January.  


     Tru planned to stay hidden until he attacked.  A Brigade Scout named Warrant Officer Larry Brown had other ideas.  Brown was an experienced reconnaissance pilot in Bravo Troop, 1/9th Cavalry.  He questioned whether the division was hiding in the western hills, largely because several missions at the end of November revealed nothing.  In the late afternoon of 4 December 1967, he decided to follow his instincts and search a collection of hills just north of LZ Ross.  He scrutinized the ridge from his cockpit and was surprised to discover a clue: a black strand of communications wire hidden in the scrub brush.  


     Brown’s heart jumped for a second.  The wire was a strong indicator of an NVA headquarters.  He followed the thin black wire with his eyes as it wound through the hills and then down into the valley floor.  The onset of darkness forced him to stop his search early, though Larry Brown vowed to return the next day.   


     Colonel Tru and his staff had gathered to attend a senior leader planning meeting on that ridge the following day.  They remained unaware of Mr. Brown’s interest in their base area that afternoon.  They may have discounted his flight as a routine mission and made no attempt to withdraw or postpone their planning meeting. 


     The following morning, thirty Commanders and staff officers from the 2nd NVA Division and its regiments assembled on top of a hill called Nui Dong Mong.   The day was pleasant, with cool December temperatures, blue skies and a slight wind.  Only the Commander of the 1st VC Regiment was absent.  Colonel Tru had excused Lieutenant Colonel Chon and his Political Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Bui Duc Tung so they could coordinated another operation. 


      Once the group assembled that fateful morning on 5 December, the senior NVA officers outlined their plans for their upcoming attack against LZ Ross and LZ Leslie.  The Division Operations Officer, Major Tham, used a captured American map to review the attack plan.  Symbols on his map graphically indicated the placement of anti-aircraft teams, regimental bases, the movement of units and potential American LZs to be ambushed.  


     Collectively, the officers reviewed a sketch of LZ Ross, which identified the defenses and key parts of the base.  We can imagine senior officers standing together on the hilltop, looking out into the valley floor below.  They could easily see LZ Ross and the surrounding fields from their hilltop view.    


     That morning, Warrant Officer Larry Brown began another reconnaissance flight with the Troop’s Commander, Major George Burrows.  They lifted off from their base at LZ Parazzo accompanied by a second aircraft, piloted by Captain Thomas.  Unknown to them, their reconnaissance mission that day would alter the course of the fighting in the valley.


      The two reconnaissance helicopters dutifully flew to the western mountains to satisfy the Brigade’s intelligence staff at LZ Baldy.  Their search found nothing that morning and they soon felt frustrated.  When they started to return to base, Larry Brown decided to take another look at the communications wire he had found in the hills north of LZ Ross.  Major Burrows agreed.  There was just enough daylight left. 


      As they approached the ridge in the late afternoon, the pilots were shocked to see Colonel Tru’s large group assembled in a hilltop field.  The NVA officers had just completed their meeting when they heard the oncoming helicopters approach at a high rate of speed.  Colonel Tru and his Commanders glanced upward in shock.  Bravo Troop flew at fifty knots, ten feet above the trees and was on top of the officers before they could react.  After a few seconds that seemed like hours, some NVA bolted from the field to find cover.  Others attempted to fire at the helicopters but they were no match for the Huey’s firepower.


      The pilots fired every weapon in their arsenal and Major Burrows and Captain Thomas made several passes with their guns.  Tracers rained down from the sky and ricocheted off trees and stones.   Bullets kicked up dirt as NVA fell where they stood.  Colonel Tru was unable to escape.  Several rounds struck him and he fell next to a collection of other officers. There, on a small field on top of Nui Dong Mong, Colonel Le Huu Tru took his last breath.  

 

      More gunships raced to the scene and in the melee, and few NVA escaped.  After ten minutes, the firefight was over except for small pockets of resistance.  Burrows called in a team of Cavalry scouts to search the dead for documents.  The troops landed and killed the last pockets of resistance.  By 1745 hours, seventeen  NVA lay dead on the field.  Pistol belts, compasses, maps and binoculars revealed the casualties as senior NVA officers.


     Bravo Troop secured the division planning map and rifled through the pockets of a Regimental Commander.  They found his diary and notes.  Collectively, they secured almost twenty pounds of documents, notebooks and maps from the division planning meeting.  


      That evening in his office at LZ Baldy, Major Spry sifted through the documents and soon realized the value of the vast haul of papers piled on his desk.  He called the Intelligence Officer for the 2/12th Cavalry to come to LZ Baldy.   


      When Captain Charles Krohn entered his office he could see Spry had been at work for several hours.  Spry looked up and said excitedly, “I think we killed the commander of the 3rd NVA Regiment!  I don’t know who the other guy is yet, but he was carrying a sketch that looks an awful lot like LZ Ross.”[2]


      Talk of a possible attack against his battalion’s bases naturally peaked Krohn’s concern, though he had to wait until the Brigade S2 finished reading through the remaining documents.  Spry continued to work.   He found the papers to be a Rosetta Stone of NVA codewords and plans.  In a 200-page handwritten notebook of the 3rd NVA Regiment Commander, Major Spry found Colonel Tru’s divisional operations order, with lists of villages, coded terrain features and rice caches.  


     Some documents hinted of a future attack around Da Nang, which vaguely referenced the division’s future operation during Tet.  Most of the papers centered on the planned attack in the Que Son and Hiep Duc Valleys.  This operation included an attack on the Quang Tin Province capital of Tam Ky where two local VC battalions, the 70th and 72nd would strike the city during Tet. 


      Captain Krohn returned to LZ Baldy the following day, and found Major Spry at his desk, looking tired from an all-nighter. 


     “Only once in a war do you find something like this,” Spry said through a modest a grin, greeting Krohn with excitement mixed with exhaustion. 


     “I haven’t translated everything yet, but in a nutshell we have here the plans for an attack on LZ Ross!”[3] 


     The two intelligence officers agreed a heavy NVA attack was due, though they could not determine the timing.  The initiation could not be too far away, however.  NVA leaders went to great lengths to prepare the battlefield.  Each echelon from the squad level up to division conducted its own preparations and reconnaissance, and this process began weeks or even months before an attack.  The last stage of preparations took place when the senior staff and commanders met to discuss the operation as they had done on 5 December.   The attack would almost certainly execute as planned despite the compromise of the operation, Spry asserted.


     “…One thing’s for sure,” Major Spry warned, “once they plan an attack, it’s only a question of time until they pull it off.  It could be tonight or it could be months from now.  Between us, I’d guess around the 23rd of December.”[4] 


      Major Spry was confident there would be one primary indicator the attack was about to take place.  Most units in the 2nd NVA Division would go on radio silence when they disassembled their communications systems to move closer to their objectives.[5]  They would probably need about three days to move and reassemble their antennas and radios.  


      “At some point the NVA will stop talking on their radios.  The key indicator is the radio silence,” Major Spry emphasized, “the radio silence.”[6]


      It was clear Bravo Troop had killed several key leaders, though recently, evidence has emerged showing the full impact of the strike on 5 December.  Bravo Troop had in fact killed almost all the senior leaders in the division. Colonel Le Huu Tru, his Operations Officer, Major Tham and the Regimental Commanders for the 3rd and 21st NVA Regiments were all dead.  Only the Commander of the 1st VC Regiment survived as the remaining senior officer in the 2nd NVA Division.  The force was leaderless and their plans were compromised just two months prior to the Tet Offensive.    


     The Commander of Hanoi’s Military Region 5, General Chu Huy Man, had a serious decision to make.  He knew the pre-Tet attack plan for the 2nd NVA Division was compromised, though he had little choice but to go forward with the operation.  The division played a key role in a planned attack on Da Nang during Tet.  The division’s operations in the Que Son and Hiep Duc Valleys were an important part in setting conditions for the coming offensive.[7] 


     General Man decided to go forward with the operation.  He sent his Chief of Staff, Colonel Cuong to Que Son to take command of the division.  Cuong had just three weeks to build his officer corps, continue is operational planning and strike LZ Ross and LZ Leslie on 3 January 1968.  


     With the NVA plan in hand, the Americans would be ready.  Only time would tell whether Cuong could attack successfully and then secretly maneuver toward Da Nang in time for Tet.  Any success for the NVA’s future operations in Quang Nam Province rested upon this attack.
 

For further details on NVA and VC preparations for the Tet Offensive in Da Nang and Quang Nam Province, see the upcoming book, Southern Wind, The Secret Deception Before Tet by COL Thomas F. Pike.  Blogs will be posted on his webpage at www.tfpike.com.


© 2019 Thomas F. Pike.  All rights reserved, to include photographs and maps.



 [1] Central Intelligence Agency Memorandum, 2 November 1967.
[2] For a detailed account of the 2/12th Cavalry in the Que Son Valley and Hue City, see The Lost Battalion by Charles Krohn.  This account is based on his book and interviews with Mr. Krohn. 
[3] Krohn, The Lost Battalion, p.15.
[4] Krohn, 16; and Earle Spry phone interview, 23 January 2001.  Spry was probably basing his assessment on papers captured from the Operations Officer for the 2nd NVA Division, Major Nguyen Huong Tham.  Major Tham had designated 18-19 December 1967 as the period for regimental combat preparations.  Doctrinally, the attack, could have taken place any time thereafter.
[5] Earle Spry, phone interview, 23 January 2001.  Intelligence at III MAF agreed with this basic assessment, according to III MAF documents.
[6] Spry interview.
[7]  Coincidently, the 1/9th Cavalry continued to terrorized Man’s forces throughout the month.  The day after Tru was killed, A Troop, 1/9th Cavalry discovered a regimental headquarters of the 3rd NVA Division on the Bong Son Plains.  The 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division immediately struck the 22nd NVA Regiment and destroyed almost two battalions leaving the regiment too weak to participate in the Tet Offensive in Binh Dinh Province.  Two weeks later, C Troop discovered a battalion Command Post for a different regiment in the 3rd NVA Division.  U.S. forces then attacked and killed the Commander of the 2nd NVA Regiment.  Captured documents indicate the engagement may have resulted in the death of the 2nd NVA Regiment Commander near Phu My.  Both units were part of the 3rd NVA Division.  The 1st Cavalry Division Operations Report ending 31 January 1968 notes several of the successes of the 1/9th Cavalry.  The success in the Que Son Valley and the death of Major Toan are not even mentioned, though this is probably because the 3rd Brigade was attached to the Americal Division at the time.




NVA General Chu Huy Man, Commander of Hanoi's Military Region 5.  Man decided to continue operations despite knowing U.S. forces had captured the attack plans of the 2nd NVA Division in December 1967.

Declassified satellite imagery of LZ Ross in the Que Son Valley, south of Da Nang.  The 2nd NVA Division attacked this base on 3 January 1968, knowing their plan was compromised.  Photo copyright Thomas F. Pike 2019.

B Troop, 1/9th Cavalry caught senior NVA leaders conducting a planning meeting in these hills north of LZ Ross on 5 December 1967.  This resulted in the deaths of most of the senior officers in the 2nd NVA Division; view from (former) LZ Ross in 2016.   Photo copyright Thomas F. Pike 2019.

Completing the Narrative on Vietnam(SM).   Thomas F. Pike