Polei Kleng is the name of a hill, 22km northwest of Kontum, the further most city in the central highlands of south Vietnam. In June 1966, US Special Forces built a CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group) camp on the hill top and named it Polei Kleng (A-241). The Vietnamese called it Le Khanh This camp functioned as a blockage to stop the enemy expansion and pressure into the city of Kontum. On the 31st of August 1970, the camp was transferred and converted to the 62nd Border Ranger battalion and placed under the command of the ARVN Ranger High Command.
During the Easter Offensive, the NVA launched a massive attack, crossing the three-border (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) area, destroying the RVN 22nd division and captured the town Tan Canh, Dakto. The Airborne defensive line around the hills in the southwest of Tan Canh collapsed. Camp Le Khanh was the last resistance outpost against the advancing NVA forces into the city of Kontum, therefore the communists must flatten the camp at all costs.
Within one week, the NVA bombarded thousands of 82mm, 122mm shells into the camp. On the 7th of May, they increased the level of bombardment from 8:00pm until midnight, then attacked from the eastern flank. The rangers held their positions, pushing back many waves of attacks. Until 6:00am, the communists stopped their attack for regrouping, leaving more than 300 dead around the defensive perimeter of the CIDG camp.
An hour later, after realigning their forces, the NVA mounted a new attack with a shower of artillery shells, then 20 T-54 tanks led the way for the infantry assault. Even exhausted from fighting continuously for many hours, the rangers prepared with M-72 rocket launchers and waited. They knocked out five T-54 tanks with the ARVN artillery close support, again the enemy had to retreat temporarily. According to captured documents, the communists selected camp Le Khanh for the commemoration of the victory at Dien Bien Phu where they defeated the French in 1954.
Until the 20th day of the fight, the rangers of the 62nd lived under ground and in the trenches to avoid enemy bombardments. From this time, the hill top of Polei Kleng and the surrounding hills were no longer a beautiful area with the artistic scenario of the highlands. Camp Le Khanh was pounded by NVA artillery into fragments, the ammunition storage got hit and burned, the Tactical Operation Center (TOC) collapsed. Col. Nguyen Van Duong commander of the Rangers in MR-II worried for the fate of the 62nd border Ranger battalion.
- Can you men hang on ?
- We are still fighting, Maj. Buu Chuyen, the battalion commander replied.
In reality, the situation was critical, the 62nd Ranger and camp Le Khanh could have been overrun at anytime. US jets was called in to support the extraction of the American advisory team. From that moment, the Rangers knew that they had to stand on their own feet ... The burden was much heavier than it has been ... There were about 300 Montagnard women and children in the camp.
The 62nd continued to fight, the lightly wounded men returned to their positions. Women also carried guns, and helped in guarding, distributing ammunition and medication ... At night, the flares lighten the sky over Camp Le Khanh. On the ground, it was devastation, the atmosphere of death. The smell of the decomposed corpses mixed with the smell of gun smoke increased the horror of the scene.
After the 20th day, the situation became worse, and the fate of the battalion was sealed. There were not any other alternative to save the defenders, the high command of MR-II allowed the Rangers of camp Le-Khanh to decide their own destiny. The communication with outsiders became more difficult, most bunkers with antena-292 (umbrella) got hit by SKZ-57, 75mm, fired directly from communists captured hills surrounding Le-Khanh. On the 25th day, the Commander Maj. Buu Chuyen conferred with the executive officer Capt. Phan Thai Binh and decided to retreat. They did not want to become POWs, eventhough they knew for sure that death was waiting for the men of the 62nd just outside the barb wires.
The Rangers quietly prepare for the last fight with their families members. At 4:00am, mixed in the bombardment of the enemy, the rangers used bangalores to blow away the defensive barb wires outside bunker numbered 13 then moved out into the darkness of the night. Lt. Kchong, the Montagnard led the 1st company moved out first, then the group of Maj. Chuyen and his commanding post (CP) followed, this group went to the east. Capt. Binh with the remaining Rangers, took the women and children out last and headed north. The split up to avoid casualties in case the enemy caught them on the evacuation.
Meanwhile, observation airplane Bird-Dog L-19 which covered the sky of Le-Khanh still made contact with the ground forces.
- Nam-Binh (code name of Capt. Binh)! Where are you ?
- I just got out ...
- Their tanks were inside the camp... crowded like ants !
- Drop the bombs on them quickly!
- Understand! Will see!
A squadron of jets was called in to bomb the NVA troops and their tanks inside camp Le Khanh. The communists thought that they already crushed the 62nd battalion. This time camp Le-Khanh was a sea of fire, but the Rangers lost contact with the L-19. It got hit by a SA-7 (portable personnel heat seeking) missile. A white parachute blossomed in the sky.
They walked about five kilometers and because of the women and children, their movement was slow. The enemy was on their tail, everyone tried harder to keep up with the group. Only two more kilometers away, they would reach the Po-Ko river (Dak Poko, the Montagnard in Kontum province called river Dak). Crossing the river meant survivival, the friendly units and the commanders including Col. Duong, commander of the rangers in MR-II were waiting anxiously on the other bank.
There were sounds of gun fire exchanged in the direction of Maj. Chuyen. Captain Binh held the hand set (combinet) of the radio PRC-25.
- Are you OK?
- They surrounded us!
- Do you need help?
- No! Keep moving your way! Do it quickly!
Those were the last words which the two top men of the battalion exchanged ... Now the turn of Capt. Binh and his group, they were surrounded, the enemy gun fired from everywhere. Everyone must keep moving if they want to live, Capt. Binh directed his men to return fire and continued to move with their backs toward the bank of the Po Ko river ... they must leave their fallen or wounded comrades behind ... the Rangers still had to care for the children and women.
At the river’s bank, the water leveled just above the mouth in the dry season. Capt. Binh and the remaining Rangers fanned out along the river edge to hold off the enemy to allow women to carry children and wounded soldiers across the river first. Stopped by the valiant Rangers, the communists fired their 82mm mortars on the stream where people were trying to cross. Many people were killed from this shelling. The Po-Ko river stained with blood ... Action were still going on at the bank,when a Montagnard woman with a baby attached was killed by a bullet and the baby still clinked to his death mother and sucking. Capt. Binh directed one Ranger to cut off the baby sack from the mother then took him to the other bank first.
Reaching the other bank, Capt. Binh was embraced by Col. Duong. When the battalion split there were more than 300 people including women and children, only 97 successfully arrived at the other bank of the Po-Ko river. The others were killed, captured or got lost in the jungle. Surviving women, children and wounded soldiers were taken back to the city of Kontum. Capt. Binh and his Rangers requested to stay and wait for the returning comrades at the river’s bank.
The enemy artillery still shelled across the river, the determined rangers stretched out along the bank and waited for the lost Rangers. Three dayspassed, but there was nothing new ... sadness, hopelessness, the night came, it was cold and foggy and formed a layer above the surface of the river ... There were noises from the river ... one, two, three then four men in black appeared then walked directly toward the rangers position. Everyone held their breaths, with guns ready they asked softly.
- Who ?
Everyone left their hiding places ran to the four men and embraced them even though their uniforms were very wet. Those four were in the group of Maj. Chuyen, they said that the major was wounded and captured. When they led him to their headquarters, Major Chuyen refused their orders, so they killed him.
The story of the 62nd Ranger battalion and camp Le Khanh ended here. After April 30th 1975, Capt. Phan Thai Binh was sent to labor camp in North Vietnam for 11 years. He and his family were brought to the US in October 1993, now living in Los Angeles. He brought with him an old stained picture that he had hid, a memory of the day he was decorated for his valor at the headquarters of the II-Corps ARVN / MR-II in Pleiku.
By the end of 1973, the 62nd combined with the 95th (Ben Het CIDG camp), and the 88th (Dak Pek CIDG camp) to form the 22nd Rangers Group. This group was the main defensive force of Kontum province (the further most province) in the central highland. On the faithful Sunday 16th of March 1975, the 22nd group was the last regular unit which moved out of the province to rejoin other *Rangers group in Pleiku for the fateful journey which began the fall of south Vietnam.
*700 of the 7,000 Rangers survived, as well as 20,000 of the 60,000 ARVN and 100,000 of the 400,000 civilians. The horror. I believe the picture below is related to "A pregnant lady" – abandoned by her lover to face her fate
From the book: ‘Chinh Chien Dieu Linh’ by Kieu My Duyen, California, 1994
Hieu D. Vu