The Battle of An Khe Pass (1972) was a Pyrrhic victory. The South Korean forces’ conduct in this battle neither frustrated the enemy’s purpose nor minimized Korean sacrifices; and the combination of the Korean’s passive attitude and the pressure to act quickly resulted in poor performance and heavy casualties. This battle revealed the Korean forces’ inherent problems and heightened their pre-existing frictions with the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces during the Vietnamization period (1969–1973). Yet, the result of the battle created the necessary circumstances to justify the Koreans’ further presence in Vietnam. Based on extensive research of various U.S. and South Korean archives, this article explores the Battle of An Khe Pass in the context of the Vietnamization phase of the Vietnam War.
This is a sanctuary for the Korean crusaders of liberty who through a bloody battle rose triumphantly and shall be permanently commemorated here for their efforts and dedication. In April 1972, when South Vietnam was in a precarious situation amidst the all-out offensive attack from the North Vietnamese Army, the Tiger Division of the Republic of Korea Forces in Vietnam destroyed the core of the enemy’s 12th Regiment of the 3rd Division. They won an admirable victory that shall be remarkably remembered forever in the history of the Vietnam War. … People of both Korea and Vietnam should not forget the tremendous sacrifices of numerous young Korean soldiers who gave their valuable lives to win the bloody battle at An Khe Pass. Today we erect this Victory Monument in the great name of the Tiger Division of ROKFV as a dedication to the war heroes who led the victorious operation.2
South Korea glorified this battle as a major achievement. However, when South Vietnam fell in 1975, this monument (Image 1) was demolished. A smaller monument (Image 2), erected immediately after the battle on Hill 638, remains but is abandoned. The memory of the South Koreans’ triumph in the Battle of An Khe Pass has faded away.
The Battle of An Khe Pass took place from 11 to 26 April 1972 and was the bloodiest battle for Korean soldiers during the Vietnam War. Starting as a tiny skirmish, the battle developed into a contest for command of high ground. Koreans fought to capture a hill that the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) had fortified to interdict the main supply route of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) during North Vietnam’s 1972 Easter Offensive. After a bloody sixteen-day battle, the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) finally captured the hill, drove the PAVN from this area, and reopened the ARVN supply route. The battle resulted in enormous casualties. According to the official history of ROKforces’ participation in the Vietnam War, a total of seventy-five soldiers were killed and 222 were wounded, yet this was arguably fewer than the actual number of casualties.5
The Battle of An Khe Pass has generally been regarded as a successful operation in South Korea. Lt. Gen. Lee Se-ho, the commander of ROKFV, noted the “battle proved to the world the Koreans’ intrepidity and high-level of combat power”.6 When South Korean President Park Chung-hee invited several celebrated soldiers of the battle to the Blue House, he commented that the Battle of An Khe Pass was the most brilliant exploit in South Korea’s participation in the Vietnam War. Keeping pace with the glorification by the Korean government and its military, the Korean media promoted this battle as “the most brilliant exploit after the dispatching of troops to Vietnam”.7 Even today the ROKA commemorates the battle as a representative case of the country’s military spirit of never retreating from the battlefield. The statue of Im Dong-chun, recipient of South Korea’s highest order of military merit Taeguk for his sacrifice as a platoon leader attacking an enemy bunker in this battle, stands at the ROKA Infantry School. In 2006, ROKA named its annual prize for best platoon leaders after “Dong-chun” to commemorate his distinguished military service, sacrifice, and courage, and to perpetuate the memory of the heroism in this battle.8
However, due to the glorification of the Battle of An Khe Pass, this battle has not been seriously analysed either inside or outside of the ROK military. The Vietnam War has also become a “Forgotten War” in South Korea. Apart from the military’s perspective, this battle has been widely regarded as problematic. Most of the available veteran memoirs describe this battle as lamentable and controversial, although Korean soldiers fought bravely.9 These narratives reflect criticisms of the battle’s high casualties before the final withdrawal. Lee Jae-tae, a retired general and veteran of the Vietnam War, argued that this particular battle had many problems and he urged the military authorities to re-examine whether the battle could truly be described as a success.10 Yet, the current scholarship has been insufficient to ascertain why and how it was problematic and neglects to discover the real implications of this battle. Historian Wi Tae-son’s study was the first to examine the battle but limited his work to describing the progress of the battle and its tactical lessons. This study does not evaluate whether the battle was a success for the Korean forces.11 In his book, Trial by Fire, about the Easter Offensive, historian Dale Andrade argues that ROKA’s operations in the An Khe Pass were problematic. Based on the primary sources of U.S. military advisor John Paul Vann’s daily commander’s reports, Andrade argues that the South Korean Army did not fight well in this battle and Vann’s role was significant in encouraging passive Koreans to fight.12 Still, he does not explain why this battle became a debatable fight for ROKA. In his book about the Vietnam War, historian Park Tae-gyun briefly argues that this battle is an example of the Korean forces’ unnecessary sacrifices in the Vietnam War, but he overlooks the detailed events of the battle.13 Although some studies argue that the Battle of An Khe Pass was an unsuccessful operation, why and how this battle failed, as well as the specifics that made it the toughest and most problematic fight in South Korea’s participation in the Vietnam War, remain historically unexplored.
Based on an analysis of the South Korean military’s official historical account, individual soldiers’ memoirs and testimonies, newspapers, documents produced by ROKFV, U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), and both governments, this article explores details of the South Korean Army’s battle for An Khe Pass. By analysing why and how this battle took so long to end and caused so many casualties, this article raises the question of whether the battle was, in fact, successful. As a result, this study reveals some hidden realities of the battle for the Korean forces in Vietnam. Rather than just exploring the battle itself, this analysis also includes details about the condition of the ROK Army in their prolonged participation in the war. In this respect, this article is a case study for understanding the Korean forces’ conduct during the “Vietnamization” phase of the war. Unlike most of the U.S. and other allies’ ground troops who had left South Vietnam as a result of the U.S.’s Vietnamization policy, South Korean forces remained in South Vietnam and became involved in the Battle of An Khe Pass during the 1972 Easter Offensive. Thus, this article aims to understand how Vietnamization influenced ROK forces in Vietnam and led to the eventual consequences of this battle.
Finally, in addition to focusing on the South Korean troops themselves, this article explores how the battle demonstrated the dynamics of the Korean troops’ relationship with the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. For the South Vietnamese, the Easter Offensive was an opportunity to prove their military capabilities by repelling North Vietnam’s large-scale conventional offensive. For the Americans, this offensive offered a chance to diagnose their Vietnamization policy and see whether South Vietnam could fight well without U.S. ground troop support. In this situation, the Battle of An Khe Pass was highlighted by South Vietnamese, Americans, and South Koreans not only because it was an important action in the Easter Offensive, but also because this battle heightened pre-existing friction among the three forces.
2 “The Dilemma of ROKFV”: Dynamics of the Three Forces’ Relationship During Vietnamization
The Vietnamization policy, initiated by the Nixon administration in 1969 to end American involvement in the Vietnam War, profoundly impacted the war in South Vietnam. The U.S. engaged in peace talks with North Vietnam while pulling their troops out of Vietnam. As a result, as of March 1972 right before the Easter Offensive, all U.S. ground combat troops were withdrawn except for two brigades in Military Regions (MR) 1 and 3.14 Vietnamization required South Vietnam to fill the power vacuum created by the U.S. forces’ withdrawal. Building ARVN to be their own defence against the North Vietnamese constituted the primary goal in Vietnamization, and thus became both a crisis and an opportunity for the South Vietnamese. This new situation would also require South Koreans to expand their role and responsibility. South Korea became South Vietnam’s only ally to have significant ground troops present in the midst of the ongoing Vietnamization: two ROKA divisions stayed with ARVN II Corps in MR 2, after all the subordinate elements of U.S. I Field Force had been withdrawn from this area by early 1971. However, the Koreans were reluctant to shoulder further burdens, causing friction with both the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces.
The Korean troops in Vietnam began to seek more security within the ongoing Vietnamization. On 9 April 1970, during ROKFV commanding general Lee Se-ho’s visit to the Blue House, President Park ordered him to reduce casualties and develop a “new strategy” to “adapt for the current conditions of war”.16 The war in Vietnam entered a lull in the Vietnamization period. A steep drop in the number of allied soldiers killed in action (KIA) after 1969 indicated the war situation during the Vietnamization (see Table 1). Brig. Gen. Oh Yoon-young, deputy commander of the Capital Tiger Division from June 1970 to June 1971, described the situation in an interview fourteen years later.
Since 1969, the U.S. started to withdraw their troops from Vietnam based on the Nixon Doctrine. Therefore, it was the period of every country’s forces avoiding decisive battles. Korean forces focused on self-defense [of our own area of responsibility] because we did not want to conduct combat operations that sacrifice soldiers’ lives. [After Vietnamization started,] the Vietnam War was no longer able to achieve a victory by military means.17
Park’s order reflects more than “the current conditions of the war”, Seoul wanted to keep their soldiers’ casualties down while taking advantage of their participation. At this moment, the domestic political opinion to withdraw their forces from South Vietnam started to increase after the Koreans received the news of Washington’s plan for the reduction of the United States Forces Korea (USFK).18 In fact, to prevent the withdrawal of the U.S. forces from South Korea had been one of Seoul’s main motivations for their participation in the Vietnam Conflict. Thus, Park could not easily decide on the withdrawal of the ROK troops from Vietnam. The Vietnam War still provided them with an economic profit, and the participation in Vietnam would be used also as a bargaining chip to prevent the U.S. forces from leaving South Korea.19
Recent [company] bases are built for permanent settlement. Bases are built on a large scale with ample labour and materials, using bulldozers to fortify a barrier. Do we really have to do this? When we first came here [in 1965], bases were not for settlement. At that time, after we stabilized the territory and we moved to secure another territory. In my case, the company base moved eight times in the twelve months of my term as a company commander. … Now there are no new areas to pacify, bases are always in the same place.23
As a result of the emphasis of security, company bases, which had been used as an important foothold in the South Koreans’ pacification operations, began to be used primarily for defence.
As Vietnamization progressed, ROKFV became more and more defensive, inactive, and passive in the conduct of their combat actions. The U.S. recognized the Korean inactivity and regarded this as a result of Seoul’s directive to the Korean field commander to minimize casualties.24 On 5 May 1971, the chairman of the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Shim Hung-sun, visited ROKFV and relayed Seoul’s directive to gain a maximum outcome with the least number of casualties.25 The underlying influence on the Korean inactivity during this period was that troops were no longer motivated to fight in a war with an ongoing withdrawal of the majority of American troops and the ROKFV’s own impending withdrawal. Leaving Vietnam became a matter of time for South Korean soldiers, especially after the ROK Marine Brigade’s withdrawal in December 1971 as initiated by Seoul’s phased withdrawal plan of ROKFV in early 1971.
The South Vietnamese pushed the South Koreans to share the burden created by the U.S. forces’ withdrawal. On 11 October 1970, ARVN requested ROKFV to take control over the An Khe area after the U.S. 4th Division’s withdrawal.26 However, ROKFV disapproved of the request due to the potential danger and difficulties in controlling Highway 19.27 ROKFV’s answer was a qualified consent with the condition of receiving additional mobile equipment – 94 M113 APCs, 44 M48 Tanks, and a total of 64 helicopters (44 UH1D, 12 UH1B, 8 OH6A) – from the U.S. forces. Although both ARVN II Corps and the U.S. I Field Force agreed and requested U.S. MACV to provide equipment to ROKFV, MACV ultimately refused this Korean request.28 The U.S. forces did not find it necessary to pay for arming ROKA in return for their taking over this area, thinking that “any increased ROK effectiveness will carry with it an even higher price tag than now being paid”.29 As a result, ROKFV turned down the request and the An Khe area became ARVN’s responsibility. Since the Korean forces did not want to ruin their relationship with the South Vietnamese forces, they offered an alternative option to soothe South Vietnam: ROKA would take over the enemy 226 base area (six square kilometres), where they had already executed three operations between October 1969 and July 1970, instead of handing over the Phan Rang area to ARVN.30 This negotiation did not pan out well either.
(1) Korean troops lack mobile equipment such as tanks, APCs, and helicopters, and our request for this equipment to MACV was refused; (2) Enemy provocations have increased in the ROK TAOR; (3) Pacification in the populated area [inside the current ROK TAOR] is more important before [South Vietnam’s] general election; (4) We are not able to support pacification operations in the highlands [because of the lack of equipment]; (5) If only one Korean army division were left in the current ROK TAOR because of the relocation, it could imply ROKA’s soon withdrawal [abroad].32
South Koreans did not want to take a risk by expanding their TAOR without the guarantee of safety and equipment support.
The South Vietnamese were unhappy about the Koreans’ passivity and reluctance to share the military burden. On 26 February 1971, in a meeting with John Paul Vann, the U.S. senior military advisor in MR 2, Maj. Gen. Ngo Dzu, the commander of ARVN II Corps, complained that “the Koreans do not want to move out of their TAOR”. Dzu was also upset because “ROKs didn’t want ARVN forces moving through their TAOR”.33 In his report to the commander of MACV, General Creighton Abrams, Vann wrote: “I am sure it is not news to you that general Dzu and his subordinate staff and commanders are almost unanimous in expressing their distaste for the ROKs”.34 The power vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal of forces in MR 2 further complicated the relationship between ARVN and ROKFV. One Korean newspaper article argued that the relationship between the two forces revealed problems after the U.S.’s influence had diminished.35 The past cooperative system where the U.S. forces played a key role between the two forces and supported the two forces in II CTZ was no longer working at the same level as in the past. Although the new situation without the presence of U.S. ground troops required the two forces to cooperate closely, it did not go well. The South Vietnamese demanded even more from the Korean forces, but the Koreans were reluctant to take on additional risk.
Most Korean officers frankly admit that they do not trust the Vietnamese. Many incidents have been reported where the Koreans refuse to pass plans of an impending ROKFV/ROKNAF combined operation to the American advisor until he promises not to tell his Vietnamese counterpart. The Koreans hold the RVNAF’s fighting ability in contempt and their attitude is known by the Vietnamese. ARVN commanders bitterly complain that everything the Koreans do is geared to increase ROK stature even at the expense of the Vietnamese.36
ROKFV often complained about the irresponsibility of the South Vietnamese forces. Lt. Col. Lee wrote in his diary that “suddenly ARVN notified us that they will operate in this area. Why are they going to launch operations in another’s territory? What is their intention for this? … But they suddenly notified the cancellation of the plan at 11 a.m. today. They are always having their own way. They cannot be trusted and show no loyalty”.37 However, the relationship between the two forces was not just a simple conflict. While critical of the Korean troops’ inactivity, the South Vietnamese wanted them to stay in Vietnam. In early 1971, when the South Korean government announced the plan to withdraw one Korean division from Vietnam by the end of the year, it was the South Vietnamese who strongly opposed Seoul’s plan.38 Without preliminary discussion with the U.S., Saigon requested Seoul to delay the Korean troops’ first phase withdrawal until early 1973.39 Over three hundred South Vietnamese in Qui Nhon held a demonstration against Seoul’s plan for pulling their forces out.40 The Dong-a Ilbo reported that “according to one South Vietnamese Catholic priest who took a poll, 80 percent of Saigon citizens are opposing ROKFV’s withdrawal”.41 At the conference of troop-contributing countries in Washington D.C., the Minister of Foreign Affairs of South Vietnam, Tran Van Lam argued that since South Koreans were performing an excellent operation in the strategically important and vast area of the east coast, the reduction of one ROK division would place a huge burden on ARVN, who would have to make up for the South Koreans’ departure.42
The U.S. also had a complex view of the Korean performance throughout Vietnamization. In fact, Korean forces were regarded as a necessary evil for the U.S. to achieve Vietnamization. For Vietnamization to be successful, a capable ARVN would have to be built; diverting the limited resources from ROKFV to ARVN was desirable. On the other hand, Korean forces would have to remain in South Vietnam until ARVN was able to stand alone.43 Lt. Gen. Arthur S. Collins, Jr, the U.S. I Field Force commander, having worked with the Korean troops from February 1970 to January 1971, commented on Korean performance based on his military perspective in his debriefing report: “the cumulative results that we get from a two division ROK force equates to what one can expect from one good US brigade. … In spite of this [U.S.’s] all-out support, the ROKs did not undertake as many operations as they could and should have”.44 Similarly, General Abrams had a negative view of the Korean troops in Vietnam. In his memorandum to Admiral John S. McCain, Jr., Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command (CINCPAC), Abrams stated, “the ROKFV might be used in a new or expanded role”, and Koreans “will be encouraged to expand their efforts and contribution in-country within their capabilities”.45 However, Abrams, as a commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, admitted, “the progress of Vietnamization can best be sustained by the ROKs remaining in their present location”.46 He further argued that “ROKFV make a tangible and valuable contribution to Vietnamization and overall USSEA (Southeast Asia) goals by continued performance in their present role”, and the withdrawal of the U.S. ground troops would be “predicated on continued ROK presence in MR 2 for the foreseeable future”.47
In some way, the South Vietnamese’ poor performance justified Korean troop retention. According to one study by U.S. staff officers, the U.S. advisors agreed “some changes must be made with respect to the ROK Forces in MR-2”, however, “in reality it is doubtful that the ROK Forces would be too receptive to the idea of leaving the security of their compounds to operate in the more contested areas”.48 At the same time, the Americans knew that two ARVN divisions were not a sufficient amount of forces for the “massive land area of MR 2”. Moreover, South Vietnamese forces, especially regional forces (RF) having to defend their own regions, had poor leadership and motivation and were not able to properly perform the missions.49 In this situation, the U.S. could not simply withdraw the South Korean forces. ROKFV commander General Lee understood this situation and commented that “the allied forces [the U.S. and South Vietnamese] are thankful for us because they at least do not have to worry about the Korean TAOR”.50
While Saigon was opposing the Korean troop withdrawal, Washington debated whether the South Korean forces were indispensable and useful for Vietnamization, based on the U.S. military’s most common view that ROKFV were not being used to the greatest advantage at the time. The U.S. understood that Seoul’s plan “could be more of a trial balloon than a formal and fixed position”, and “their withdrawal rate may be subject to our own reaction to their proposal”.51 On 23 June 1971, President Nixon finally decided to “support the continued presence of two ROK divisions in South Vietnam through CY 1972”, following one of the four alternative options provided by Secretary of State William Pierce Rogers and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger.52 In contrast, based on General Abrams and U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker’s opinions, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird wanted to remove the South Korean forces from Vietnam, arguing, “I believe more effective military use can be made of the resources which would otherwise be diverted to the ROK units”.53 However, Laird’s argument did not overturn Nixon’s decision to support ROKFV to the end of 1972.
Since the retention of ROKA was decided upon, the U.S. forces had to admit the necessity of ROK forces as valuable assets and therefore requested improved Korean performance for Vietnamization. The U.S. forces admitted the “reality” of the Vietnamization scheme which influenced the general Korean inactivity “as the American units continue to be drawn down the ROK units’ enthusiasm and aggressiveness wanes”.54 In fact, decreasing support in their operations due to the U.S. ground troops’ withdrawal was like an excuse for ROK inactivity. Lt. Col. Lee Jae-tae showed scepticism about the future of the Vietnam War in his diary by stating, “how can we get support and keep combat power after the U.S. troop withdrawal?”55 For example, reductions in U.S. helicopter support became one of the practical excuses for Koreans being passive in their military operations in the Vietnamization phase. ROKFV considered reduced helicopter support to be a limiting factor for conducting operations. Compared to early 1971, when ROKFV was able to get eleven UH-1H companies’ support (a total of sixty helicopters), in 1972 they were able to get only three companies (a total of fifteen helicopters) to support them.56 In the meeting with Vann, in late February of 1972, the two ROKA division commanders expressed their disappointment in the lack of helicopter support.57 ROKFV estimated the helicopter support would continue to decrease, and thus regarded battalion-level operations as no longer possible.
In this context, General William Westmoreland, the Chief of Staff of the Army and the former MACV commander, advised General Abrams to contact Seoul directly in order to expand ROKFV’s role and to provide the ROKFV with appropriate support to activate their forces.58 In early February of 1972, Washington decided to accept part of the Korean requirements based on the idea that ROKFV was important to the success of Vietnamization after Seoul warned Philip Habib, Ambassador to South Korea, that ROKFV would begin to withdraw unless they receive adequate assurances of logistical support and equipment from the U.S.59 However, the U.S. support for Korean forces was not on the same level as what they had received in the past, and ROKFV remained inactive in spite of pressure from the U.S. and South Vietnam. In early April of 1972, Seoul refused Saigon’s official request to take over the ARVN 22nd Division’s TAOR which was north of the ROK Capital Division’s territory. General Lee answered that a military operation without taking over the territory would be possible with enough U.S. operating support, but there was no such promise from the U.S. forces.60 Just as the issue of the ROKFV’s inactivity and eventual withdrawal moved to the fore and grew into an ongoing political issue among the three countries, the Battle of An Khe Pass took place.
3 “Predictable but Unexpected Disaster”: The Koreans’ Failure in Securing An Khe Pass
An Khe Pass, a particularly dangerous 7.5 kilometres stretch of Highway 19 in the An Khe mountainous area, lay fifty-five kilometres northwest of the port city of Qui Nhon and twenty-three kilometres east of An Khe. Highway 19, from Qui Nhon through Pleiku to the Cambodian border, was one of the most important supply routes in II CTZ (MR 2).61 Before the Easter Offensive of 1972, An Khe Pass was the northwest edge of ROK Capital Division’s TAOR. The 1st Company of the ROK Tiger Cavalry Regiment had taken charge of the An Khe Pass. In order to control this area, the 1st Company built a base on Hill 600 close to the Q-curve of An Khe Pass and put platoon bases on Hill 240, two kilometres east of Hill 600, and on Hill 168, four kilometres east of Hill 600. In addition to these bases, the Korean company used thirty outposts to control this area.62
Hill 638 was located only 520 meters to the southeast of Hill 600 (Korean company base) along the ridgeline. Both hills were in a good location to dominate the Q-curve of the highway. Thus, the 1st Company built its base on hill 600 and put a platoon-size base on Hill 638. However, after August 1971, the 1st Company pulled the platoon out of Hill 638 and closed the base following the order to focus on education and training before the pending ROKFV withdrawal.63 The North Vietnamese Army (NVA), which infiltrated through ARVN’s territory north and west of An Khe Pass, gradually fortified the abandoned Hill 638 with the various materials Koreans had left behind. As a result, Hill 638 became the NVA’s main base for operations in this area. An estimated 2,280 soldiers of the PAVN and Viet Cong had already occupied several hills and ambushed the An Khe Pass area before the actual battle started.64 The 1st Company had a lapse in its patrolling and was unaware the enemy held Hill 638 for approximately one month prior to the assault on their own base. Even if the 1st Company’s territory was wide and the ARVN failed to stop the North Vietnamese forces’ infiltration, it is hard to comprehend the ignorance of the enemy’s presence on Hill 638 – especially considering it was merely 520 meters from their main base on Hill 600. The enemy on Hill 638 could have easily been discovered if ROKA had carried out a proper reconnaissance operation.
In a meeting with General Dzu, Maj. Gen. Kang Won-chae, the commander of ROKFV Field Command, and the Korean staff, three days before the Koreans came under surprise attack, Vann warned to pay “attention to road security east of An Khe in the ROK TAOR”.67 Since the Easter Offensive had already started in late March 1972, every unit in MR 2 should have already strengthened their security in their own areas. Based on their testimonies, both the Capital Division commander and the Cavalry Regimental commander had ordered their units to strengthen patrols and reconnaissance operations several times.68 After he started his new post in November 1971, Maj. Gen. Chung Duk-man, the Capital Division commander, emphasized daily reconnaissance operations within a two-kilometre radius of the base.69 However, the regiment’s company commanders and platoon leaders testified that they focused on combat training and strengthening the base instead of engaging in actual reconnaissance operations. The commander of the 1st Company, Capt. Kim Jong-sik, later testified that although he knew the importance of Hill 638 after he became company commander on 1 April (ten days before the battle started), he was not able to patrol this area because his company was instead busy working on small-unit combat drills and the auditing of equipment and supplies by order of the higher command.70 Nevertheless, neglecting Hill 638 was an obvious security failure for ROKA, resulting in a tough fight to reoccupy the area; yet no one was held accountable for this failure since this battle was regarded as a success. Even though the 1st Company was not able to mount reconnaissance operations, neglecting the order from the division constituted the company’s violation of military discipline – namely disobedience and false reporting.
In fact, preventing further decline in morale and discipline amongst ROK troops had already become an issue in the early phase of Vietnamization. After General Lee Se-ho became a commander of ROKFV in May 1969, in addition to emphasizing a strong fighting spirit while conducting offensive combat operations, he started to highlight “strengthening mental armament and maintaining military discipline”, during his second quarterly senior commanders’ meeting on 25 September 1969.71 In 1970, General Lee issued “Three Creeds and Five Precepts” to maintain and strengthen soldiers’ morale and discipline by indoctrinating them in everyday life. The “Five Precepts” prohibited disobedience, neglecting guard duties, business activity (black market), crimes against civilians, and false reports.72 This directive paradoxically showed that those bad behaviours had become an issue inside ROKFV. Lee admitted that he punished soldiers who committed these misbehaviours, then emphasized that prevention of crime would be more important than punishment.73
However, as ROKFV became more passive and defensive, its morale and discipline declined as well. Maj. Gen. Kim Young-sun, the 9th White Horse Division commander, felt betrayed when he first received a false report and fabricated achievements in November 1971. He wrote, “since this was too shameful, I decided to solve the problems one by one from now on”.74 At the first commanders’ meeting on 18 January 1972, General Kim emphasized tightening military discipline by eradicating false reports and disobedience.75 The end of the war atmosphere strengthened their attitude of self-preservation, likely promoting the idea that their deaths would be meaningless. In his diary on 4 September 1971, Lt. Col. Lee wrote, “withdrawal would be good considering the cause and the current situation. … Let’s go home as soon as possible”.76 On 9 September, he wrote that “we do not necessarily bleed in another’s land”.77 As the withdrawal approached, it became more difficult to expect more sacrifices from Korean soldiers in Vietnam. Whereas the South Vietnamese at least could have found a motivation to defend their own country, the South Koreans’ will to fight faded away. As a result, prior to the Easter Offensive and the Battle of An Khe Pass, Korean forces were passive and lacked motivation.
ROKFV’s condition at this time negatively affected its conduct in this battle. The 1st Company commander, Capt. Kim Jong-sik, whose company was responsible for neglecting the enemy on Hill 638, wrote: “ten days after [I started as a company commander], I found that one-third of the thirty outposts were sleeping when I patrolled the outposts in my company sector after 23:00. I was so upset and frustrated. I thought soldiers had lost their drive because they had not experienced combat for a while”.78 Captain Kim also met resistance from veteran soldiers when he started intensive training of his company upon becoming the new company commander.79 After the company base was attacked by the enemy, Col. Kim Chang-yeol, the commander of the Cavalry Regiment, sent his reconnaissance company to search the An Khe Pass area. However, the reconnaissance operation was stopped because of an enemy ambush. The company commander was wounded, and seven soldiers were killed including two platoon leaders.80 3rd Platoon leader Chung Jong-tae testified that when he led the assault team to retrieve bodies, no one was willing to follow him. Soldiers were still hiding under a drain pipe at the side of the path in fear. Minutes later, 1st Platoon leader and one soldier followed him but the 1st Platoon leader was killed by enemy fire.81 The ROKFV’s operation evaluation report for the Battle of An Khe Pass argued that Korean soldiers were not ready for fierce combat, stating that nineteen soldiers had received dishonourable discharges for retreating from the battlefield without permission during this battle.82
According to their testimonies, senior commanders blamed junior officers for the difficulty of the battle because of their lack of fighting spirit. Many junior officers blamed their soldiers, saying that soldiers did not move despite being given the attack order; they further claimed that some soldiers hid in the jungle or ran away from the battlefield. Before the battle, most of these Korean soldiers had little experience with conventional operations in their one-year dispatch term during the lull in the fighting in the Vietnamization period. Besides, the low morale and self-preservation attitude as they waited for future withdrawal became evident during this battle. There was no sense of urgency for the Korean soldiers, and the officers had difficulty ordering their soldiers into combat. At least, many junior officers were in the front lines during combat and demonstrated leadership by sacrificing themselves: Seventeen platoon leaders (six KIA, eleven WIA) and six company commanders (one KIA, five WIA).83 The loss of junior officers impeded group cohesion, as the after-action report analysed, “the loss of leaders made it difficult to command the combat troops and lowered the morale of soldiers [during this battle]. Moreover, there was a lack of a plan to replace and supplement the loss of combat leaders”.84
At 5:05 am on 11 April 1972, a squad-sized PAVN assaulted the 1st Company of the ROK Cavalry Regiment’s base on Hill 600 in the An Khe Pass. Korean soldiers who were searching for enemies after the assault came under a surprise attack from an enemy ambush.85 They discovered that the North Vietnamese had started an operation from their former base on Hill 638, which was close to Hill 600. The enemy’s intention was not to capture the Korean base, but only to block the An Khe Pass. On that day, Vann described, “enemy forces supported by tube artillery of the 105mm class, mortars and B-40s have continued attacking the fire support bases plus the lines of communications of Highways 19 and 14”.86 The North Vietnamese continuously fired on the Korean bases as a harassing tactic, and at the same time they blew up a bridge and a road. As a result, Highway 19 was blocked on the morning of 12 April. PAVN’s blocking of Highway 19 took place as a part of the Easter Offensive. North Vietnam launched the large-scale conventional offensive on 30 March 1972, attacking ARVN in three directions with twelve PAVN divisions. This offensive was instrumental in North Vietnam’s objective to gain an advantageous position in the armistice talks against the Nixon Administration by destroying the ARVN main forces.87 In MR 2, the PAVN’s main attack was aimed to destroy the main force of the ARVN II Corps in Kontum and Pleiku.88 Thus, blocking Highway 19 and cutting off ARVN’s supply line was a supporting attack to achieve their major objective. On the other hand, controlling the An Khe Pass was operationally vital for the South Vietnamese II Corps.
During the first phase of the battle from 11 to 14 April, only one ROKA company intermittently attacked the enemy hill, without any information about the size or intention of the enemy. Even when ROKA became aware of the enemy presence on Hill 638, they wanted to avoid a costly battle if possible. Koreans knew that an attack on the enemy’s stronghold would cause heavy casualties. On the afternoon of 12 April, the regimental commander decided to upgrade the operation to battalion level, with a plan to attach three companies from other battalions to the 1st Battalion.89 The 1st Battalion commander, Lt. Col. Han Kyu-won, moved his command post (CP) to Hill 600, and he assumed responsibility to command this operation. However, no actual operation occurred on that day. At 09:30 on 13 April, the battalion commander ordered the 3rd Company to assault Hill 638. However, the attack stopped after suffering twelve casualties around 13:30.90 Observing three days of Korean operations, Vann criticized Korean performance, saying, “the ROK’s did not work in aggressive operation… the regimental commander responsible for the ROK portion of Highway 19 has not left his CP for the last three days and appeared both unknowledgeable and unconcerned”.91
On that day, ROKFV generals, including General Kang and General Chung, visited Hill 600 to evaluate the situation. They had to leave hastily after the command post was attacked and two casualties were caused by enemy mortar fire from Hill 638.92 Hill 600, the location of the Korean command post, was vulnerable to enemy fire and continuously obstructed the operation. On 14 April, the 3rd Company again attacked the enemy hill but failed, with fifteen additional casualties. The battalion commander could not help but withdraw the 3rd Company from the area of operation. It was not until that day that ROKFV obtained enemy information from an ARVN report shedding light on the fact that this hill’s enemy contingent was the PAVN 12nd Regiment of the 3rd Division.93 According to the U.S. liaison officer, Korean forces suffered “35 KIA plus many wounded” over four days.94
Although they dealt with casualties, the Koreans did not necessarily want to fight and risk sacrificing more soldiers. The Koreans realized that this battle would be a contest of will on each side: attack or defend, gain or lose, live or die. The access route to Hill 638 was rugged and covered with dense forest, thus limiting options for effective manoeuvres. Soldiers were compelled to have a toe-to-toe fight. But the Koreans wanted to avoid this contest because it would be accompanied by an enormous sacrifice of lives. During the second phase from 15 to 18 April, the Koreans used firepower, but a massive attack did not occur. The ROKA’s inactive engagement frustrated Vann’s expectations, and the Koreans found themselves in additional conflict with the Americans over their performance in this battle. Against Vann’s criticism that “the ROKs appear to have no plan to clear the pass other than massive quantities of fire support”,95 the division commander, General Chung, countered that “since most U.S. ground troops had withdrawn at that time, the air support was insufficient. Especially, helicopter support was available only four to five times a day and we could not move troops at the same time. We had no choice but to use troops piecemeal”.96 The Dong-a Ilbo reported that the Korean forces’ operation was hampered by lack of U.S. helicopter support.97 The Kyunghyang Shinmun wrote: “ROKA was not able to get tank and gunship support despite their request from the South Vietnamese and the U.S., and the field commanders resented the lack of U.S. support. … This struggle [experienced at the Battle of An Khe Pass] was predicted when the U.S. ground troops withdrew”.98
On 15 April, ROKA finally was able to direct heavy fire onto Hill 638 and the suspected enemy ambush area. About 2,900 rounds of artillery were fired, and a total of forty-one sorties of U.S. F-4 fighters bombed the targeted area for two days.99 Yet, ROKA did not move to attack Hill 638 during the bombardment. Instead of attacking Hill 638, the 1st Battalion commander ordered the attached 6th Company from the 2nd Battalion to proceed to the no-name hill located three kilometres southeast of Hill 638 in order to pressure the main enemy into a reaction. The unit was soon surrounded and isolated by the already-ambushed enemy, and even during the landing from the helicopters, they had already lost thirteen soldiers. They started digging to build a hasty defensive position.100 The 2nd Battalion commander then used the 5th Company to attempt an evacuation of the 6th Company, but they could not move because of enemy fire and were stuck on a ridge.101 Another fight on the no-name hill caused only additional difficulties in concentrating their forces against the enemy’s stronghold on Hill 638.
4 ROKFV’s Large-scale Operation: Mission Accomplished!?
Communist troops have succeeded in blocking a strategic highway pass in the central highlands for four days, and the efforts of South Korean soldiers to dislodge them is attracting scores of spectators in a “carnival atmosphere,” … South Vietnamese officers were angry with the Koreans, asserting that they were not trying hard enough to drive the Reds out of fortified positions controlling the An Khe Pass on Highway 19. … “A year or two ago the South Koreans could have handled this job very quickly,” said one South Vietnamese officer. “Now they are moving very slowly because they are going home”.102
Vann expressed concern to General Abrams that the “ROV-VN relationship … [has] deteriorated badly in the past two weeks”, arguing that “ROKs have been so insensitive to the grave tactical situation, and so unresponsive to both requests for assistance and to meeting their assigned responsibilities”.103 The New York Times article stated: “Coordination was poor and the Koreans accidentally killed a number of Vietnamese soldiers by shelling. Since then the Vietnamese have restricted their operations to the part of the road west of Anke and the Koreans have not made any progress”.104 One South Vietnamese officer characterized Koreans as “damned and bad soldiers”.105 To the U.S. and South Vietnamese, the seriousness of the Korean inactivity during the Vietnamization period surfaced in this battle. Vann revealed his distrust of the ROKA’s operation: “the ROK performance at An Khe from the top down raises serious questions as to the validity of ROK reported battlefield successes in the past”.106 However, since the north and west side of An Khe Pass was the responsibility of ARVN, Koreans thought South Vietnamese were also responsible for the security failure and the reopening Highway 19. The Kyunghyang Shinmun reported: “The South Vietnamese Army shifted their responsibility to us after Highway 19 was closed”.107 And it was still hard for Korean soldiers to justify their sacrifice for the South Vietnamese. One Korean soldier, who lost seven fellow soldiers in the operation noted, “when I saw South Vietnamese militia and civilians were watching our operation and laughing at us, I shot an M16 in the air towards them. … I was too upset to kill them when they laughed at us. We came here and were dying because of them. They are pathetic people”.108 This battle revealed a rift between both the Korean and U.S. forces as well as the Koreans and the South Vietnamese. In spite of the Koreans’ complex feelings about this battle, the Battle of An Khe Pass was becoming a matter of Korea’s national pride before American and South Vietnamese eyes.
Korean field commanders were getting more pressure as the battle continued. The division commander, General Chung, testified that he was pressed by the ROKFV and ARVN headquarters to reopen the route quickly.109 On 16 April, Vann sent a letter to the ROKFV Field commander, General Kang. In the letter, Vann emphasized that “Highway 19 must be reopened soon and must be kept open”.110 He pressed the ROKA to operate aggressively: “it appears to me that the situation in the An Khe Pass is so critical as to justify a minimum of twice as many troops as are now being utilized there. I strongly urge your consideration for beefing up this effort so as to expedite the opening of the pass”.111 From an operational standpoint, Vann was right and the Korean Army should have quickly reopened Highway 19. Korean commanders also understood the importance of Highway 19 as the primary supply line for the main forces of ARVN II Corps, who were defending areas against the NVA’s main effort. On 19 April, in addition to the ROKFV Field commander and the Division commander’s frequent visits, ROKFV commander Lee Se-ho himself visited the battlefield.112
On 17 April, the ROK Army resumed attacking Hill 638. The 1st Battalion commander ordered two companies to attack. Two companies started a parallel attack at 15:00, but after two hours, when the 3rd Platoon of the 3rd Company was stopped by enemy fire, the battalion commander withdrew them.113 At that time, Van, General Dzu, key members of ROKFV, and General Chung and his staff, met together at the ROK command post on Hill 600 to watch the ROK’s operation. In that meeting, both Vann and Dzu complained about the ROKA’s operation. In the report to Abrams, Vann described the situation at that time: “The ROK Division Commander became somewhat upset, particularly when Gen Dzu observed that sufficient forces had not yet employed”.114 The terrain made it more difficult for soldiers to hide and cover themselves because the routes were burnt to the ground during the bombardment. Moreover, the enemy still existed despite the harsh bombardment. They had had a month to strengthen Hill 638 and had dug deep trenches that protected their soldiers from artillery and bombing.115 Therefore, it was discovered that these piecemeal attacks supported by firepower simply did not work against this stubborn and prepared enemy. Vann pointed out that “Korean troops were making short forays from their strongholds during the day, but at nightfall returned to safety behind the barbed wire”.116 The day-time piecemeal attacks could not be decisive and only resulted in many additional casualties.
On 18 April, the Capital Division commander finally changed the operation to the regimental level. In the third phase from 19 to 26 April, ROKA conducted regimental level operations. Five companies from other regiments were ordered to reinforce the Cavalry Regiment. Under the regimental commander’s command, the reinforced 1st Battalion would attack Hill 638, the 2nd Battalion would attack the no-name hill, and the 3rd Battalion would do a search and destroy operation along Highway 19.117 The regiment’s top priority was to occupy Hill 638. On 19 April, three companies started to assault the hill at the same time. However, when the 8th Company experienced five casualties, and the 3rd Company had three wounded and two killed, they suspended the operation.118 On that day, the ROKFV commander, General Lee, visited the battlefield with Vann and Dzu. According to Vann’s report, Lee “talked vaguely about 2 plans to reinforce the top of the pass and to sweep down the pass from the high ground”.119 Vann added that “this [plan] of course is what should have been done from the first day”.120 On 20 April, two companies initiated a frontal attack while the other two companies supported them in reserve. Before the attack, four F-4 fighters bombed around Hill 638, and artillery fired 104 rounds. After two hours, the 8th Company arrived close to the hill, but retreated after suffering three casualties during the charge to the top.121 Cavalry Regimental commander Kim, who was watching the situation from Hill 600, was angry and ordered a renewed attack. In his testimony, Kim blamed his soldiers for their lack of fighting spirit and abandoning the battlefield.122 However, when the 8th Company commander was killed and twelve soldiers were wounded by enemy mortar fire during their second attack, 1st Battalion commander Han had to stop the operation.123
The 1st Battalion resumed its attack on 22 April. While two companies would contain the enemy down the ridges, the 2nd Company would launch a frontal attack. However, this plan did not go well either. ROK soldiers even tried rolling oil drums to the top to serve as barriers but failed because of the rough terrain. On this day, the 2nd Company lost eleven soldiers. The 2nd Company commander, Capt. Jin Moo-woong, explained why their attack failed: “When the soldier who was standing in the front fell down, the other soldiers retreated. I ordered the platoon leaders to continue attacking, but the soldiers did not respond”.124 Vann reported the battle progress as following: “An Khe Pass is still blocked. The ROKs now has fourteen companies in the AO [area of operations]. Three companies partially took key Hill 638”.125 At 18:15, the 1st Platoon leader, 1st Lt. Im Dong-chun, led his platoon for a charge. For the first time in this battle, his platoon reached the enemy’s first line of defence.126 Im was killed, and subsequently became the most famous hero of this battle. In fact, although the regiment-sized troops operating in this area and five companies were used for the attack on Hill 638, the regimental commander could not infuse combat power into the main battle. Since the companies from other battalions and regiments were jumbled in this area, it caused considerable confusion in the chain of command. Moreover, commanders from the battalion commander to the division commander often interfered with each company’s combat orders. In addition, the rugged terrain complicated the ROKA’s attempts because the limited routes did not allow them to use various infantry tactics. A ranking formation, which is favourable to concentrate firepower, was impossible due to the terrain. Soldiers moved mainly by a column formation; they became easy targets of the enemies positioned on the hill and were ambushed by them in many places. As a result, soldiers were taken out of action one by one.
Finally, on 23 April, the regimental commander himself completed a large-scale attack plan. While three companies would contain the enemy from the front, two newly reinforced companies would assault the hill, the 4th Company from the west ridge and the 9th Company from the southeast valley. The next morning on 24 April, ROK artillery fired 1,289 rounds on Hill 638 as preparation fire from 4:00 to 6:00. Then ROK soldiers initiated an attack. The NVA’s resistance was weak. The 3rd Platoon of the 4th Company charged to the top of the hill and occupied the hill at 07:10.127 3rd Platoon leader 1st Lt. Lee Moo-pyo said, “We advanced on the hill for a while and received enemy fire. One soldier was killed but I expected there were actually few enemies on the hill based on their defensive fire frequency. We kept moving to the top and charged the hill, but no one was there. It was like a miracle”.128 After the battle, 1st Lt. Lee received the Taeguk military merit and was deemed a hero for assembling an assault team of nine soldiers who courageously charged Hill 638. However, according to his interview in 1984, Lee denied his story, testifying that all members of his platoon charged the hill and thus he did not need to assemble an assault team. Also, Lee testified that the picture of him jumping over a rock during the battle was fabricated. A picture was taken after the battle in a similar spot.129 Making Lee a hero implied that ROKA actually did not fight well in this battle. That is why they glorified it: for even though it was a tough battle, the Koreans won due to their soldiers’ will and courage.130
After the occupation of Hill 638, the regiment continued the operation to reopen Highway 19. The 9th Company advanced behind the hill. At 15:00, two F-4 fighters launched twenty-four high explosives bombs in this area. Artillery fire continued. The 2nd Battalion wiped out the NVA in the no-name hill area, and the 3rd Battalion equipped with APCs kept conducting search operations along Highway 19 until 26 April. An Khe Pass and Highway 19 were finally reopened. A ROK Cavalry Regiment after-action report stated, “after halting the enemy attack, we completely destroyed the enemy by conducting counter-attack. This battle was a victory showing off Korean’s combat power by killing 605 enemies and capturing seventy-one rifles and ten machine guns”.131
5 Conclusion: Evaluation and Implications of the Battle of An Khe Pass
From a military perspective, although the mission was accomplished, the Battle of An Khe Pass was a failed operation. First of all, the Koreans’ practice in this battle was not in alignment with the following principles of war.132 (1) Objective: Although the Koreans understood their tactical objective to repel the enemy from Hill 638 and to achieve the operational objective of opening Highway 19, they delayed their response. (2) Offensive: since they had a clear objective, ROKA should have conducted offensive action quickly, decisively, and effectively. However, because of the same pattern of daytime piecemeal attacks, ROKA was unable to seize the initiative against the defending enemy. (3) Intelligence: ROKA did not recognize the enemy presence before they were attacked by surprise and the road was blocked. And even after the Koreans knew the presence of the enemy, they did not have any information about the enemy size and type. (4) Unity of command: After the battle began to get into the spotlight, all the different levels of commanders interfered with the actual combat operation and caused confusion in the chain of command. Also, the command and control of the attached companies coming from different units was not effective. (5) Manoeuvre: ROKA employed the same pattern, time, and route against a stubborn enemy. Although rough terrain and lack of helicopter support could be used as excuses for this lack of initiative, ROKA commanders were responsible for their monotonous ineffective attacks. (6) Mass: ROKA failed to concentrate combat power, despite having overwhelming firepower and a superior number of troops. (7) Surprise: ROKA’s attack was not creative and did not surprise the enemy. PAVN was well prepared and cognizant of the Koreans’ plan of attack. It was the PAVN who had the element of surprise. (8) Security: ROKA’s base kept being attacked and harassed by the enemy fire. Some combat troops were isolated without supplies since NVA had blocked the supply route. (9) Morale: The overall morale and military spirit of the Korean soldiers was low with the prospect of their future withdrawal. Moreover, as this battle progressed, their morale worsened because of the casualties of fellow soldiers, lack of supplies, and stress from the battlefield.
Fundamentally, the Koreans could not halt the enemy’s operational purpose for this battle. The North Vietnamese Army had already withdrawn from Hill 638 during the ROK’s large-scale operation. The North Vietnamese achieved their operational purpose by cutting off the supply line for sixteen days, which was enough time for them to support their main forces’ offensive against the ARVN II Corps. The Korean’s large-scale operation was launched too late. From the pressure to occupy the hill quickly, continuous piecemeal attacks with one to three companies using the same route took place. However, these piecemeal operations only resulted in multiple casualties and brought criticism for the Koreans’ inactivity from both the Americans and the South Vietnamese. The regimental commander explained these piecemeal attacks by saying that he had no more reserves to use, but if that was true, he should have waited until he was ready to launch a large-scale operation.133 Koreans sent troops every day due to the pressure to occupy the hill quickly, but still they were too passive to launch a large-scale operation. The result of this combination of their passive attitude and the pressure to act quickly caused heavy casualties and led to a poor outcome. As a result, the ROK Army’s battle for An Khe Pass neither frustrated the enemy’s operational purpose nor minimized Korean sacrifices. This was an unexpected result for the Korean forces. The Battle of An Khe Pass was indeed a Pyrrhic victory.
During the battle, Koreans were not able to diffuse the allies’ continued criticism of their lack of aggressiveness. Instead, mutual distrust was compounded by cultural and military friction between the Koreans, Americans, and South Vietnamese. Nevertheless, the Koreans’ sacrifice in accomplishing their mission in this battle brought positive effects on the dynamics of the three countries’ relationship in terms of the Korean troops’ future retention. South Vietnam’s governmental officials complimented the Koreans’ contributions in this battle.134 Maj. Gen. Kim Young-sun, the 9th Division commander, stated, “South Vietnamese people long for South Koreans to fight together. It is not only the people’s expectation, but also the government and ARVN’s attitude and cooperation became much better [after the Battle of An Khe Pass]”.135 The result of this battle became a useful pretext for the U.S. to request ROK forces to expand their roles. In the U.S. National Security Council members’ discussion about the Vietnam War on 26 April, Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, reminded the members that the U.S. should at least compliment ROKA’s “big” contribution in opening up Highway 19, saying that “the ROKs have gained the high ground at the An Khe Pass”.136 Participants all agreed to mention the Battle of An Khe Pass when the U.S. requested the Korean forces to “get out of their enclaves and take over some of the activity in their portion of II Corps”. Later on 3 June, President Nixon formally requested ROK President Park to send the Korean troops to open Kontum Pass with full U.S. support. Despite a month and a half long operation, the South Vietnamese had been bogged down in opening that particular pass.137 In the U.S.’s view, the Korean’s achievement at An Khe Pass stood out compared to the South Vietnamese forces’ poor performance at the Kontum Pass. President Park replied that “I have decided to offer assistance of the Korean forces in the Kontum Pass operation”, and the ROK 9th Division started the preparation in earnest for this “joint ROK-U.S. operation”.138
However, on 16 June, the plan was cancelled due to the South Vietnamese refusal; ARVN decided to open the pass by themselves without help from ROK. This case illuminated the complex relationship existing between the South Vietnamese, Americans, and Koreans in the Vietnamization phase. The actual military operation was connected to each countries’ political considerations. The ROKFV commander, General Lee Se-ho, thought that the South Vietnamese worried about losing their prestige if ROKA reopened the pass quickly, although militarily they needed the Koreans’ help.139 General Abrams was upset about this news, saying that he could not help but accept Saigon’s decision, but this operation would still not be easy for ARVN.140 In his letter to President Park, Lee wrote, “the U.S. is appreciative and even apologetic to us. The South Vietnamese also express gratitude for our decision. By this, we achieved our goal without bleeding, and I as a ROKFV commander became blameless”.141 General Kim, the 9th Division commander, also stated, “We Koreans achieved an honorable position because of this [event]”.142 As a result, the Battle of An Khe Pass and the following ROK’s decision to open Kontum Pass at least saved face for the Koreans and justified their continued presence in Vietnam in spite of the complex relationship with the U.S. and South Vietnam.
The Battle of An Khe Pass demonstrates that military decisions, cultural impediments, government to government or military command relations, and various leaders’ political and military realities must all be considered in any final examination of a single contest, such as the one at An Khe Pass. Since each nation has its own priorities and perspectives on how to best achieve the goal, combined operations are difficult. Vietnamization was not a path to victory; rather, it was designed to facilitate the withdrawal of U.S. forces and start negotiations with North Vietnam. Vietnamization, therefore, did not optimize cooperation between the U.S., South Vietnamese, and the South Korean forces. As a result, even fighting in a single major engagement became a complex and layered endeavour rather than a purely militaristic confrontation. As demonstrated in this case, Americans, South Vietnamese, and Koreans were fighting different wars against the common enemy at different times during the Vietnam War.
Choi Yong-ho . Hangwonuro Ikneun Betunam Jeonjaenggwa Hangukkun [The Vietnam War and the ROK Forces] (Seoul: Institute for Military History2004).
Cosmas Graham A. The Joint Command in Years of Withdrawal 1968–1973(Washington D.C.: U.S. Army Center for Military History2006).
Juwol Hangukkun Saryeongbu [The Headquarters of Republic of Korea Forces in Vietnam]. Wolnamjeon Jonghap Yeongu [The Research on the Vietnam War] (Saigon: Juwol Hangukkun Saryeongbu 1974).
Kim Ho-yeon . “1972 Nyeonui Il [The Incident in 1972]”. In To Darun Sijak [A New Start] ed. The Federation of Artistic & Cultural Organization of Korea (Chuncheon: Kangwon Ilbosa2000) 70–85.
Kukbangbu [The Ministry of Defense]. Pawol Hangukkun Jeonsa [The Military History of Korean Troops in Vietnam] 10 vols. (Seoul: Kukbangbu 1978).
Kukbangbu Kunsa Pyonchan Yonguso [The Institute for Military History] ed. Chungonul Tonghae Bon Betunam Jeonjaengkwa Hangukkun [The Vietnam War and the ROK Forces through Testimony]. 3 vols. (Seoul: Kukbangbu Kunsa Pyonchan Yonguso 2001).
Tae-joon Kwon . “An Khe Jeontu Chamjeon Soogi [Memoir about the Battle of An Khe]”. In Betunam Jeonjaeng Yeongu Chongseo [The Research of the Vietnam War] ed. Kukbangbu Kunsa Pyonchan Yonguso (Seoul: Kukbangbu Kunsa Pyonchan Yonguso 2002) 3:275–332.
Lee Jae-tae . Kasumul Toolko Gan Jeoktan Kunbokeun Bulgeun Pie Mulduleodo [Enemy Bullet Pierced the Chest the Uniform was Blood-drenched] (Seoul: Jeontongjokbo Munhwasa2014).
MacGarrigle George L. Combat Operations: Taking the Offensive October 1966 to October 1967 (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army1998).
Park Kyung-suk . “Betunam Jeonjaengui Yangsanggwa Hangukkun Jakjeonui Kyohun [The Vietnam War and the lesson from the Korean forces’ operation]”. Betunam Jeonjaeng Yeongu Chongseo ed. Kukbangbu Kunsa Pyonchan Yonguso 1:321–357.
Wi Tae-son . “Ankhepass Jakjeongwa Geu Kyohun [The Operation of An Khe Pass and its lesson]”. Kunsa [Military History]12 (1986): 49–79.
“Victory Monument in An Khe Pass”, Juwol Hangukkun Saryeongbu [ROKFV], Daihan [Republic of Korea] 126 (1 October 1972), HB 02635, Kukbangbu Kunsa Pyonchan Yonguso [The Institute for Military History], Seoul, South Korea. “HB” is the document management number of the archive at the Institute for Military History, Ministry of National Defense at Seoul, South Korea.
This is the translated description from the following memoir: Kim Young-doo, Ankhepass Taehyuljeon [The Bloody Battle for An Khe Pass] (Seoul, 2011), 9–10.
http://www.vietvet.co.kr/technote/read.cgi?board=englishw&y_number=30&nnew=2(accessed 8 August 2018).
http://vietnamwarstory.tistory.com/797 (accessed 8 August 2018).
Kukbangbu [The Ministry of Defense], Pawol Hangukkun Jeonsa [The War History of Korean Troops in Vietnam] (Seoul: Kukbangbu, 1985), 10:220. However, according to their memoirs and testimonies, veterans who participated in this battle do not count on this number. After the battle, CNN reported that “Korean forces suffered more than twice as many killed and wounded as official reports show in the 16-day battle to reopen the An Khe Pass”. “ROK Casualties”, 28 April 1972, Folder 17, Box 33, Douglas Pike Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive (VNCA), Texas Tech University, Lubbock, tx.
“Gukkunpawolirae Kajang Keun Konghun [The Most Brilliant Exploit after the Dispatching of Troops in Vietnam]”, Kyunghyang Shinmun, 29 May 1972.
“Keudaedulun Mobeom Sodaejang [You Guys Are True Platoon Leaders]”, Korea Defense Daily, 25 April 2006, http://kookbang.dema.mil.kr/newsWeb/20060425/1/BBSMSTR_000000010021/view.do (accessed 6 February 2019).
Kim Ho-yeon, “1972 Nyonui Il [The Incident in 1972]”, in To Darun Sijak [A New Start], ed. Federation of Artistic & Cultural Organization of Korea (Chuncheon, 2000), 70–85; Kwon Tae-joon, “An Khe Jeontu Chamjeon Soogi [Memoir about the Battle of An Khe]”, in Betunam Jeonjaeng Yeongu Chongseo, ed. Kukbangbu Kunsa Pyonchan Yonguso, 3:275–332 (Seoul, 2002); Hwang Jin-soon, “The An Khe Pass Battle”, 30 April 2006, http://www.iwvpa.net/hwangjs/index.php (accessed 3 August 2018); Kwon Tae-joon, Ankheui Nunmul [Tears of An Khe] (Seoul, 2010); Kim, Ankhepass Taehyuljeon.
Lee Jae-tae, Kasumul Toolko Gan Jeoktan, Kunbokeun Bulgeun Pie Mulduleodo [Enemy Bullet Pierced the Chest, the Uniform was Blood-drenched] (Seoul, 2014).
Wi Tae-son, “Ankhepass Jakjeongwa Geu Kyohun [The Operation of An Khe Pass and its Lesson]”, Kunsa [Military History] 12 (1986): 49–79.
Dale Andrade, Trial by Fire: The 1972 Easter Offensive America’s Last Vietnam Battle (New York, 1995), 291–298.
Park Tae-gyun, Betunam Jeonjaeng [The Vietnam War] (Seoul, 2015), 258.
The U.S. forces had withdrawn after 1969: compared to its high point of the number of 543,500 in 1968, the U.S. military personnel in Vietnam was reduced to 133,200 in January of 1972, and it became 45,600 in July. For more information, see Jeonpyunwi [War History Complication Committee], “Wolnam Chamjeon Tonggye [A Statistics of the Dispatch in South Vietnam]”, 1972, HB 01620; Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (New York, 1978), 147; James H. Willbanks, The Battle of An Loc (Bloomington, IN, 2005), 10; Graham A. Cosmas, The Joint Command in Years of Withdrawal, 1968–1973 (Washington, D.C., 2006), 167.
Corps Tactical Zone (CTZ) renamed as Military Zone (MR) in July 1970. The shadow area in Image 4 indicates the South Korean Army’s tactical area of responsibility (TAOR) and area of operations (AO).
“Pak Daetongryung, Yi Saryeongkwanege Saeroun Jeonsul Kaebal Jisi [President Park Ordered Commander Lee to Develop New Tactics]”, Dong-a Ilbo, 9 April 1970.
Oh Yoon-young, interview by Wi Tae-sun, Job Training Director Office in Choongju, 17 February 1983, Kukbangbu Kunsa Pyonchan Yonguso [The Institute for Military History], ed. Chungonul Tonghae Bon Betunam Jeonjaengkwa Hangukkun [The Vietnam War and the ROK forces through testimony] (Seoul, 2001), 1:713–714.
“Juhan Migun Kamchuknon Tajyo [Attacking the Discussion of the Reduction of USFK]”, Dong-a Ilbo, 6 May 1970; “Kukbangwi, Juhan Migun Kamchukseol Kyungwi Jeongboo Daechaek Tajyo [The National Defense Committee’s Questioning the Government’s Response to the Reduction of USFK]”, Dong-a Ilbo, 30 May 1970.
“Juwol Hangukkun Bunsan Takyukui Sae Jeonsul [ROKFV’s New Tactics of Breaking Up and Hitting the Enemy]”, Dong-a Ilbo, 16 September 1970.
Juwol Hangukkun Saryeongbu [ROKFV], “Hoonryoung [Directives]”, 1971 (1), 2 December 1970, HB 02156.
Message from LTG Corcoran to Gen. Abrams, 22 September 1969, Folder 16, Box 2, Dale W. Andrade Collection, VNCA; Message from Gen. Westmoreland to Adm. Moorer, “Requesting ROK Forces to Prepare Contingency Plans”, 1 February 1972, Dale W. Andrade Collection, Folder 6, Box 17, VNCA; Paper Prepared in the Department of State, “Republic of Korea Forces in Viet-Nam (ROKFV)”, 17 June 1971, Foreign Relations of the United States [FRUS], 1969–1976, Vol. 19, Part 1, Korea 1969–1972, eds. Daniel J. Lawler and Erin R. Mahan (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2010), Document 95.
An Khe, west side of An Khe Pass, was the U.S. I Field Force’s strategic foothold during the war: the 1st Cavalry Division stayed from September 1965 to April 1969, and the 173rd Airborne Brigade from November 1967 to April 1969, and the 4th Infantry Division from March 1970 to December 1970. Stanton, Vietnam Order of Battle, 73.
“Mi 4 Sadan Jakjeonji Insookoryo [Reluctance to Take Over the U.S. 4th Division’s TAOR]”, Dong-a Ilbo, 23 October 1970.
Memorandum from Secretary of Defense Laird to President Nixon, “Republic of Korea (ROK) Forces in South Vietnam”, 26 June 1971, FRUS, Document 97.
Memorandum from Robert Tart to Deputy for CORDS, “Meeting with General Dzu on 26 February”, 26 February 1971, Folder 17, Box 33, Douglas Pike Collection, VNCA.
Message to General Creighton Abrams from John P. Vann, “Assessment of ROKF Impact in the 1971 Cold Efforts”, 7 June 1971, Folder 17, Box 23, Dale W. Andrade Collection, VNCA.
“5 Nyeon Kwangyeui Eoje Oneul [Yesterday and Today of Five-Year Relationship]”, Kyunghyang Shinmun, 7 October 1970.
Memorandum for Deputy Secretary of Defense, Republic of Korea Forces in Vietnam (ROKFV), 12 August 1969, Box 2, Record Group (RG) 472, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), College Park, MD.
“Juwolgun 1 Gaesa Kot Cheolsu [One Division of ROKFV will Withdraw Soon]”, Kyunghyang Shinmun, 19 April 1971.
“Republic of Korea Forces in Viet-Nam (ROKFV)”, FRUS, Document 95; “Wolnam Chamjeonkuk Woisanghoiui Je 5 Sin [The Fifth Memorandum of the Foreign Ministers Conference]”, 22 April 1972, in Documents of Six Allied Countries’ Foreign Ministers Conference, 1972, HB 02683.
“Hangukkun Cheolsu Bandae Demo [Demonstrations against ROKFV’s Withdrawal]”, Dong-a Ilbo, 29 March 1971.
Telegram from the Embassy in Korea to the Department of State, “ROK Forces in Viet-Nam”, 3 November 1971, FRUS, Document 114.
“Senior Officer Debriefing Report”, 9 February 1971, Reel 4, U.S. Army Senior Officer Debriefing Reports (microfilm), VNCA.
Memorandum for Admiral McCain from General Abrams, “Republic of Korea Forces, Vietnam (ROKFV)”, 21 March 1971, Folder 16, Box 2, Dale W. Andrade Collection, VNCA.
CPT Donald Rogan and CPT Stanley Miller, “Study of Assessment of Combat Power”, 21 October 1971, Folder 17, Box 23, Dale W. Andrade Collection, VNCA.
“Gukkun Jeonsul Jiyeok Bulbyeon [No Change in ROKFV’s TAOR]”, Kyunghyang Shinmun, 8 February 1972.
Memorandum from John H. Holdridge of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger), “ROK Troop Withdrawals from Vietnam”, 13 April 1971, FRUS, Document 89.
Memorandum from Secretary of Defense Laird to President Nixon, “Republic of Korea (ROK) Forces in South Vietnam”, FRUS, Document 97.
Memo to Mr. Vann and BG Wear from William Gist III, Second Regional Assistance Group, “Operations for ROK Forces”, 5 February 1972, Dale W. Andrade Collection, Folder 17, Box 23, VNCA.
Message from Gen. Westmoreland to Adm. Moorer, “Requesting ROK Forces to Prepare Contingency Plans”, 1 February 1972, Dale W. Andrade Collection, Folder 6, Box 17, VNCA.
Memorandum from John H. Holdridge of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Haig), “ROK Forces in South Vietnam”, 5 February 1972, FRUS, Document 124.
“Wolnam Jakjeon Sanghwang Mit Wolnamsusang Yochunge Uihan Myundamkyeolgwa Bogo”, 14 April 1972, The Presidential Secretariat, Republic of Korea Presidential Archives at Sejong, South Korea; “Compilation of Speech, Instructions, and Directives (1969–1973)”, in Byeolchaek Seohanmoonjip [Collection of Documents and Pictures], ed. Lee Se-ho (Seoul, 2009), 135–136.
John M. Carland, Combat Operations: Stemming the Tide, May 1965 to October 1966 (Washington, D.C., 2000), 41, 96.
Kukbangbu, Pawol Hangukkun Jeonsa, 10:179–180; Kim Jong-sik, “The Combat Memoir”, in Chungonul Tonghae Bon Betunam Jeonjaengkwa Hangukkun, 1:809–812.
Choi Yong-ho, Hangwonuro Ikneun Betunam Jeonjaenggwa Hangukkun [The Vietnam War and the ROK Forces] (Seoul, 2004), 357.
This picture is edited and supplemented from the original one Lee took from the helicopter when he flew above An Khe Pass, http://www.lifesjoy.net/WebMaster/Vietnam/AnKhe/AnKhe.htm (accessed 9 August 2018).
Message from John Vann to Creighton Abrams, “Increased Support by ROK Forces, II Corps”, 8 April 1972, Dale W. Andrade Collection, Folder 2, Box 24, VNCA.
Kukbangbu Kunsa Pyonchan Yonguso [The Institute for Military History], ed., Chungonul Tonghae Bon Betunam Jeonjaengkwa Hangukkun, 1:781–805.
Kim Jong-sik, interview by Wi Tae-sun, The ROKA Administration School, 23 October 1984, Chungonul Tonghae Bon Betunam Jeonjaengkwa Hangukkun, 1:785.
Lee, “Compilation of Speech, Instructions, and Directives (1969–1973)”, 184–196; Juwol Hangukkun Saryeongbu [ROKFV], Wolnamjeon Jonghap Yeongu [Comprehensive Research on the Vietnam War], 1974, 60–68.
Kim Jong-sik, “The Combat Memoir”, in Chungonul Tonghae Bon Betunam Jeonjaengkwa Hangukkun, 1:809.
Park Kyung-suk, “Betunam Jeonjaengui Yangsanggwa Hangukkun Jakjeonui Kyohun [The Vietnam War and the lesson from the Korean forces’ operation]”, in Betunam Jeonjaeng Yeongu Chongseo [The Research of the Vietnam War], ed. Kukbangbu Kunsa Pyonchan Yonguso [The Institute for Military History] (Seoul, 2002), 1:341.
Chung Jong-tae, interview by Wi Tae-sun, The S-3 Office of the 53th Division, 14 November 1984, Chungon Ul Tonghae Bon Betunam Jeonjaengkwa Hangukkun, 1:790.
Juwol Hangukkun Saryeongbu [ROKFV], “Jakjeon Pyoungga Bogoseo [The Operation Evaluation Report]”, 23 June 1972, HB 02619.
Je 1 Kigapyeondae [ROK Cavalry Regiment], “Ankhepass Jakjeon Jeontusangbo [After Action Report on the Battle of An Khe Pass]”, 1972, HB 00230.
Message from John Vann, “12 April 1972 Vietnam Evaluation”, 12 April 1972, Dale W. Andrade Collection, Folder 10, Box 23, VNCA.
Lt. Gen. Ngo Quang Truong, The Easter Offensive of 1972 (Washington, D.C., 1980), 10–11. With the withdrawal of U.S. ground forces, Hanoi decided to conduct a major conventional offensive to bring the war to a rapid conclusion, or to testify the effectiveness of the ARVN and forces of South Vietnam. For more understanding of the Easter Offensive, see Andrade, Trial by Fire: The 1972 Easter Offensive America’s Last Vietnam Battle.
Chung Duk-man, interview by Wi Tae-sun, Chosun Hotel at Kyoung-joo, 15 November 1984, Chungonul Tonghae Bon Betunam Jeonjaengkwa Hangukkun, 1:781; Kukbangbu, Pawol Hangukkun Jeonsa, 10:184.
Message from John Vann to Creighton Abrams, “Daily Commander’s Evaluation”, 13 April 1972, Dale W. Andrade Collection, Folder 2, Box 24, VNCA.
“Hangukkun Wolmaengkungwa Kyukjeon [The Fierce battle against the North Vietnamese Forces]”, Dong-a Ilbo, 15 April 1972.
“Jangbijiwonupsi Akjogeonsoge Kotu Keodeup [The Struggle Without Equipment Support]”, Kyunghyang Shinmun, 19 April 1972.
Chung Tae-gyoung, interview by Wi Tae-sun, The S-3 Office of the 22th Division, 24 May 1984, Chungonul Tonghae Bon Betunam Jeonjaengkwa Hangukkun, 1:795.
Message from John Vann to Creighton Abrams, “An Khe Pass Operation by the ROKs and Related Matters”, 18 April 1972, Dale W. Andrade Collection, Folder 17, Box 23, VNCA.
“Ankhe, Now a Highlands Ghost Town, Remains an Important Battlefield”, New York Times, 22 April 1972.
“An Khe Pass Operation by the ROKs and Related Matters”, 18 April 1972, VNCA. Here is Vann’s suggestion of ROKA’s problem: “A. The extremely high (30:1) kill reported. [Vann thought this was not true.] B. Our inability to find out the disposition of enemy weapons reported captured. C. The absolute secrecy maintained by the ROKs even after operation is over. D. Either unwillingness or inability on the part of the ROKs to reveal the type of tactics that result in such great successes. I directed both my G3 and the us liaison officers to the ROKs to analyze the ROK operations to determine if there were lessons learned on tactics that could be applied elsewhere. In both Attempts, we drew complete blanks. E. The almost total inflexibility of ROKs. As far as we can determine, battlefield plans are almost never changed to meet the exigencies of the situation. This has been clearly evident in the current battle. F. Massive reliance upon usTAC Air and gunships. G. Extreme ineptness in the use of artillery”.
Kwon, “An Khe Jeontu Chamjeon Soogi”, 279–280.
“Letter from John P. Vann to Kang Won Chae”, 16 April 1972, Dale W. Andrade Collection, Folder 17, Box 23, VNCA.
“Wolmaengkun Maengho Sammyonhyupkong [The Enemy’s Pincer Movement to Tiger]”, Kyunghyang Shinmun, 20 April 1972.
Message from John Vann to Creighton Abrams, “Daily Commander’s Evaluation”, 19 April 1972, Dale W. Andrade Collection, Folder 2, Box 24, VNCA.
Kim Chang-yeol, interview by Wi Tae-sun, Dongseo Giyeon Inc, 22 October 1984, Chungonul Tonghae Bon Betunam Jeonjaengkwa Hangukkun, 1:788.
Jin Moo-woong, interview by Wi Tae-sun, Daegu-si, 16 November 1984, Chungonul Tonghae Bon Betunam Jeonjaengkwa Hangukkun, 1:793.
Message from John Vann to Creighton Abrams, “Daily Commander’s Evaluation”, 22 April 1972, Dale W. Andrade Collection, Folder 2, Box 24, VNCA.
Lee Moo-pyo, interview by Wi Tae-sun, ROK Army College, 13 July 1984, Chungonul Tonghae Bon Betunam Jeonjaengkwa Hangukkun, 1:805.
The ROK government was sensitive to public opinion about the withdrawal of ROK forces from Vietnam. If the Battle of An Khe Pass had been known to the public as a failure, Seoul would have faced an awkward situation.
The Principles of war provide general guidance for the conduct of war at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. The U.S Army published its first discussion of the principles of war in Army training regulation in 1921, and after that, although the principles of war slightly revised, it has withstood the test of time. The current Korean Army version of the principle of war (2013) is almost the same with the U.S. Army’s 1993 and 2008 version, with little revision: adding the intelligence and morale, removing economy of force. FM 100–5 of 1993 and FM 3–0 of 2008 presented nine principles of objective, offensive, mass, economy of force, manoeuvre, unity of command, security, surprise, and simplicity. FM 100–5 (Washington D.C., 14 June 1993), chapter 2, 4–6; FM 3–0 (Washington D.C., 27 June 2008), chapter 4, 12–15. The analysis of the Battle of An Khe Pass is based on the principles of war presented the most recent ROKA Field Manual. Kyoyukhoijang [Field Menual] 13–3–2: Jakjeonsul [Operations] (Gyeryong: Yukgunbonbu [ROKA Headquarters], 30 April 2013).
Minutes of a Washington Special Actions Group Meeting, “Vietnam”, 26 April 1972, FRUS, Document 135.
Letter from President Nixon to Korean President Park, 3 June 1972, FRUS, Document 144.
Message from Philp Habib to Richard Nixon and Attached Letter, “President Park’s Reply to President Nixon”, 13 June 1972, Folder 14, Box 24, Dale W. Andrade Collection, VNCA.