The Battle of Ba Gia was a major battle that marked the beginning of the National Liberation Front's Summer Offensive of 1965, during the early phases of the Vietnam War, which is known in Vietnam as the American War. The battle took place in Quang Ngai Province, South Vietnam, between May 28–31, 1965.
Following the victory of Communist forces in the Battle of Binh Gia earlier in the year, the North Vietnamese leadership in Hanoi decided to intensify their war effort in order to defeat the American-backed Government of South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese war effort received a major boost in the first half of 1965, when the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China stepped up the delivery of military aid, which included the deployment of military specialists and other personnel to train North Vietnam's armed forces. The North Vietnamese decision to intensify the war culminated in the Summer Offensive of 1965, which aimed to destroy the regular divisions of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) in large-scale battles, and pin down the elite units of the ARVN strategic reserve. In Quang Ngai Province, South Vietnam, the National Liberation Front (commonly known as the Viet Cong) kick-started their summer campaign by attacking elements of the ARVN 51st Infantry Regiment during the early hours of May 29, 1965. In the days that followed, the National Liberation Front destroyed an entire ARVN Task Force to mark a successful start to their summer campaign.
During the first half of 1965 there was a sharp escalation of the war in Vietnam. In January 1965, while on a visit to China, a North Vietnamese military delegation met with Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai to discuss the situation. In the meeting the North Vietnamese were advised by Zhou Enlai to step up military operations in South Vietnam, in order to destroy the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) whenever they came out to fight. In March, in response to the National Liberation Front’s appeal for support from socialist troops, Leonid Brezhnev announced that Soviet citizens were volunteering to fight on the side of North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front. However, Hanoi privately informed Moscow that the National Liberation Front only wanted to gain international support, and they did not need actual volunteers.
In April, the Soviet Union’s political support for North Vietnam materialised with the delivery of MiG fighter planes and SAM-2 anti-aircraft missiles, along with large quantities of food and ammunition. In addition, Soviet pilots and other specialists were dispatched to North Vietnam to train North Vietnamese military personnel in the use of advanced military hardware. China, not to be outdone by its Soviet rival, increased the delivery of armaments to North Vietnam at rates which surpassed their commitments in 1964. China also offered logistical assistance to the North Vietnamese military by providing seven divisions of Chinese soldiers for road construction and other projects. The logistical support offered by China had a significant impact on the North Vietnamese military, as North Vietnam needed all its combat divisions to conduct operations, to aide the Pathet Lao in Laos and the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam.
Buoyed by the recent victory in the Binh Gia campaign and the support of their major allies, North Vietnamese leaders began preparing a strategy to defeat South Vietnamese and United States military forces. Le Duan, Secretary of the Communist Party, believed that the South Vietnamese regime was able to survive because they still had a strong army to rely upon. Therefore, to win the war and reunite the country, the South Vietnamese military had to be destroyed completely. Le Duan believed the Communist forces must destroy three or four of South Vietnam’s nine regular army divisions in a series of large battles, and pin down the eleven elite battalions of the South Vietnamese strategic reserve. Thus, North Vietnamese leaders decided to launch a summer offensive with the objective of defeating the South Vietnamese army by drawing them into battle repeatedly with numerous, geographically dispersed attacks.
At the beginning of the summer season in 1965, National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) Commanders in Military Region 5 passed a resolution to launch a military operation known as the "Le Do Campaign", which was supposed to last from May 15 to August 30, 1965. The operation was aimed at regular South Vietnamese military units based in the provinces of Gia Lai, Kontum and Quang Ngai. Preparations for a major military offensive was made at the beginning of 1965 when Tran Kien, Chairman of the NLF Rear Services in Military Region 5, began the process of transporting soldiers and materiel into the NLF areas of operation. Huynh Huu Anh, Deputy Chief of the NLF Chief of Staff in Military Region 5, was responsible for conducting reconnaissance missions and air defence. North Vietnamese Major General Chu Huy Man was sent to South Vietnam to take command of military operations.
Prior to the NLF Summer Offensive of 1965, Quang Ngai and the surrounding provinces had witnessed a substantial increase in NLF military activities. On February 6, 1965, the Viet Cong 409th Sapper Battalion attacked the U.S airbase at Pleiku, injuring more than a hundred American personnel and damaging about 20 aircraft. The United States retaliated by launching Operation Flaming Dart, bombing selected targets in North Vietnam. On May 28, local Viet Cong units in Nui Thanh attacked a company of U.S. Marines, and 180 U.S. soldiers were killed or wounded as a result. Following those minor actions the National Liberation Front decided to launch a major assault on South Vietnamese units in Ba Gia, a small village in Son Tinh District about 10 kilometres away from Quang Ngai City.
In May 1965, the Viet Cong 271st Regiment (part of the Viet Cong 9th Division) moved into northern Quang Ngai from the neighbouring province of Quang Nam. The Viet Cong 271st Regiment had three battalions (the 40th, 60th and 90th Battalions), and was placed under the command of Le Huu Tru. In northern Quang Ngai, the 271st Regiment joined the 45th Independent Battalion and the 83rd Local Force Battalion. On the other side, South Vietnamese military units in Quang Ngai Province formed part of the ARVN 1st Brigade, I Corps Tactical Zone, commanded by General Nguyen Chanh Thi. In Quang Ngai the main ARVN force included the 51st Infantry Regiment (part of the 25th Infantry Division), Marine Corps Task Force B, 1st and 3rd Marine Battalions, the 37th and 39th Ranger Battalion, the 5th Airborne Battalion, and two artillery battalions equipped with 105mm artillery guns.
On the night of May 28, 1965, the Viet Cong marched into their designated positions around Ba Gia; the 90th Battalion took up their position at Minh Thanh, the 60th Battalion at Vinh Loc 1, the 40th Battalion at Duyen Phuoc, and the 45th Battalion at Vinh Khanh. The 271st Regimental Headquarters set up camp at Nui Thanh, while the 83rd Local Force Battalion was ordered to encircle the administrative centre at Nghia Hanh. Precisely at 5.45 am on May 29, elements of the Viet Cong 271st Regiment launched a surprise attack on Phuoc Loc, a small village located south of Ba Gia. Within 10 minutes of fighting, the two platoons of South Vietnamese Regional Force defending Phuoc Loc were subdued, and the Viet Cong quickly consolidated the battlefield around the area. At around 6:00 am ARVN Captain Nguyen Van Ngoc, commander of the 1st Battalion, 51st Infantry Regiment, led his unit from Go Cao south toward Phuoc Loc to stage a counter-attack against the lead element of the enemies’ 271st Regiment.
At 9.50 am, as the South Vietnamese 1st Battalion marched through Loc Tho village they were immediately encircled by the Viet Cong 90th Battalion, who had set up ambush positions and were waiting for the South Vietnamese army to arrive. Caught by the element of surprise, the South Vietnamese 1st Battalion descended into chaos and was unable to mount an effective counter-attack. In less than one hour of fighting, the battalion was completely destroyed with 270 soldiers either killed or wounded. Captain Nguyen Van Ngoc was amongst the 217 men who were captured. Only 65 South Vietnamese soldiers and three American advisors managed to return to government lines. The Viet Cong also claimed to have destroyed one 105mm artillery piece, four GMC trucks and one Jeep. Meanwhile, the Viet Cong’s 83rd Local Force Battalion marched from Tra Khuc River toward Nghia Hanh, and began applying pressure on the South Vietnamese soldiers stationed there. Thus, the Viet Cong were asserting control over Ba Gia and the surrounding areas.
On the afternoon of May 29, ARVN General Nguyen Chanh Thi, commander of South Vietnam’s I Corps Tactical Zone, responded to the Viet Cong assault by forming a Task Force with the objective of recapturing Ba Gia. The Task Force consisted of the 2nd Battalion, 51st Infantry Regiment, the 3rd Marine Battalion, the 39th Ranger Battalion and one squadron of M-113 armoured personnel carriers. According to General Nguyen Chanh Thi’s plan, the Task Force would achieve the following objectives: the 3rd Marine Battalion would advance along Route 5 toward the objective of Ba Gia; the 39th Ranger Battalion through An Thuyet, Vinh Loc and Vinh Khanh and than capture Mount Chop Non; and the 2nd Battalion, 51st Infantry Regiment towards Phuoc Loc and capture Mount Ma To. On the morning of May 30 the South Vietnamese Task Force assembled in Quang Ngai City and waited for further orders, while South Vietnamese artillery and U.S. Air Force fighter-bombers pounded Viet Cong positions around Ba Gia.
At around 12 noon on May 30, with extensive air support from U.S. fighter-bombers and UH-1 helicopter gunships, the South Vietnamese army advanced towards their objectives in two separate columns. In the first, the ARVN 39th Ranger Battalion approached northern Phuoc Loc to secure Mount Chop Non, from whence they could strike at the Viet Cong’s southern flank. In the second column the ARVN 2nd Battalion and the 3rd Marine Battalion advanced towards their objectives of Mount Ma To and Ba Gia respectively. However, South Vietnamese manoeuvres on the ground did not go unnoticed, because Viet Cong reconnaissance teams on Mount Khi had spotted South Vietnamese columns and responded accordingly. Elements of the Viet Cong 45th Battalion were ordered to set up ambush positions inside the village of Vinh Khanh, while the 60th Battalion was redeployed to Mount Ma To and waited for the enemy there. At about 1 pm the ARVN 2nd Battalion, 51st Infantry Regiment arrived on Hill 47 in the vicinity of Mount Ma To, but the Viet Cong 60th Battalion allowed them to advance toward their objective.
Meanwhile, the ARVN 39th Ranger Battalion secured their objective on Mount Chop Non, with the main formation of the Viet Cong 45th Battalion lining their troops on the rear positions of the South Vietnamese Rangers. At 2:05 pm the Viet Cong finally unleashed their ambush on the ARVN 2nd Battalion, forcing the South Vietnamese infantrymen to fight for their lives. As fighting erupted on Mount Ma To, the ARVN 3rd Marine Battalion inside the village of Phuoc Loc was ordered to relieve the 2nd Battalion. However, by 3:30 pm the 3rd Marine Battalion was also surrounded by the Viet Cong 60th Battalion on Hill 47, which had moved out from Vinh Loc village to engage the South Vietnamese Marines. At the same time, Viet Cong mortar fire began slamming into South Vietnamese positions in the village of Phuoc Loc, and fighting continued until 5 pm. When it concluded that evening both sides had suffered heavy casualties and the South Vietnamese 2nd Battalion and the 3rd Marine Battalion were forced to retreat back to Phuoc Loc with four M-113 APCs providing fire support.
During the night of May 30, Viet Cong formations on the battlefield were ordered to wipe out what was left of the South Vietnamese Task Force in Phuoc Loc village, as local villagers in Ba Gia helped the Viet Cong round up South Vietnamese prisoners. On Mount Chop Non, the Viet Cong 45th Battalion were able to advance within 100 metres of the ARVN 39th Ranger Battalion’s line of defence without being noticed. In the early hours of May 31, the Viet Cong 40th Battalion resumed its attack on South Vietnamese positions in Phuoc Loc, but the ARVN 2nd Battalion and 3rd Marine Battalion put up stiff resistance. After several hours of fierce fighting, the Viet Cong recaptured Phuoc Loc where they found the bodies of 94 dead South Vietnamese soldiers. At the same time, the Viet Cong 45th Battalion attacked the ARVN 39th Ranger Battalion on Mount Chop Non. The Viet Cong bombarded the South Vietnamese with heavy mortars, which were followed by infantry assaults. By 4 am the Viet Cong 45th Battalion had successfully recaptured their final objective of Mount Chop Non, leaving the 39th Ranger Battalion decimated with 108 soldiers killed.
The battle at Ba Gia, which marked the beginning of the National Liberation Front’s Summer Offensive of 1965, had dealt a severe blow to South Vietnam's armed forces. For the first time in the NLF’s history, their forces at Ba Gia successfully decimated a regimental-sized ARVN Task Force in battle. According to Vietnam’s official account of the battle, the Viet Cong killed or wounded 915 South Vietnamese soldiers, and 270 others were captured. In addition to the human casualties, the Viet Cong also captured 370 weapons of various kinds and destroyed 14 GMC trucks. South Vietnam, on the other hand, claimed to have killed 556 enemy soldiers, but only captured 20 weapons. Following their military victory, the NLF Quang Ngai Provincial Committee initiated a political campaign to exercise political influence over the province. By June 3, 1965, the National Liberation Front virtually controlled five districts in northern Quang Ngai Province (Binh Son, Son Tinh, Nghia Hanh, Tu Nghia and Mo Duc), home to 10,000 civilians.
Even though the fighting at Ba Gia was minor in scale, it convinced President Lyndon B. Johnson that South Vietnam's armed forces could not deal with the growing Communist forces by themselves. On July 20, 1965, U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara laid out three options before Johnson concerning the American involvement in Vietnam: 1) withdraw all American personnel from Vietnam to minimise their losses; 2) continue American commitments at their then approximate level of about 75,000 men; 3) substantially expand the American military presence in Vietnam. Ultimately, President Johnson chose the third option and decided to ‘Americanise’ the Vietnam War, and by July 22 the U.S. military was authorised to raise its combat strength in Vietnam to 44 battalions. Thus, total U.S. military presence in Vietnam grew from 75,000 to 125,000 men, drawn mainly from the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps. Undeterred by this growing U.S. military strength, North Vietnamese leaders decided to match American commitments by increasing the number of their troops in South Vietnam, thereby escalating the war.