Here is an excerpt of Route 9 Problem: The Battle for Lang Vei
Lang Vei Special Forces Camp,
February 7, 1968
Comrade Van Tien Dung had trouble concealing his frustration. The political directorate was breathing down his neck. The chief of the NVA General Staff in Hanoi dispatched two trusted subordinates in early December 1967 to oversee combat operations east along Duong Chin or Route 9. The People’s Army even created a new campaign called the Route 9 Front headquartered in the Laotian village of Sat Lit. The political directorate demanded Dung to get the attack moving.
Dung signed the cable to be sent to his protégés. Dai-ta (Brigadier General) Tran Quy Hai previously served Dung as deputy chief of the NVA General Staff and now commanded the Route 9 Front. Likewise, Dai-ta Le Quang Dao, who was deputy chief of the General Political Department in Hanoi, was now chief political officer of the Route 9 Front. Both postings reflected the high priority from Central Military Party Committee Chief Le Duan to attack down Route 9.
The urgent cable dated February 2, 1968, was unambiguous. Comrade Dung wrote, “The Political Directorate is worried about the ‘Route 9 problem.’ What is the reason and what difficulties have you had that you have not strongly coordinated the attack to force the enemy forces to withdraw from Route 9 [to the east] to Tri-Thien, to create difficulties for Tri-Thien?”
Tri-Thien referred to two northern provinces in South Vietnam, Quang Tri and Thua Thien. The “Route 9 problem” was the Lang Vei Special Forces camp blocking the attack on the six-thousand-strong US marine combat base at Khe Sanh and success at seizing Tri-Thien. Dung knew from experience how to motivate others. He had served as chief of staff to Dai-tuong (Senior General) Vo Nguyen Giap in 1954 during the masterful defeat of the French Army at Dien Bien Phu that hastened France’s withdrawal from Vietnam. He was sure America also would withdraw with the loss of Khe Sanh.
But first, Lang Vei had to fall. Dai-tas Hai and Dao in their Route 9 Front headquarters in Laos passed along the order to the NVA 304th Division in the strongest terms to “attack the Lang Vei strongpoint as soon as possible.” Tanks aimed at Khe Sanh would now annihilate Lang Vei first.
* * *
Grey, overcast daylight slipped into thick blackness over the isolated Lang Vei Special Forces camp deep in the boonies. US Army Sergeant Nick Fragos shrugged off the damp chill in the small concrete observation platform atop the command bunker and checked his wristwatch. It was after midnight. February 7, 1968, was young.
A trip flare burst into bright light on the southern perimeter, so suddenly the loud pop and hiss grabbed Fragos’s attention. He stared at the sight. Two NVA soldiers were calmly clipping the camp’s defensive wire bathed in the flat, white, trip-flare light. Behind them was an idling tank, its crew waiting patiently for the gap in the wire to be cut. The scene was riveting.
Time slowed for Fragos. The NVA tank commander popped out of his turret and shone a bright spotlight for a half-minute, quickly studying the camp’s defenses. Behind him, Fragos saw another enemy tank waiting for its turn to move forward. Why don’t they just roll over the wire? Fragos thought. A moment later, they did. The defenders closest to the enemy opened fire at the two fence cutters, killing them in a hail of bullets. Fragos watched the tank commander button his hatch and order his driver to bull over the perimeter fence. He heard the tank engines gun and saw the tracks lurch forward.
Fragos squeezed the handset of his field telephone and hollered the warning, “We have tanks in the wire!” It was forty-two minutes after midnight. The battle for Lang Vei had begun.