Southern Heroes: Le Minh Dao, The 18th Division, and the Battle of Xuan Loc
“Please, do not call me a hero. My men who died at Xuan Loc and the hundred battles before are the true heroes.” – Le Minh Dao, Brigadier General, 18th Division, South Vietnam
On this day, 37 years ago, the tanks of the North Vietnamese Army rolled into the city of Saigon. The city’s inhabitants gathered frantically outside the gates of the U.S. embassy, begging the Americans to shelter them from the advancing Communists. That day, thousands of Vietnamese families packed up their entire lives and embarked on a journey across the seas to escape the grasp of Communism. April 30, 1975 was a dark day in Vietnam’s history, but prior to this fall, the South Vietnamese Army would achieve one last glorious victory.
In the weeks prior to the fall of Saigon, the Communists in the North were still figuring out how to capture the city. One strategically important location was Xuan Loc, which the Communists planned to capture before moving on to Saigon. As the 4th Corps of the North Vietnamese Army assembled their forces in the jungle north of the city of Xuan Loc, they were greeted by some unexpected guests. The 18th Division of the ARVN (South Vietnam), under Brig. General Le Minh Dao, would derail the NVA’s plan to capture Xuan Loc, showing the world that even without the U.S., the ARVN was still a force to be reckoned with.
“Even though we knew we had lost the war, I still fought. I was filled with despair after the loss of the northern Corps, but I still fight.”
The Battle of Xuan Loc was the last major struggle before Saigon’s fall on April 30, 1975. With the passionate and inspirational leadership of Brigadier General Le Minh Dao, the 18th Division of the ARVN resisted heavy fire from the Communist forces from April 9-21, when the division was recalled to defend Saigon. The brilliance of the 18th Division can be seen by its numbers, dealing a miserable amount of pain to the 4th Corps of the NVA. On the first day of battle, the NVA under Major General Hoang Cam lost more than 700 hundred men to the ARVN and Le Minh Dao, whose losses were below 50 soldiers. After four days, Cam’s death toll climbed to 2,000, while Dao’s still only in the hundreds, the 4th Corps still had not advanced (Pribbenow & Vieth, 2004: 191-199).
By April 13, the 4th Corps and the North Vietnamese Army were forced to change their strategy. According to NVA Commander Tran Van Tra, because of the fierce resistance of General Dao and the 18th Division, it was no longer in the interests of the NVA to continue pressing in Xuan Loc (Pribbenow & Vieth, 2004: 200). From then until April 21, the Communist forces would concentrate their forces in other areas around Xuan Loc, and Le Minh Dao would continue to fight them until receiving orders to return to Saigon. The general’s retreat was just as masterful as his advance, which required much daring and intellect to outmaneuver the Communist forces.
“I was their general, I wish to be the last man from the 18th ARVN to be released. I could not look them in the face otherwise.”
Sadly, the success story ends here, with Le Minh Dao’s successful retreat back to Saigon. From this point onward, South Vietnam would run out of steam, and the ARVN would no longer have the means to fight. Brigadier General Le Minh Dao and the 18th Division were only few of many brave individuals who sacrificed their lives for the free and democratic South. On April 30th, even after Duong Van Minh and the Southern government surrendered, Le Minh Dao still wanted to keep fighting. However, with the knowledge that the corps commander and the deputy had taken their own lives, Dao knew that it was done. On May 9, Le Minh Dao turned himself over to the Communist forces, serving a prison sentence of 17 years. He would remain in prison until May 4, 1992, when he was finally released. Le Minh Dao currently resides in the United States, his accomplishments forever immortalized in the pages of history.
Further Reading on the Battle of Xuan Loc:
Pribbenow, Merle L. & George J. Veith. ”Fighting is an Art: The Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s Defense of Xuan Loc, 9-21 April 1975.” The Journal of Military History, Vol. 68, No. 1 (Jan., 2004), pp. 163-213.