Richard Nixon had campaigned in the 1968 presidential election under the slogan that he would end the war in Vietnam and bring ‘peace with honor.’ However, there was no plan in place to do this, and the American commitment continued for another five years. The goal of the American military effort was to gradually build up the strength and confidence of the South Vietnamese armed forces by re-equipping it with modern weapons so that they could defend their nation on their own. This policy became the cornerstone of the so-called ‘Nixon Doctrine.’ As applied to Vietnam, it was labeled ‘Vietnamization.’
With a renewed U.S. offensive bombing campaign forcing a recalcitrant North Vietnam back to the negotiating table, with resulting progress in the Paris peace negotiations, on January 15, 1973, Nixon announced the suspension of all offensive actions against North Vietnam. This would be followed by a unilateral withdrawal of all U.S. troops. Twelve days later, on January 27, the Paris Peace Accords on “Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam” were signed, officially ending direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The agreement included the provision that all U.S. combat units would leave Vietnam by March 29, 1973. As an inducement for President Thieu’s government to sign the agreement, Nixon had promised that the U.S. would provide financial and limited military support (in the form of air strikes) so that the South would not be overrun. But Nixon was fighting for his political life in the growing Watergate scandal and facing an increasingly hostile Congress, which was withholding funding for the continuation of the war, and he was unable to back up his promise. Compounding the issue, many United States citizens had turned against the war, citing the length of time it had been going on, the high number of U.S. casualties, and U.S. involvement in such war crimes as the My Lai massacre.
With just a little over a month to go, American combat troops stationed throughout South Vietnam were ecstatic over the prospects of going home as they turned over their installations and war materials to the South Vietnam military. But as they did so, the NVA and Vietcong continued to wage battle, resulting in 68 Americans killed in 1973. Thirty-three of those KIAs alone occurred in a single one-hour battle at Fire Support Base (FSB) Mary Ann.
However, before the agreement was signed and American troops began standing down, fighting the NVA and Vietcong raged on. One battle in particular caught the eye of Americans – the siege of FSB Mary Ann on March 28, 1971.
The firebase was strategically located to interdict the movement of enemy troops and materiel down the K-7 Corridor and the Dak Rose Trail (branches of the Ho Chi Minh trail running from Laos to the coast of South Vietnam). Originally intended to be a temporary base, it evolved into a more permanent location garrisoned by at least one company of U.S. ground forces. The base was manned by 231 American soldiers at the time of the attack. Also present on the base was a Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) artillery battery awaiting the turnover of the FSB to ARVN units.
FSB Mary Ann was similar to other U.S. firebases in South Vietnam, although it occupied a bulldozed hilltop which looked like a camel with two humps. Running northwest to southeast, the firebase stretched 500 meters across two hillsides with twenty-two bunkers. The headquarters consisted of the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and Company Command Post (CP), and was located at the south end of the camp. The northwest end of the camp consisted of an artillery position with two 155mm howitzers, the fire direction center, and the artillery command post. Surrounding the firebase was a trench system protected by concertina wire.
For months leading up to the attack, the level of enemy activity in the area had been low and contacts were infrequent. The lack of significant recent engagements, along with preparations to turn the FSB over to ARVN units and their impending return home, had given the U.S. soldiers in the area a false sense of security.