Crushing the American troops in Central Highlands
Early 1965, the Joint General Staff summoned me and the 304th division commander to give us the order to enter the South on a combat mission. Comrade Deputy Chief of Staff said: "You must think carefully: we are going to engage an American troop, our main force must strike the enemy with an "upper-hand" advantage. The high command gives you two the control to lead a full division into the South, to joint with the people and militias of the South to defeat the American troop and succeed in the very first fight."
After receiving the mission order, I and the 304th division commander discussed and agreeded that the first fight would result in the annihilation of an American battalion - this feat did not have a precedent in the imperialistic history of the American troops (including in the 1951-1952 Korean War). The first time a full division of main force of the People's Army of Vietnam faces an opponent whose combat capabilities are unknown to us, and yet equipped with the most modern weaponry; in order for us to defeat them to the point of "remembering for life" and "fearful" is not an easy task. In the capacity of the person in charge of the division going South, I was keenly aware the critical situation of the matter required a thorough preparation in political ideology and organization.
In terms of ideology, the troops, the combatants must be informed that the scheme of the American imperialists was to conduct an war of invasion, to destroy all economic, military endeavors, even livelihood of the population in order to revert Vietnam to the stone age area. As a foundation, to point out the enemy's evil intention, to build hate and resolve to defeat the American Imperialists. The division imparted in due time to the troops, combatants information on evil acts committed by the American Imperialists in the South, rekindled patriotism, revived the image of past slavery, the starvation of the population in 1945; educated with Uncle Ho's exhortation to fight against the Americans to save the country from 1954 to 1975. Through education, ideology indoctrination aiming at elevating the moral and resolve of achieving victory over the Imperialist Americans, we obtained three levels (excellent level of determination 30-35%, good 50-55%, acceptable 8-10%), those whose performance was poor remained behind for further preparation. And the troops attaining the three levels of awareness must be categorized in accordance with different formation: basic; tactic, mission. Various major weaponries must be manned by strong will and well-trained troops. At key cadre positions, the man in charge must be equally professional and determined. The prior result was that on the operational march down to the South lasting almost 2 months, troops, combatants falling behind en route was minimal. In terms of combat techniques, we study thoroughly the American troops, their experience in the invasion war in Korea, we organized reading on combat accounts in Korea in the Northern region. In term of formation and training, we focused on training in accordance with the tactics used by the American troops, in forming for each weapon, each cadre from 2 to 3 persons at the same time well trained, versed and determined to guarantee a sure victory in the most difficult and complex situation.
End of 9/1965, the forward units of 304th division entered Central Highlands when the Pleime campaign was about to start. B3 Command (comrade Chu Huy Man, Commander and Political Comissar of B3) summoned me and the 304th Division Commander to receive operational order. Comrade Chu Huy Man said: "304th Division is the first full division to enter the Central Highlands. The Pleime campaign has started, the 304th Division will participate in phase 2 of the campaign, and will constitute the force which will attack directly the US 1st Airmobile Cavalry newly arrived in Vietnam and was on its way up to Central Highlands. I will maneuver to attract troops of the US 1st Cavalry for you to attack. Being the first full division to engage combat with the Americans, you must strike a "demoralizing" coup to the American troops. So that from that point on whenever they saw the main Vietnamese force they would panicked in fear."
I pondered deeply in order to visualize the proper tactics that would "demoralize" the enemy. After 2 days, the 304th Division Commander and I presented in person to comrade Chu Huy Man the content of the "demoralizing strike". One was to annihilate an American airmobile cavalry battalion; two was to attack at close range and with bayonets (in close combat).
In the preparation process, we encountered numerous difficulties, among which was an incident that stuck forever in my mind. It was that a section of cadres and combatants assessed mistakenly that American troops could not be attacked with close range combat using bayonets, and discarded almost all bayonets along Route 559 (from Route 9 to B3). I had to mobilize some political cadres together with the transportation unit to go back and gather bayonets from Route 9 to B3, succeeding in recuperating 300 pieces, sufficient to arm 3 infantry companies (one of 7th battalion and 2 of 8th battalion of 66th Regiment). The use of bayonets in this battle was not to be entrusted to just anybody, but to selected and highly motivated and determined combatants to defeat the American troops. Then to motivate, to train to the perfection the bayonet combat tactic, close range combat and light foot, under enemy fire , in order to ascertain close contact appropriate to the targeted Americans that we will face at Ia Drang valley.
While dictating order, comrade Chu Huy Man emphasized in various occasions: This is the decisive battle of the Pleime campaign. Therefore the combat outcome must be high: It might be 1 on our side, 8 to 10 on the enemy's side, but in this specific battle, it could be more than 1 on our side, and 1 on the enemy's side. But you are only allowed to fight only, from there on you must fight in such manner, because Vietnam is a small and poor country against American troops which belong to a great and rich country. Such an off-hand attitude in the use of troops is not in alignment with the military way of our Party.
The Pleime campaign began from 19 to 10/29/1965, by way of encircling and isolating Pleime outpost, forcing the ARVN troops to come to the rescue and we had annihilated one entire ARVN regiment and its armored task force. Once the ARVN troops are severely wounded, the American troops would be forced to come to the rescue. At first, we calculated the American troops would come to the rescue within a week. But in reality it was only after 15 days that the Americans poured in their troops in Ia Drang valley (the spot we anticipated to fight them), which allowed us more time to prepare for a better battle plan.
In the Pleime campaign, we anticipated that the enemy would bomb our battlefield before and after the campaign, or when they inserted troops in Ia Drang valley, but we had not anticipated that they would use B52 for tactical support In Ia Drang valley. As soon as the 30th and last bomber dropped its ordnance, reconnaissance helicopters circled above the area, followed by numerous waves of transport helicopters unloading troops in Ia Drang valley. Under these circumstances, we must run while maneuvering into battle formations.
From 11/14 to 11/17/1965, through 4 battles of 66th regiment and one battalion of 33rd regiment, we destroyed the 2nd battalion of 1st Air Cavalry Division commanded by lieutenant colonel McDade, with 250 killed and 120 wounded, and 30 soldiers of the 2nd battalion in disarray and damaged heavily the 1st air cavalry battalion commanded by lieutenant colonel Harold Moore (now lieutenant general in the US Army), with 150 killed and 120 wounded of the 2nd battalion (among the total amount of troops engaged in this battle of 2 American battalions comprising 800 combatants). According to the general statistics in war, the number of wounded is higher than the dead, but in the Ia Drang valley's battle, the number of enemy killed was higher than the wounded. In this battle, the number of enemy killed and wounded was shot or pierced from the chest up by our troops conducting close combat and using bayonets and knives, sowing consternation among the Americans. In this battle, comrade Dinh Van De, a Re tribesman, political company executive officer of 8th battalion had used his rifle to shoot down 5 enemies and his knife to cut down 3 enemies, to become the first class warrior in the killing of Americans and together with the 8th battalion had annihilated the entire US 1st battalion commanded by lieutenant colonel McDade and inflicted heavy damaged to the 2nd battalion commanded by lieutenant Harold Moore, achieving the ratio of us 1.4 to enemy 1.
At the end of the campaign, in terms of tabulation and assessment of Pleime campaign in particular and the Ia Drang valley battle in general, at the beginning there were different opinions; some considered the Pleime campaign an overall great victory; but in regard the Ia Drang valley battle in particular, some opinions said it was excellent, some others said the enemy casuaties were high, ours were equally high and thus it was a draw.
After multiple discussions, everybody reached the same assessment: in the Pleime campaign in general and Ia Drang valley battle in particular, we gained the upper hand in terms of strategy and politics. Because the Ia Drang valley battle was the decisive battle of the Pleime campaign. As far as the Americans were concerned, the Ia Drang valley battle became their nightmare and in his memoire Westmoreland admitted: "This was a major blow" of the US 1st Air Cavalry in its first engagement in Central Highlands. The battle in the Ia Drang valley had crossed over the tactical frame, and had become a sizable campaign. Moreover, it was also a battle with a major strategic significance.
Major General Nguyen Nam Khanh