The Ia Drang Valley Battle? Which One?
The Ia Drang Valley Battle that is well known was the one conducted by units of the US 1st Cavalry Division that unfolded from November 14 to November 17, 1965. The other less well known Ia Drang Valley Battle followed the footsteps of that battle and unfolded from November 18 to November 26, 1965; units of the ARVN Airborne Brigade conducted this battle. For the sake of simplification, the first will be called the US Ia Drang Valley Battle, and the second, the ARVN Ia Drang Valley Battle.
Both battles took place at areas bordered by Chu Pong Massif ridge edges and the Ia Drang river, which flows east-west direction nearby Chu Pong Massif; the US Ia Drang Valley Battle, at the east and the ARVN Ia Drang Valley Battle at the west, near Plei The, close to the Cambodian border.
Both battles were launched as tactical exploitation phases following the siege of the camp of Pleime by NVA units and its relief by ARVN units of II Corps, with the US and ARVN taking turn in pursuing the fleeing enemy troops toward their hideouts in the dense jungles of Chu Pong Massif areas.
Various names have been used in relation to these two battles, in particular Pleime Battle, Ia Drang Battle, Operation Silver Bayonet, Pleiku Campaign… creating some kind of "fog of wars". A review of the chronology of the battles that took place in the Pleime Campaign might help to clarify somehow this state of confusion.
A Trilogy of Battles: Pleime, Chu Pong and Ia Drang
The NVA troops launched the assault on camp Pleime on October 19. ARVN II Corps conducted Operation Dan Thang 21 and liberated the camp on October 26, with the support of US Ingram Task Force. It was decided that the retreating enemy should be pursued, and the task was entrusted to US 1st Air Cavalry with Operation Long Reach that lasted until November 26. Operation Long Reach comprised three phases. The first was named Operation All the Way with US 1st Air Cavalry Brigade operating nearby camp Pleime. The second was named Operation Silver Bayonet I with US 3rd Air Cavalry Brigades operating further to the west of camp Pleime all the way to the footstep of Chu Pong massif; it was during Silver Bayonet I that the so-called Ia Drang Valley took place at LZ X-Ray and LZ Albany from November 14 to 17. The third phase was named Silver Bayonet II with US 2nd Brigade securing LZ Crooks, an artillery firebase which gave support to the ARVVN Brigade's operation. On November 18, ARVN Airborne Brigade took over the task of pursuing the enemy troops further west of Ia Drang River, with Operation Than Phong 7.
The American Ia Drang Valley Battle
Although the US Ia Drang Valley Battle, which occurred at Landing Zone X-Ray and Landing Zone Albany, had been popularized by General Hal Moore and Joseph Galloway's book - We Were Soldiers Once…And Young - and by Mel Gibson's movie - We Were Soldiers, there are still many details that remain unknown to the general public and strangely discarded and ignored by the American military establishment:
- the US Operation Long Reach, which encompassed Operation All the Way and Operation Silver Bayonet, was decided by and remained under ARVN II Corps’ control (not command), with US 1st Air Cavalry Division as the main force and ARVN 3rd Airborne Brigade as the reserved force;
- during US Operation Long Reach, US 1st Air Cavalry Division was supported by ARVN Airborne Rangers;
- the NVA’s position at Chu Pong was provided to US 1st Air Cavalry Division by ARVN II Corps;
- and ARVN Ia Drang Valley Battle followed through and concluded US Ia Drang Valley Battle.
General Westmoreland understood that the entire Pleime campaign was a joint effort between the US Armed Forces and the VN Armed Forces, under ARVN II Corps' Operational Control . He wrote in the Preface of Why Pleime:
10 October 1966
From the standpoint of employment of joint forces, the Plei Me battle was a classic.
- The signal successes of the latter phases could, perhaps, never have been realized had it not been for the judgment and foresight of Vietnamese leadership.
- The initial preparatory effort on the ground, paving the way for the introduction of the 1st Air Cavalry Division, was accomplished by Vietnamese forces.
- Similarly the very successful final phase exploitation was accomplished largely by the Vietnamese Airborne Brigade.
- The effectiveness of this highly organized, closely integrated, cooperative effort has not often been emulated in modern warfare.
This "highly organized, closely integrated, cooperative effort", according to ARVN II Corps' concept, was characterized by "joint intelligence and support activities, commonly-shared concept of operations and results, separate TAOR, separate command, separate deployment of forces, separate conduct of activities and separate reserve". In short, in military control and command's concept, the joint operation remained under ARVN II Corps' control.
American accounts on the Pleiku-Iadrang Campaign give the impression it was an entirely American operation. However, in reality US 1st Air Cavalry Division troops operated with supported of ARVN Special Forces Rangers teams, which conducted reconnaissance of landing zones, secured landing zones in preparation of US troops' insertion, and after US troops' landing, often times forayed deeper into enemy's territories. It is interesting to note that revelation of these ARVN Special Forces Rangers teams' support activities does not come from American or South Vietnamese military sources, but rather from a North Vietnamese military source, which studied the:
Characteristics of the 1st US Air Cavalry Division
I. Main Activities
Through Their Activities at Pleime and Ia Drang
From 24 October to 19 November 1965
a) 1st Phase: cooperate with Vietnamese troops to lift the siege at Pleime (24 to 28 October 1965).
b) 2nd Phase: use small detachments and coordinate with Vietnamese Special Forces Rangers to conduct raids into our rear (28 Oct to 11 Nov 1965).
c) 3rd Phase: use larger forces to launch raids deeper into our rear at Chu Pong and Ia Drang (14 to 19 November 1965).
II. Tactical Characteristics
Through their activities at Pleime and Ia Drang, the 1st US Air Cavalry Division has conducted the following kinds of operations:
- Reinforce Vietnamese troops to lift the siege at Pleime.
- Conduct separate activities in a separate area or in coordination with small detachments of Vietnamese SF Rangers.
b) Vertical landing by "frog leaps" into our rear by helicopters (28 Oct. to 10 Nov. 1965).
- forces used: from one battalion to one company of US troops or two companies of US troops coordinated with Vietnamese SF Rangers.
II - Tactics Tips
a) Before landing.- Reconnaissance of landing zones by repeated air reconnaissance or by small Vietnamese SF Rangers teams.
c) Landing of troops - Vietnamese SF Rangers or US reconnaissance elements always land first to secure the LZ for the landing of riflemen, fire support elements and CP.
d) After landing- The Vietnamese SF Rangers usually push far in patrols.
28 December 1965
Chief of Section 2
NVA B3 Front HQ
Lt. General Harold Moore, a LTC when he lead his 1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion into LZ X-Ray, did not mention if he got support from Vietnamese SF Rangers or not, but did acknowledge that it was ARVN II Corps' radio relay intercept team that provided him with the position of the NVA troops hiding in Chu Pong mountain:
Sergeant Major Plumley and I rolled out of our ponchos at the old French fort outside the barbed wire at Plei Me Special Forces Camp. It was 4:30 on Sunday morning, November 14, and the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry had work to do today (…) Over a cup of coffee, Matt Dillon passed along one interesting piece of information that the radio relay intercept team attached to our headquarters had come up with. Says Dillon: “They had made an intercept of a coded message in Mandarin dialect, like a situation report, from a position somewhere on a line from Plei Me camp directly through a clearing at the base of Chu Pong mountain. The intelligence lieutenant had a map with a line drawn on it. He said that the radio transmitter was somewhere on this line. I don’t remember how long that message was – that didn’t really bother me. It was the direction it came from. The lieutenant said he thought that possibly there was a North Vietnamese regiment somewhere out there near Chu Pong mountain.” (Lt. Gen. Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, 63-64)
The ARVN Ia Drang Valley Battle
There are two accounts on the Ia Drang Valley Battle conducted by ARVN Airborne Brigade: the first one by General Norman Schwarzkopf, and the second one by ARVN II Corps.
General Schwarzkopf recounted his involvement in this battle as an advisor to LTC Ngo Quang Truong, commander of ARVN Airborne Brigade, in his memoir "It Doesn't Take a Hero" (2002):
The airborne was alerted to prevent the North Vietnamese regiments defeated in the Ia Drang Valley from escaping back into Cambodia. I was half asleep in my room at the Manor BOQ after a big meal of curried chicken and beer when the call came to get out to the airport. Truong had assembled an unusually large task force of some two thousand troops to go to the Ia Drang the following morning, and had chosen me as his advisor.
We flew in transports to the red clay strip at Duc Co, my old stomping ground, then by chopper south to the river valley. From the minute we stepped off our helicopters we were involved in skirmishes and firefights. The valley was about twelve miles wide at the point where the Ia Drang flowed westward into Cambodia-and somewhere in those miles of dense jungle the main body of the enemy was on the move. We had landed to the north, and Truong ordered the battalions to cross the Ia Drang and take up positions along the Chu Prong Mountains, which formed a series of steep ridges to the south. It was fascinating to watch him operate. As we marched, he would stop to study the map, and every once in a while he'd indicate a position on the map and say, "I want you to fire artillery here." I was skeptical at first, but called in the barrages; when we reached the areas we found bodies. Simply by visualizing the terrain and drawing on his experience fighting the enemy for fifteen years, Truong showed an uncanny ability to predict what they were going to do.
When we set up our command post that night, he opened his map, lit a cigarette, and outlined his battle plan. The strip of jungle between our position on the ridges and the river, he explained, made a natural corridor-the route the NVA would most likely take. He said, "At dawn we will send out one battalion and put it here, on our left, as a blocking force between the ridge and the river. Around eight o'clock tomorrow morning they will make a big enemy contact. Then I will send another battalion here, to our right. They will make contact at about eleven o'clock. I want you to have your artillery ready to fire into this area in front of us," he said, "and then we will attack with our third and fourth battalions down toward the river. The enemy will then be trapped with the river to his back."
I'd never heard anything like this at West Point. I was thinking, "What's all this about eight o'clock and eleven o'clock? How can he schedule a battle that way?" But I also recognized the outline of his plan: Truong had reinvented the tactics Hannibal had used in 217 B.C. when he enveloped and annihilated the Roman legions on the banks of Lake Trasimene.
But, Truong added, we had a problem: the Vietnamese airborne had been called into this campaign because of high-level concern that American forces in pursuit of the enemy might otherwise venture too close to the Cambodian border. He said, "On your map, the Cambodian border is located here, ten kilometers east of where it appears on mine. In order to execute my plan, we must use my map rather than yours, because otherwise we cannot go around deeply enough to set up our first blocking force. So, "Thieu ta" Schwarzkopf"- "thieu ta" (pronounced "tia-tah") is Vietnamese for "major"-"what do you advise?"
The prospect of letting an enemy escape into a sanctuary until he was strong enough to attack again galled me as much as it would any soldier. Some of these fellows were the same ones I'd run into four months earlier at Duc Co; I didn't want to fight them again four months from now. So why should I assume that my map was more accurate than Truong's?
"I advise that we use the boundary on your map."
Long after he'd issued his attack orders, Truong sat smoking his cigarettes and studying the map. We went over the plan again and again late into the night, visualizing every step of the battle. At dawn we sent out the 3rd Battalion. They got into position and, sure enough, at eight o'clock they called and reported heavy contact. Truong sent the 5th Battalion to the right. At eleven o'clock they reported heavy contact. As Truong had predicted, in the jungle below us the enemy had run into the 3rd Battalion at the border and decided, "We can't get out that way. We'll double back." That decision violated a basic principle of escape and evasion, which is to take the worst possible route in order to minimize the risk of encountering a waiting enemy. Had they climbed out of the valley up the Chu Pong Mountains, they might have gotten away. Instead they followed the low ground, as Truong had anticipated, and now we'd boxed them in. He looked at me and said, "Fire your artillery." We shelled the area below us for a half hour. Then he ordered his two remaining battalions to attack down the hill; there was a hell of a lot of shooting as we followed them in.
Around one o'clock, Truong announced, "Okay. We'll stop." He picked a lovely little clearing, and we sat down with his staff and had lunch! Halfway through the meal, he put down his rice bowl and issued some commands on the radio. "What are you doing?" I asked. He'd ordered his men to search the battlefield for weapons: "We killed many enemy, and the ones we didn't kill threw down their weapons and ran away."
Now, he hadn't seen a damn thing! All the action had been hidden by jungle. But we stayed in that clearing for the remainder of the day, and his troops brought in armful after armful of weapons and piled them in front of us. I was excited-we'd scored a decisive victory! But Truong just sat, smoking his cigarettes.
ARVN II Corps narrated this battle as following:
The "Thần Phong 7" Operations
From 18 to 26 November 1965
The Coup de Grace at Ia Drang
For five consecutive days, from 15 to 19 November, the giant B52 bombers had flown a total of 96 sorties. One after the other, the areas of the Chu Pong massif - each of 20 square miles - underwent a systematic earthquake spreading from West to East. VC bunkers and trenches which so far had resisted the strikes by tactical aircraft and artillery began to score direct hits by the 750-pound bombs. The heavy canopy of the jungle ceased to be effective in both concealment and cover. The "back door" into Cambodia was closed and to escape, the VC remnants were reduced to utilize the narrow valley of the Ia Drang.
The intelligence estimate on enemy capabilities, made on 17 November indicated that nearly 2/3 of their strength had been wiped off through the engagements in Phases I and II.
II Corps Command thought it was time to throw in the reserve in order to put an end to the battle which had lasted for about one month. Besides suffering heavy losses, the enemy was compelled to fall into the trap set by friendly forces and canalized into the routes of withdrawal which we had foreseen.
This time the main effort was conducted by the ARVN Airborne Brigade whose mission consisted of destroying the fleeing VC units and all their installations around the Ia Drang valley. The 1st Air Cavalry Division which had thus far borne the burden of the attack would continue to exert a pressure from East to West and to provide artillery support for the Airborne Brigade.
The operation - dubbed "Thần Phong 7" - began in the afternoon, 18 November when the brigade was helilifted to the area of operations, immediately upon arrival in Pleiku.
I should like to take advantage of this opportunity to cite the outstanding achievement of the C130's Squadron of the 7th US Air Force which, within only a few hours had airlifted:
- The Airborne Brigade Headquarters,
- The Airborne 1st and 2nd Task Forces Headquarters,
- Five Airborne battalions: the 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th
from different distant places, such as Saigon, Bien Hoa, Vung Tau and Phu Yen to Pleiku. It was thanks to their contribution that the operation had been able to commence exactly as scheduled.
Sauve Qui Peut
During ten days of "search and destroy" - from 18 to 26 November - numerous engagements had occurred in the valley of the Ia Drang river between the Airborne units and the enemy. But most of them were only minor contacts with scattered VC elements.
The third phase of the battle of Pleime was characterized not only by the rout of the enemy but also by the increasing depression of their morale. Numerous VC weapons were found thrown into bushes along the trails or stream-beds.
The biggest engagement in the third phase happened at 1440 hours on 20 November, North of the Ia Drang river. For the second time in the battle of Pleime, the VC fell into a friendly ambush and suffered severe losses (the first ambush on 3rd November, by elements of the 1st Air Cavalry Division). The 32nd NVA Regiment which remained uncommitted and unscratched throughout the second phase, was finally found and forced to fight, although it had tried to avoid contact as much as possible.
In the morning of that day, the 3rd Airborne battalion was ordered to move southward to link-up with the 6th battalion. Both units had on the previous day conducted a thorough search on two different axes from the landing zone westward. During its displacement the 3rd battalion was stealthily followed by a battalion-sized enemy. But once the link-up was made between the two friendly battalions, the VC unit on its turn was caught within the field of fire of the 6th battalion and the very center of an ambush. Nearly 200 VC were killed in this fortuitous engagement.
In their search for enemy installations in the area of operations, the Airborne Brigade destroyed 3 training centers, a cache of equipment and 75 houses.
The search and destroy operations were also conducted south of the Ia Drang river but only small skirmishes with scattered VC elements happened.
On 24 November, as no more contacts were made with the enemy, the Airborne Brigade withdrew from the area of operations, terminating the third phase of the Battle of Pleime with 265 VC killed (BC), 10 others and 58 weapons captured.
A close examination of the two accounts reveals that General Schwarzkopf describes the second ambush that happened on November 24, with LTC Truong's 1st Task Force HQ positioning on top of a hill the day before (at 231115H as indicated on the map) and ordering the 3rd Airborne Battalion to the left which made contact with the enemy at 0845H (240845H as indicated on the map) and ordering the 5th Airborne Battalion to the right which made contact with the enemy at 1050H (241030H as indicated on the map); and that ARVN II Corps mentions only the first ambush that happened on November 20 at 1440H (201440H as indicated on the map).
Thus, Operation Thanh Phong 7 - which was the ARVN Ia Drang Valley Battle - unfolded as following: On November 18, 1965, from 1500H to 1800H, Task Force 1 HQ along with 3rd, 5th and 6th Battalions were inserted into Ia Drang Valley. From that staging area, 3rd Battalion marched westward; soon, an enemy battalion shadowed it. Meanwhile 6th Battalion was also dispatched westward in parallel with 3rd Battalion's path, but slightly further down south. On November 19, at 1100H, 3rd Battalion was ordered to link with 6th Battalion. On November 20, at 1440H, 3rd Battalion and 6th Battalion succeeded in ambushing the shadowing enemy battalion at their linkage location. On November 20, at 1745H, 8th Battalion was inserted into Ia Drang Valley. On November 22, at 1100H, Task Force 2 HQ and 7th Battalion were inserted at the same location. On November 22, at 1330H, Task Force 1 HQ, 3rd, 5th and 6th Battalion joined the newly inserted units. From that location all the units climbed up the mountain and reached the top the next day on November 23 at 1115H. The next morning, 3rd Battalion was sent to the left and made contact with enemy troops at 0845H, 5th Battalion was sent to the right and made contact with enemy troops at 1050H. 7th and 8th Battalions then stormed down the mountain and the enemy troops were boxed in with their back against Ia Drang River.
General Schwarzkopf was mesmerized by LTC Ngo Quang Truong's uncanny ability in sensing the positions and predicting the movements of the enemy troops:
- It was fascinating to watch him operate. As we marched, he would stop to study the map, and every once in a while he'd indicate a position on the map and say, "I want you to fire artillery here." I was skeptical at first, but called in the barrages; when we reached the areas we found bodies. Simply by visualizing the terrain and drawing on his experience fighting the enemy for fifteen years, Truong showed an uncanny ability to predict what they were going to do.
- I'd never heard anything like this at West Point. I was thinking, "What's all this about eight o'clock and eleven o'clock? How can he schedule a battle that way?"
- Truong had anticipated, and now we'd boxed them in.
- Now, he hadn't seen a damn thing! All the action had been hidden by jungle.
Little was he aware that ARVN SF Rangers teams were operating stealthily deep inside enemy's territories, shadowing the enemy in all its moves and thus acted as LTC Truong's eyes and ears, reporting back to him regularly all enemy troops' positions and movements; and that "the enemy was compelled to fall into the trap set by friendly forces and canalized into the routes of withdrawal which we (ARVN II Corps) had foreseen".
Accurate and precise intelligence gathering and analysis had allowed ARVN II Corps to perform a magnificent surgical strike against two NVA battalions - 635th and 334th -, which constituted the remnants troops of the twelve battalions belonging to the three regiments - 320th, 33rd and 66th - that NVA B3 Front had committed into the Pleime Campaign. Unlike the US Ia Drang Valley Battle that was launched based on flimsy intelligence resulting US 1/7 Air Cavalry Battalion been ambushed by the enemy at LZ X-Ray and US 2/7 Air Cavalry Battalion been ambushed by the enemy at LZ Albany, the ARVN Ia Drang Valley Battle succeeded in ambushing the enemy troops at two different locations, the first time on November 20 and the second time on November 24. Just envision what catastrophe would have fallen onto the 5 ARVN Airborne Battalions, if because of intelligence miscalculations, these battalions were inserted into an area still infested with an enemy force equivalent to a regiment, like in the US Ia Drang Valley Battle's case: they would have been mauled and swallowed alive due the fact they did not possess the airmobility edge that the US 1st Air Cavalry units had.
Dissipating the "Fog of Histories"
This ARVN Ia Drang Valley Battle was indeed a huge military exploit (General Schwarzkopf exclaimed: I was excited-we'd scored a decisive victory!). And yet, even to these days, it has remained an unknown battle. Both North Vietnamese and American authors and historians kind of bury it under the "fog of histories". The North Vietnamese Communists wrote about the Playme-Iadrang Campaign; the Americans about the Pleiku-Iadrang Campaign; and both sides put emphasis on the Iadrang battle, while minimizing the Pleime battle as merely a preliminary phase of the epic battle of Iadrang, and either lightly touched upon or totally ignored the Iadrang battle fought by ARVN Airborne Brigade. The two following maps which depict the Iadrang battle drawn by the History Department of West Point illustrate quite eloquently this lop-sided view.
where the Pleime battle is only considered as "Opening Moves" to the Ia Drang battle.
Let's set the record straight once for all: the Pleime Campaign was made up by a trilogy of three battles: the Pleime battle that took place within ARVN Operation Dan Thang 21, the Chu Pong battle - that is commonly known as the "Ia Drang Battle" - that took place within US Operation Long Reach and the Ia Drang battle - that took place within ARVN Operation Than Phong 7.
As a final note, it is worthwhile pointing out that it was Colonel Nguyen Van Hieu, II Corps Chief of Staff, who orchestrated the entire Pleime Campaign. It was he who coordinated in person the actions of
- the Commander of the Armor-Infantry Task Force,
- the Battalion Commanders of 21st, 22nd Ranger Battalions and 1/42 Infantry,
- the Battalion Commanders in the Vietnamese Marine Alpha Task Force,
- the Brigade Commanders of the 1st US Air Cavalry Division,
- the US Artillery Battalion Commanders,
- the US Air Force and US Army Pilots.
- the US Air Force Observation Officers,
- the US Special Forces Officers,
- the ARVN Airborne Ranger Officers.
- the Airborne Battalion Commanders of ARVN Airborne Brigade.
In particular, Colonel Hieu had cleverly detected that instead of "static waylays", NVA B3 Front Command switched to "mobile ambush" tactics at Pleime; and he had taken a counter-ambush measure which consisted in delaying the advance of the Armor-Infantry Task Force for a few days, from October 21 to October 23. Furthermore, it was Colonel Hieu who had accurately foreseen the routes of enemy's withdrawal and had brought in the ARVN Airborne Brigade all the way from Saigon and inserted its troops at precise blocking positions in order to successfully box-in two remnant NVA battalions.
Nguyen Van Tin
06 March 2008