The majority of Ia Drang battle narratives in the current American literature are based on Hal Moore’s We Are Soldiers Once … and Young, Hal Moore’s After Action Report, IA DRANG Valley Operation 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry 14-16 November 1965 , Kinnard’s Pleiku Campaign and Coleman’s Pleiku, the Dawn of Helicopter Warfare in Vietnam. Although these are primary sources, they only provide bits and pieces of the action and maneuvers that appeared incoherent and irrational.
A typical inaccurate narrative of the battle has the following scenario (Daddis, No Sure Victory: Measuring US Army Effectiveness and Progress in the Vietnam War, page 124-135):
- On October 23, General Kinnard rushed in an entire Air Cav Brigade and rescued Pleime camp;
- On October 26, General Kinnard committed the entire Air Cav Division in pursuit of the withdrawing NVA troops;
- General Man regrouped his forces in Chu Pong massif and waited for the next Americans’ move;
- On November 14, General Kinnard ordered LTC Hal Moore to use air assault tactic in attacking the NVA troops at LZ X-Ray;
- On November 15, 1/7 Air Cav Battalion’s defensive perimeters became so desperate that General Kinnard had to called in B-52 airstrike to save the battalion;
- On November 17, the NVA troops used the “grabe him by the belt” and defeated 2/7 Air Cav Battalion at LZ Albany.
This depiction of the battle is way off the mark.
In order to get the whole picture of the battle, more complementary details and information provided by the following primary sources are needed: McChristian’s Intelligence Aspects of Pleime-Chupong Campaign, Larsen’s G3 Journal/IFFV, 10/20-11/26/1965, Vinh Loc’s Why Pleime, and Vinh Loc’s Pleime, Trận Chiến Lịch Sử.
To this list, one might want to get some additional information from the Viet Cong documents, such as: Nguyen Huu An’s Chiến Trường Mới (New Battlefields); Nguyen Nam Khanh’s Chiến thắng Pleime-Ia Drang (Pleime-Ia Drang's Victory); and Dang Vu Hiep’s Người Chính Ủy Trong Trận Đầu Thắng Mỹ ở Tây Nguyên (The Political Commissar at the First Battle Against the Americans in Central Highlands).
It is only through a thorough and in depth study of all these documents that one can expect to ascertain the whole truth of Ia Drang battle.
But first of all, a clarification in terms of appellation is needed:
Ia Drang battle - which occurred from November 14 to November 17 - should be rather called Chupong battle or LZ X-Ray battle. It was the second phase in the three phase Pleime-Chupong-Iadrang campaign..
The Chupong phase - which occurred from October 27 to November 17 - is also called Pleiku campaign by Kinnard, or Long Reach operation by Vinh Loc, or Pleime-Chupong campaign by McChristian. This phase comprises three operations conducted by 1st Air Cavalry Division: All the Way of 1st Air Cavalry Brigade (10/27-11/9), Silver Bayonet I of 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade (11/9-11/17, with LZ X-Ray battle from 11/14-11/16 and with LZ Albany battle on 11/17) and Silver Bayonet II of 2nd Air Cavalry Brigade (11/18-11/26).
The Iadrang phase – which occurred from November 18 to November 26 – is also called Than Phong 7 operation and was performed by the ARVN Airborne Group.
The unfolding of these three phases was dictated by a well-thought operational concept that used B-52 airstrike to destroy the three NVA regiments at Chupong. There were two requirements that must be met in order to achieve a successful Arc Light strike: (1) the three regiment force had to concentrate with its center of mass vic XX’YY’ and (2) remained immobile long enough because B-52 bombers needed an eight-hour flight from Guam to Chupong. The first requirement could be achieved when the three regiments had to regroup for re-equipment, re-organization and rehearsals if they intended to stage for an attack. The second requirement could be achieved with a diversionary maneuver.
This plan was studied and formulated in September when II Corps Command learned that B3 Field Front Command intended to attack Pleime camp with the three 32nd, 33rd and 66th Regiments and used Chupong massif as the staging area (Intelligence Aspects of Pleime-Chupong campaign, page 6):
Phase I – Pleime
B3 Field Front Command’s initial plan was to launch the attack by December 1965. To avoid the participation of American troops that were massing in II Corps early October, B3 Field Front Command opted for an earlier attack with only two 32nd and 33rd Regiments present and ready in Central Highlands on October 20.
II Corps Command had to hold off using Arc Light strike and worked out a counter-attack plan that would entice B3 Field Front to regroup its three regiments for a second attack, providing the B-52 bombers the opportunity to destroy altogether the three regiments. For that, II Corps Command only committed two US-ARVN Special Forces companies to reinforce Pleime camp and a 1000-troop Relief Task Force with Dan Thang 21 operation (Pleime, Trận Chiến Lịch Sử, page 94):
Phase II – Chupong
Knowing that B3 Field Front Command remained eager to overrun Pleime camp, II Corps Command assigned to 1st Air Cavalry the conduct of Long Reach operation which comprised two phases: (1) herding the two 32nd and 33rd Regiments to Chupong massif; (2) enticing them to regroup with 66th Regiment to stage a second attack of Pleime camp with a switch of operational direction from west to east.
And to entice B3 Field Front Command to consider attacking Pleime camp again, II Corps Command kept the camp and its immediate surroundings under ARVN’s responsibility, while assigning the new operational areas to 1st Air Cavalry Division (G3 Journal/IFFV, 10/30):
This arrangement made Pleime camp appeared still vulnerable for an attack and remained appealing to B3 Field Front Command.
The herding task was assigned to 1st Air Cavalry Brigade with All the Way operation. Company sized of air cavalry teams harassed the decimated and scattered NVA small units back to Chu Pong. The herding operation was closely monitored by G2/II Corps (Intelligence Aspects of Pleime-Chupong campaign):
At this point the herding phase ended and was followed by the enticing phase which was assigned to 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade with Silver Bayonet I operation. 3rd Air Cavalry was ordered to switch the direction of enemy search operations from west to east (Pleiku Campaign, page 67):
aiming at letting B3 Field Front to believe that the American troops had lost the enemy tracks (Pleiku Campaign, page 73):
and that it was the appropriate time to switch to an offensive posture in preparation for the second attack against Pleime camp (Pleiku Campaign, page 76):
B3 Field Front fell for the subterfuge and on November 11 ordered the three regiments to regroup in assembly areas in preparation for an attack set for November 16.
II Corps Command seized the opportunity and set Arc Light strike for November 15 afternoon.
1/7 Air Cavalry Battalion was sent in to Chupong at LZ X-Ray on November 14 to fix the three NVA regiments at their assembly areas. The insertion caught the attention of B3 Field Front Command that decided to postpone the attack of Pleime camp and to meet the new threat with two 7th and 9th battalions of 66th Regiment while the other units of 32nd and 33rd stayed put at their positions. 1st Air Calvary countered with the reinforcement of 2/7 Air Cav Battalion that closed in by 9:15 am on November 15. When the situation required the reinforcement of a third battalion to rescue an isolate platoon, 2/5 Air Cavalry Battalion was sent in by foot from LZ Victor, so that B3 Field Front Command did not realize the balance of opposing forces had changed from 2/2 to 3/2 and maintained statu quo the positions of its units (General Nguyen Huu An):
and B-52 bombers were able to drop their first waves of bombs over the positions of 32nd and 33rd Regiments precisely at 16:00 hours.
The Arc Light strike carried on with four more waves on that day and resumed the next day, aiming at destroying those two regiments. On November 16, 1/7 Air Cavalry Battalion was extracted, so that B3 Field Front did not feel the necessity to rush in more troops into the battlefield. On November 17, the remaining two 2/7 and 2/5 Air Cavalry Battalions were ordered to quietly move out to allow B-52 bombers to strike the positions of 66th Regiment in and around LZ X-Ray.
The Arc Light strike carried on for 5 consecutive days (Why Pleime, chapter VI):
On November 15 and 16, B-52 airstrikes aimed mainly at the positions of units of the 33rd and 32 Regiment; on November 17, 18 and 19, units of the 66th Regiment; and on November 20, units of the 32nd Regiment. ̣
General Knowles reveals that the purpose for the insertion of the Air Cavalry troops at LZ X-Ray on November 14 was to “grab the tiger by its tail” and to hit its head with B-52 airstrikes from November 15 to 16. He also explains the reason for pulling out of LZ X-Ray on November 17 and moving to LZ Albany was “to grab the tiger by its tail from another direction” and continued to hit its head with B-52 bombs from November 17 to 20.
Phase III – Iadrang
By November 17, 1965, after three days of B-52 strikes, II Corps Command estimated that the enemy had lost two third of its forces, and determined it was time to finish off with the two remaining units - 334th and 635th Battalion - and to terminate the Pleime campaign by bringing in the ARVN Airborne Group comprising 5 Airborne Battalions to execute a surgical strike with Than Phong 7 operation.
1st Air Cavalry provided the artillery firepower support with the establishment of a new firebase set up at LZ Crooks, secured by 2nd Air Cavalry Brigade.
The Airborne Group achieved its mission with two ambushes: the first one on the north side of Ia Drang River, destroying 334th Battalion on November 20; and the second one on the south side of the river, destroying 635th Battalion on November 24.
The Pleime-Chupong-Iadrang campaign ended with these two victories and the Airborne Group was extracted on November 26, 1965.
Inaccurate narratives of Ia Drang battle stemmed from
- assuming it was inclusively an American operation, while it was in fact a ARVN-US joint operation with a clear cut “modus operandi” advanced by II Corps Command: joint intelligence and support activities and commonly-shared concept of operations and results; but separate TAOR, command, deployment of forces, conduct of activities and reserve (Why Pleime, chapter VIII);
- considering it as a stand-alone battle, while in fact it was an integrated piece of action in a vast scheme named Pleime-Chupong-Iadrang campaign;
- and not being aware of the operational concept - that dictated all the maneuvers – using B-52 airstrike to annihilate the three NVA regiments in Chupong massif.
Nguyen Van Tin