General Harry W.O. Kinnard’s Naïveté in Pleime Campaign

General Kinnard, 1st Air Cavalry Division, was a very proud man, when he lead his newly created 1st Air Cavalry Division into Viet Nam. He told Alexander Cochran in a 1984 interview:

Within several hours after I arrived in Vietnam, General Westmoreland told me that he wanted to split the division into three separate brigades at great distances apart throughout all of Vietnam. I knew that I had to oppose this very strongly – and I did so by explaining the rudiments of the air assault organization and concept of employment. He had not known this because he was not in the States during the air assault testing.

(…)

You’ve got to remember that I was the only one who had ever commanded an air assault division. (…) Only General Gavin had commanded longer than I. I knew in a way that no one else did know the real capabilities and limitations of an air assault division. (1)

He was also overconfident to the point of being naïve in thinking he would vanquish the VC in no time and bring back his troops home within a couple of days of introducing into Viet Nam.

Cochran: Only a few weeks after your division arrived, you would begin sending troops home?

Kinnard: Yes, but you must remember that at that time it was a possibility that we might have to fight our way ashore if Vietnam was, in fact, cut in half. Also, if I had said that a man had to have a year to go, it would have destroyed the division - down to 45 percent strength. It was very important that we had a well-trained team to win the first battles. Still, it did make for an awkward situation with people beginning to go home as soon as we got there. (1)

With such attitude and mindset, General Kinnard demonstrated he was ill prepared for effective combat on Vietnam's battlefields, not knowing the enemy’s and the terrain’s situations. In fact, during the Pleime Campaign, he acted with disarming naïveté again and again.

First Instance of Naïveté

II Corps Command requested General Stanley R. "Swede" Larsen, I Field Force Vietnam Commander, to reinforce the ARVN relief forces of the besieged Pleime camp with the US Task Force Ingram, comprising of one infantry battalion and one artillery battalion:

Gen Larsen cancelled participation of TF Ingram in Than Phong 6 as of 202300H, includes airlift support will be prepared to assist relief of Plei My Camp on 21 Oct. (4)

General Kinnard immediately saw blood and wanted to take over the relief operation from II Corps Command:

Within a matter of hours the estimate of the situation at Pleime was revised and the divisional commitment expanded to a brigade task force. The concept then developed to provide limited offensive operations, utilizing air assault techniques to provide artillery fire support for the ARVN Armored Task force moving to relieve the Pleime Camp as well as support for the camp itself; and to provide infantry security for artillery positions, while still maintaining a reserve reaction force of not less than one battalion for the defense of Pleiku. (8)

Not only General Kinnard wanted to have his cavalry troops rush directly to the Pleime camp, he also wanted to get the ARVN armored relief column to advance hastily:

To try to get the column moving on the 24th the 1st Brigade placed an artillery liaison party with the armored column, thus guaranteeing US artillery fire support for the task force. However, the task force commander elected to remain in that position for the night while sending back to Pleiku for additional supplies. The artillery liaison party came into the task force on one of the incoming medical evacuation choppers late on the afternoon of the 24th. (9)

Had General Kinnard had his ways,

- one, the Air Cavalry helicopters would have been decimated by VC anti-aircraft gunners that ringed densely around camp Pleime, and

- two, the relief column would have succumbed by the VC mobile ambush tactic.

It appeared that this time, the enemy did not hurry to act quickly as in previous "hit and run" attacks. It seemed that they rather planned to compel friendly forces to come in rescue and their objectives would be two fold, first the relief column and second, the Camp itself. This would give them a bigger prey and also more chance of success, thanks to a larger concentration of their forces.

[…]

In the morning 21 October, the Luật Task Force moved on, along the Phu My-Pleime axis but to simply conduct aggressive patrols within a 10 km radius! The order had been expressly given by II Corps Command to the T.F. Commander, Lt Col. Luat, to simulate the imminent approach of a relief column to the Pleime camp while in reality, he had to wait for more adequate and sufficient attachments which would be moved by air from Kontum and Binh Dinh to Pleiku, as soon as the weather conditions allowed the air movements. (10)

Second Instance of Naïveté

After the relief of Pleime camp, on October 27, 1965, General Kinnard wanted to have free rein in the pursuit of the retreating two NVA regiments.

12:30H: Fm Capt Reich, II Corps (w/Gen Larsen): Gen's Larsen, Kinnard and Knowles, and Col Mataxis are now meeting with Gen Vinh Loc to work out extension or modification of present 1st Air Cav Div TAOR vic Plei Me to comply with MACV oral instructions to develop a big TAOR centered around Plei Me to find, fix and destroy the VC in that area. Gen Larsen called Gen Collins requesting MACV touch base with JGS so similar VN instructions can be passed to Gen Vinh Loc. 1st Cav has elements on ground vic Plei Me that are searching around the western side of the camp moving south. Opn being supported by mortars positioned 4K's due south of camp. ARVN is operating from 360 degrees to 270 degrees around camp at a radius of 3K's. Support being provided by tanks. However, the terrain is limiting this support. Gen Larsen told Gen Kinnard to stop the Tuy Hoa opn for evaluation ref COMUSMACV's order. Gen Vinh Loc plans to extract the 2 Abn Ranger Co's from Plei Me. (Passed to G3). (5)

On October 30, General Kinnard got what he wanted:

- 00:50H: II Corps (Major Black) - Ref Plei Me: Camp rec'd a few mortar rds, some trip flares were set off and some SA fire. Nothing serious. 7 cas, med evac requested. At 292350 Col Williams called Col Hieu, CofS II Corps. II Corps requested that 1st Cav TAOR be extended to include the Plei Me area except the camp itself. From present line on NS grid line ZA14 east to NS grid line AR77, on EW grid line ZA/AR15, south on AR77 to EW grid line 00, then west to NW grid line ZA14. Col Buchan, Gen Knowes, Col Williams and Col Mataxis agree.

- 00:12H: II Corps Col Williams - Request extension of TAOR (as outlined in telecon fm Maj Black at 0005) be approved by FFV. Col Barrow notified; Request approved 0025; II Corps notified 0030; 1st Cav notified 0040. (6)

In this account, General Kinnard was naïve in thinking he could seal in the NVA troops in this wide 40 miles x 50 miles operational area:

to seal off the area, in which the guerrillas were fighting, to separate them from their source of reinforcement, supplies, weapons. (1)

He also showed his naïveté in assuming he could dispose of the NVA troops with his “air assault” tactics.

Right after the Plei Me siege was broken, I felt that it was up to me to find these guys who had been around the camp. So we came up with a search “modus operandi” in which the Cav Squadron was going to range widely over a very large area and I was going to use one infantry brigade to plop down an infantry battalion and look at an area here and there. I felt that we had to break down into relatively small groups so we could cover more area and also the enemy would think he could fake us. You couldn’t put down a whole battalion out there and go clomping around. You had to break down into company and platoon-sized units. You had to rely upon the fact that with the helicopter you could respond faster than anyone in history. I then learned, totally new to me, that every unit that was not in contact was, in fact, a reserve that could be picked up and used. This is my strategy. Start from somewhere, break down into small groups, depending upon the terrain, and work that area while the Cav Squadron roamed all over. The name of the game was contact. You were looking for any form of contact – a helicopter being shot at, finding a campfire, finding a pack, beaten-down grass. (1)

The outcome of this All the Way operation conducted by US 1st Air Cavalry Brigade to corner the NVA withdrawing troops was quite insignificant:

After the 1st Brigade battalions generally lost contact with the remnants of the 33rd Regiment on November 7, Kinnard said, in Army Magazine, that, “I had been planning to replace the gallant, but spent, First Brigade with the Third Brigade, commanded by Colonel Thomas W. Brown, and this seemed a logical time to do so.” The general might have been indulging in a bit of hyperbole. The units of the 1st Brigade unquestionably were gallant, but spent? The 2/12 Cav had spent the longest period in the field, eighteen days total – but its days in contact numbered about five. The 2/8 had fourteen days in the valley and only two days of hard contact. The 1/8 Cav’s one company had one day of contact, while the others had none. And the 1/12 Cav had only its reconnaissance platoon truly get shot at in anger. Compared to times in the field by units later in the war, this was a walk in the park. (2)

The NVA small teams just broke up into further smaller units and dissipated in the face of the awesome firepower generated by the air assault tactic of General Kinnard.

Third Instance of Naïveté

General Kinnard fought aggressively to have free hand in the pursuit of the enemy after the liberation of Pleime camp and naïvely believed he succeeded in his effort.

On the afternoon of the 26th, Generals Westmoreland, Larsen, Kinnard, and Knowles met for a conference at the 1st Brigade’s command post, at LZ Homecoming. […] In the conference between Westmoreland and the division officers, Kinnard hammered on the theme that U.S. forces must now do more than merely contain the enemy or simply reinforce the ARVN. The NVA, he felt, must be sought out aggressively and destroyed. Of course, as far as Westy was concerned, Kinnard was singing to the choir; Westmoreland long had yearned for the opportunity to go on the offensive. Kinnard and Knowles also spent considerable time at the conference explaining to Westmoreland and Larsen exactly what the division could do and how well it could do it. Westmoreland eventually turned to Larsen and said: “Give Kinnard his head.” (3)

It appeared that he was not well aware that General Knowles, to whom he entrusted full authority as Commander of the 1st Air Cavalry Division Forward Post established next to II Corps Command within II Corps Headquarters, operated under the control of II Corps Command with a modus operandi set by II Corps Command.

Joint intelligence and support activities, commonly-shared concept of operations and results, separate TAOR, command, deployment of forces, conduct of activities, reserve. (11)

As a matter of fact, General Knowles was all along executing the operational concept conceived by Colonel Hieu, II Corps Chief of Staff of using B-52 strikes to annihilate the three NVA regiments in the Chupong-Iadrang complex :

- On Nov 9, under General Larsen’s order, General Knowles switched the operational direction of Air Cavalry units from east to west to entice NVA B3 Field Front Command to regroup its troops for a second attack against Pleime camp.

- On Nov 14, under General Larsen’s order, General Knowles had 1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion inserted at LZ X-Ray as a move to distract the three NVA regiments which were about to move out of their staging areas to attack Pleime camp, and to induce them to remain there long enough for B-52 strikes which were scheduled to start at 16:00H the next day November 15 at its center of mass (vicinity YA8702).

Meanwhile, General Kinnard professed ignorance

- who ordered Air Cavalry units into Chupong on Nov 14:

The choice to go into the Chu Pong, a longtime enemy sanctuary [near the Cambodian border] into which ARVN had never gone, was not mine. It was either that of General Knowles or the brigade commander. We hadn't looked at the area. It wasn't intelligence that led us there. If anything, it was the lack of intelligence, and this seemed a logical place. (1)

- and the real reason for General Larsen to order the US Air Cavalry units to remain longer at LZ X-Ray (pre-planned B-52 strikes)

At the time of the Xray fight, Swede Larsen was under pressure from the news media on why we left the battlefield. They didn't understand how our unit fought. With an air assault unit, we don't give much of a damn about terrain. You can go anywhere. The focus is on the enemy. You go where he is. At Xray, the enemy broke off, we didn't quit. We were no longer interested in Xray. That piece of ground meant nothing to me. I wanted to go on to where the enemy was. But Swede ordered me to stay in that spot, and I stayed there an extra 24 hours. (1)

Even in the evening of November 14, when he was standing at LZ X-Ray next to General Larsen, General Kinnard was oblivious to the fact that the preplanned B-52 airstrikes were about to occur the next day, in the afternoon, and proposed a B-52 airstrike of his own – not knowing the requirement of a 72 hour window notice for request of B-52 airstrikes.

- 10:30H: MAVC J3 (Gen DePuy) Gen DePuy called Col Barrow and asked if Arc Light had been cleared with CG II Corps. Col Barrow replied yes, CG II Corps has approved Arc Light. Target area approved by Col Barrow and Col McCord. Also Gen DePuy wanted to know if the elem of 1st Cav had received the 151600H restriction on not going west of YA grid line. Col Barrow informed Gen De Puy that the 1st Cav had acknowledged receipt of the restriction and would comply. Gen DePuy personally changed target configuration.

- 11:45H: To: 1st Cav (Capt Coller) 1st Cav inquired on whether 1st Cav has any objections on new target area as changed by J-2 MACV. Ref: Secret Message AVCGT 1511651XF DT 6417052Z. 1st Cav stated they are quite satisfied particularly with the reaction time. (7)

Fourth Instance of Naïveté

General Kinnard again showed his naïveté when he wanted his 2nd Air Cavalry Brigade to pursue NVA troops all the way into Cambodian territory.

I recommended to Swede and up through the chain that I be allowed to pursue them into Cambodia. This is not well known, but my request was approved up through channels to include Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge but disapproved in Washington ... I wanted to destroy the enemy. This would have been my next step, this is what I wanted the 2nd Brigade to do... (7)

Had General Kinnard’s wish been granted, the two battalions – 1/5 and 2/5 – of 2nd Air Cavalry Brigade would have been thrown in the lion’s den and be mauled by the two NVA battalions – 635th and 334th, that would have used the “bear hug” (grab the enemy by the belts) tactic and inflicted far worse casualties to the American troops than at LZ Albany.

Fifth Instance of Naïveté

General Kinnard was really naïve in thinking his leadership style of laissez faire and at the same time impromptu interventions, worked out well, for example

- when he pushed LTC Luat to advance the armored relief column on October 23;

- when he wanted to pull the air cavalry troops immediately out of LZ X-Ray on November 15;

- when he decided to use B-52 airstrikes on the spot on that same day;

- when he refused to move the air cavalry troops out of the LZ X-Ray to make room for the pre-planned B-52 airstrikes at the very landing zone itself for November 17;

- and when he insisted on having the 2nd Air Cavalry Brigade pursuing the enemy into Cambodia on November 18.

He showed that he was totally unaware that the entire Pleime Campaign was executed according to careful and meticulous planning, that could have been side-tracked by his intermittent interventions and sporadic whims, while claiming that he gave free rein to his deputy, General Knowles.

He was equally naïve in not noticing that everybody around him – Westmoreland, Larsen, Knowles and DePuy – had to make great efforts to accommodate his spur-of-the-moment interventions whenever he showed up in the midst of a combat action - at Pleime on October 23, at 1st Air Cavalry Brigade Command Post in the afternoon of November 14, at LZ X-Ray in the evening of November 14, for instance.

Sixth Instance of Naïveté

General Kinnard was utterly naïve when he looked down on the combat capabilities of ARVN troops:

People forget that in this phase we operated in conjunction with the ARVN. One name of the game was to get the ARVN to fight their own war. We turned the operation back to the ARVN and help them with fire support, just as the operation had started at Plei Me.

[…]

From the beginning, I felt it was critical that the ARVN learn to fight their own war. But they had to learn to crawl before they walked, to walk before they ran. (1)

Well, who - while operating in the Chupong-Iadrang complex - were crawling, or walking, or running, the US 1st Air Cavalry troops at LZ X-Ray and LZ Albany, or the ARVN Airborne Brigade troops at Ia Drang Valley?

Conclusion

It was fortunate that General Kinnard delegated entirely the command of 1st Air Cavalry Division to his assistant commander, General Knowles, for the entire Iadrang Valley (Pleiku) Campaign – from October 23 to November 26, 1965, and established a 1st Air Cavalry Forward Command Post next to II Corps Command. That command structure allowed II Corps Command to execute a successful Pleime Campaign with the help of 1st Air Cavalry Division, despite General Kinnard’s naïveté. What remains puzzling though, is why General Knowles had kept General Kinnard - and everybody else - in the dark to these days concerning his close collaboration with II Corps Command in the conduct of Pleime Campaign, to the point of obliterating the key role of II Corps Command and substituting it with 1st Air Cavalry Division’s.


(1) Cochran, Alexander S., "First Strike at River Drang", Military History, Oct 1984, pp 44-52, Per. Interview with H.W.O Kinnard, 1st Cavalry Division Commanding General.
(2)Coleman, J.D., "Pleiku, the Dawn of Helicopter Warfare in Vietnam", St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1988, page 186.
(3)Coleman, J.D., "Pleiku, the Dawn of Helicopter Warfare in Vietnam", St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1988, page 99.
(4) G3 Journal/FFV, 10/20/65 at 24:00H.
(5) G3 Journal/FFV, 10/27/65 at 1230H.
(6) G3 Journal/FFV, 10/30/65.
(7) G3 Journal/FFV, 11/15/65.
(8) Pleiku Campaign, page 16.
(9) Pleiku Campaign, page 21.
(10) Why Pleime, chapter IV.
(11) Why Pleime, chapter VIII.

Nguyen Van Tin
23 March 2013

(revised by Andy Nguyen)

Documents

- Primary

- Books, Articles

* Pleiku, the Dawn of Helicopter Warfare in Vietnam, J.D. Coleman, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1988.

* We Were Soldiers Once… and Young, General Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, Random House, New York, 1992.

* "First Strike at River Drang", Military History, Oct 1984, pp 44-52, Per. Interview with H.W.O Kinnard, 1st Cavalry Division Commanding General, Cochran, Alexander S.

* The Siege of Pleime, Project CHECO Report, 24 February 1966, HQ PACAF, Tactical Evaluation Center.

* Silver Bayonet, Project CHECO Report, 26 February 1966, HQ PACAF, Tactical Evaluation Center.

- Viet Cong

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