What Historians Failed to Tell About the Battle at LZ X-Ray

The battle at LZ X-Ray occurred in November 1965 - 45 years ago - and yet military historians, authors and even military authorities involved in the battle, have not depicted it accurately for failing to mention the following significant facts about the battle:

Right name for the Battle

It is not appropriate to call the battle at LZ X-Ray The Ia Drang Valley battle. ARVN II Corps called this battle the Chu Pong battle which occurred at the foothill of Chu Pong massif and reserved the name of The Ia Drang Valley battle to the one conducted by the ARVN Airborne Brigade which occurred further up North by the Ia Drang river. (see Ia Drang Battle? Which One?)

In fact, the battle at LZ X-Ray was part of a trilogy of battles - Pleime-ChuPong-Iadrang - in the Pleime Campaign.

First Strike in Chu Pong Massif

When 1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion, 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade, jumped in LZ X-Ray and engaged the enemy on November 14, 1965, it was not the first time that the troops of US 1st Air Cavalry Division encountered the VC in the remote area of Chu Pong massif. The first encounter with the VC in that area was conducted by 9th Air Cavalry Squadron which engaged a unit of NVA 66th Regiment on November 3, 1965. This unit was the advanced column of the 66th Regiment recently setting foot in the Highlands.

General Kinnard noted in his Pleiku Campaign report:

The confidence of the newly-infiltrated 66th Regiment was badly shaken by the audacious ambush sprung by the Cavalry Squadron, in the very heart of the Chu Pong-Ia Drang complex. The 8th battalion had gotten itself bloodied before it had been in country for two days and, by losing a prisoner, tipped off its presence in South Vietnam.

Precise Knowledge of VC Unit Positions

The public still strongly believe the myth that stipulates the ignorance of the whereabouts of VC units when Colonel Hal Moore led his troops into Chu Pong massif:

- US had little intelligence and did not know how many enemy. (Comment from a person after watching a video on the Ia Drang battle).

- The sketchy American intelligence Moore was provided said the area was home base for possibly a regiment of the enemy. (Joseph Galloway, October 18, 2010)

- After arriving in Vietnam, he learns that an American base has been attacked, and is ordered to take his 400 men after the enemy and eliminate them, despite the fact that intelligence has no idea of the number of enemy troops. (wikipedia on the movie We Were Soldiers...)

However the fact is that when US 1st Air Cavalry Division Commander sent 1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion in Chu Pong massif, he knew precisely the coordinates of the positions of the three NVA regiments. He noted that his intelligence indicated the positions as followed on November 11, 1965:

The disposition of the 66th on 11th November had its three battalions, the 7th, 8th and 9th, strung along the north bank of the Ia Drang (center of mass Vic 9104).

The 33d Regiment still maintained its positions vicinity ANTA Village (YA940010).

The 32d Regiment was still north of the Ia Drang (YA820070)

Preemptive Attack

Interrogations of captive NVA prisoners and ralliers revealed that NVA B3 Front Command intended to attack Pleime camp a second time and to overrun immediately with all three regiments supported by an anti-aircraft battalion and a heavy mortar battalion. The attack date was set for November 16, 1965.

As a counter-measure, a preemptive strike was set for November 14, 1965 when the enemy units were at their weakest posture, because the anti-aircraft and the heavy mortar battalions were still two day away on the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Ground Preparatory Phase

The knowledge of the date of the second attack on Pleime camp was acquired quite early which allowed the US 1st Air Cavalry Division Commander to make preparation for the preemptive strike way ahead of time, precisely on November 09, with a diversionary tactic which consisted of switching the operational direction eastward, inducing the enemy in thinking the Americans had lost their trace. General Kinnard wrote in his Pleiku Campaign report:

The movement and shift in emphasis from west to east was to further stimulate a forthcoming decision from NVA division headquarters.

Colonel Hieu, II Corps Chief of Staff, was more specific in this regard by stating in Why Pleime:

On 9 November, the movement and shift in emphasis from west to east commenced (...)

Convinced that friendly forces had lost tracks of its units, VC Field Front quickly made a decision to regain its advantage with an attack. The target again was Pleime and the date of attack set at 16 November.

Operational Concept

Most historians are still preoccupied with debating which side was surprised by the other or was ambushed by the other and seem not to be aware of the operational concept of the attack at LZ X-Ray which consisted of using the 1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion in a blocking position preventing the enemy troops to flee down south from November 14 to 16, while using B52 bombers to crush them up north from November 15 to 16, and subsequently right at LZ X-Ray on November 17 after pulling out the two American battalions, one toward LZ Columbus and the other toward LZ Albany. The battles engaged on the ground at LZ X-Ray and LZ Albany accounted for about 2,500 enemy KIA, while the B52 air strikes from November 15 to 17 accounted for approximately 2,000 enemy KIA.

If the intention were to attack and annihilate the enemy with ground forces, then the US 1st Air Cavalry Division Command would have thrown in its troops in the center of the enemy formation instead of at its southern fringe in the blocking position and would have committed its entire forces of three brigades in order to be able to overpower the three enemy regiments instead of committing only two battalions.

Control of the Battle

General Kinnard, US 1st Air Cavalry Division Commander, contributed in creating the illusion that the Pleiku Campaign which comprised the battle at LZ X-Ray was conducted totally independent of ARVN II Corps Command, while in fact it remained under ARVN II Corps Command.

A proof can be found in the following two photo ops which show General Vinh Loc standing next to Colonel Hal Moore and pinning the VN Gallantry Cross with Palm on the Colors of US 1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion.

A second proof was the fact ARVN II Corps Command received from US 1st Air Cavalry Command , among others, the After Action Report of 1/7 Air Cavalry Battalion submitted by Colonel Hal Moore and dated December 1965, and the After Action Report Pleiku Campaign of US 1st Air Cavalry Division submitted by General Harold Kinnard and dated March, 1966. Colonel Hieu, II Corps Chief of Staff, used copiously these two classified documents (reference #30 and #32 respectively) and in particular, literally plagiarized Colonel Hal Moore's report in the drafting of his After Action Report Why Pleime.

Three things show that II Corps was in control of the Pleiku Campaign conducted by US 1 Air Cavalry Division.

First, it was II Corps that decided to have the US 1st Air Cavalry Division pursue the withdrawing enemy in the meeting at II Corps headquarters on October 26, 1965:

The decision made by II Corps Command to exploit the results of the first phase and to pursue the enemy was fully concurred by the US military authorities and agreement was reached to establish a close cooperation in operational activities. The 1st US Air Cavalry Division made the main effort with the Long Reach Operations and the ARVN Airborne Brigade acted as reserve, ready to participate on Corps order.

Second, II Corps Command formulated the combined operational concept between II Corps Command and US 1st Air Cavalry Command as followed:

- joint intelligence and support activities and commonly-shared concept of operations and results;

- separate TAOR, command, deployment of forces, conduct of activities, reserve.

Third, throughout the unfolding of Pleime Campaign, II Corps Command based on precise and solid intelligence obtained mainly through radio intercepts of Chinese Advisors' communications, dictated the timing of various troop maneuverings:

- October 27: All The Way operation (1st Air Cavalry Brigade)

- November 09: Silver Bayonet I operation (3rd Air Cavalry Brigade)

- November 14: blocking position at LZ X-Ray (1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion)

- November 15: B52 air strike up North

- November 17: B52 air strike at LZ X-Ray

- November 17: Set up LZ Crooks to provide artillery support for Than Phong 7 operation

- November 18: Than Phong 7 operation (Airborne Brigade) and Silver Bayonet II operation (2nd Air Cavalry Brigade)

- November 26: End of Pleime Campaign.

(To learn more, see Command and Control Skills in Pleime Campaign)

Conclusion

In summary, for failing to mention (1) the right name: not Ia Drang, rather Chu Pong, (2) the first strike in Chu Pong massif by 9th Air Cavalry Squadron, (3) the precise knowledge of VC unit positions, (4) the preemptive attack nature of the strike, (5) the ground preparatory phase, (6) the correct operational concept, and (7) the control of the battle in their accounts of the battle at LZ X-Ray, military historians - American and VC alike - presented those accounts through distorted lens, and the end result is a bias picture, to the detriment of ARVN command and combatants who participated in the Pleime Campaign: they are considered as incompetent military leaders and inefficient combatants.

Nguyen Van Tin
18 November 2010

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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