The Unfolding of Strategic and Tactical Moves of Pleime Campaign

Based on the analysis of documents from the three participants in the Pleime battle - the South Vietnamese, the North Vietnamese Communist and the American - I draw up a strategic and tactical development that lead to the Pleime battle as following:

- In January 1959, with decree 15, the North Vietnamese Communist Politburo decided to take over South Vietnam by military force and ordered the construction of Ho Chi Minh trail.

- The South Vietnamese strategists anticipated that the North Vietnamese Communists could invade South Vietnam either in a frontal attack by crossing Ben Hai river, or in a lateral attack along the Ho Chi Minh trail, entering in the 1st Military Region (B1 Front or Region 5) or lower in the 2nd Military Region (B3 Field Front orWestern Highlands). They built many strategic roads, such as National Route 14 connecting Ban Me Thuot, Pleiku, Kontum to Thua Thien, set up many outposts from the 17th Parallel along the Laotian border to Kontum. I Corps and II Corps conducted joint military exercices to counter potential North Vietnamese Army's either frontal or lateral invasion attacks.

- In 1962, 1963 and 1964, the ARVN repeatedly launched foray operations in Do Xa stronghold, a NVA troop's infiltration gate at the junction of Quang Ngai, Quang Tin and Kontum provinces.

- In August 1964, NVA 320th Regiment was dispatched to South Vietnam and arrived in Central Highlands in the beginning of 1965

- Beginning 1965, NVA 325th Division Command appeared in Central Highlands and took the command of all enemy efforts in the area. A switch to positional war and mobile warfare commenced. The North Vietnamese Communists planned to increase the combat strength to divisional level.

- From January to May, the first campaigns aimed at paralizing National Route QL 19 and controlling the northern part of Binh Dinh, in order to isolate the northern part of Central Highlands (Kontum and Pleiku) from the coastal area.

- In February, they challenged the Americans by having a team of VC sappers attacking Camp Holloway in Pleiku.

- In March, the Americans retaliated with Rolling Thunder air campaign by bombing North Vietnam, and the first American combat unit, 9th Marine Regiment, landed on Danang airbase on March 8 to protect the airplanes that flew air missions in the Rolling Thunder campaign out of that base.

- Immediately, the North Vietnamese Communist Joint General Staff decided to scare off the American troops and ordered 304th Division to ready to enter South Vietnam to attack this first American combat unit.

- In Region 5, that included Danang, General Chu Huy Man drew up a plan using 304th Division to inflict a damaging attack on this US Marine unit.

- From March to June, the American troops invaded in great number the coastal areas from Dong Ha up to the north to Chu Lai down to the south with more than two marine divisions, discouraging the North Vietnamese Communists from attacking the American unit garrisoned at Danang airbase.

- In July, the US 1st Air Cavalry was created and on July 28, President Johnson gave order to this unit to get ready to go to South Vietnam.

- Beginning July, National Route QL 21 and National Route QL 19 Bis were cut off, isolating the three northern provinces of Central Highlands - Pleiku, Kontum and Phu Bon.

- II Corps counter-attacked with Dan Tien 107 to relieve Thuan Man District (Phu Bon), with Than Phong 1 and 3 to clear QL 19 and 21 and reestablish resupply routes to Central Highlands.

- Also in the month of July, General Chu Huy Man was transferred to Western Highlands and B3 Field Front was created to launch the Winter Spring campaign aiming at slicing South Vietnam in two along National Route 19, from Pleiku to Quinhon, before the American troops swarmed into Western Highlands.

- Meanwhile, NVA 320th Regiment had been encircling camp Duc Co for a month; and by end of July, NVA 33rd Regiment was ordered to leave its base at Quang Ninh on a two month march to Western Highlands.

- Beginning August, units of US 1st Air Cavalry boarded a ship on a two-month voyage by sea to Quinhon. Meanwhile, an advance group composing 1.100 officers flew to Quinhon to make preparation to set up a camp at An Khe in the Western Highlands.

- Also around that time, the North Vietnamese Communist Joint General Staff received the attack plan of Pleime-Pleiku drafted by B3 Field Front and gave order to 304th Division Highlands to make preparation to get ready to enter Western Highlands to reinforce 320th Regiment and 33rd Regiment. Since the order given to 304th Division to be ready within 2 months, and the march down to the South required at least 2 months, one can assume that the plan had chosen December 1965 or January 1966 to be month M to start the Pleime-Pleiku campaign.

- Around September, II Corps Command coordinated with MACV in the planning of destroying the enemy base at Chu Pong and the three NVA 32, 33rd and 66th Regiments at the same time, when these three regiments assembled at this staging area for an attack at Pleime camp.

- In learning the American troops would be present in Western Highlands by end of September, on August 18, while the on-going training program was not yet completed, the Joint General Staff ordered the forward group of 304th Division to depart, and a week afterward came the turn of the entire 66th Regiment, as the battlefield situation demanded, without waiting for the two remaining regiments of the division, the 24th and the 9th, to be ready. The consequence was that instead of a complete division, only a division minus was dispatched. The plan of the campaign was to encircle camp Pleime with 33rd Regiment, to destroy the ARVN relief task force with 320th Regiment, to invade camp Pleime with 320th Regiment and 33rd Regiment. The belated 66th Regiment would participate in phase 3 of the campaign, and would joint force with 320th Regiment and 33rd Regiment to conquer Pleiku.

- By mid September, the ship Rose disembarked the first units of US 1st Air Cavalry at Quinhon. They prepared to be transported to An Khe beginning Octobre.

- Early October, B3 Field Front Command received the approval from the Joint General Staff of the Pleime campaign's plan.

- On October 19, B3 Field Front Command decided to start the Pleime campaign ahead of time as planned by ordering the attack on Pleime camp, while the American troops of US 1st Air Cavalry newly arrived at camp An Khe were not ready for combat, although the main force of 66th Regiment would not be present at the battlefield until November 1.

- On October 20, the forward group of 304th division arrived at B3 Field Front Command Post and received the order to make preparation so that when the 66th Regiment arrive late at the battlefield, they would be ready to engage the American troops at once. 304th Division minus Command studied a tactic using bayonets and selected 300 elite troops to be trained in this newly thought tactic.

- On October 22, II Corps Command after getting an intelligence's report indicating that there were only two NVA regiments, 320th and 33rd, in the Pleime area, decided to assemble a relief task force to rescue camp Pleime and requested that the Americans provided one brigade to substitute the ARVN units in charge of defending Pleiku, and an artillery unit to support the relief task force on its way to camp Pleime.

- In the morning of October 23, one infantry battalion and one artillery unit of US 1st Air Cavalry landed in Pleiku.

- By noon of October 23, 22nd Ranger Battalion was helilifted at a landing zone 2 kilometers and a half south of the ambush site set by NVA 33rd Regiment, while the relief task force composed of 1st Infantry Battalion, belonging to 42nd Regiment and 3rd Armored Squadron belonging to II Corps rolled out of Pleiku.

- By 6:00 pm on October 23, the relief column made contact with NVA 33rd Regiment at the ambush site, and the fighting lasted until the evening of October 25.

- In the evening of October 25, the relief task force entered the liberated camp Pleime. The two NVA regiments, 320th and 33rd, withdrew to Chu Pong Massif. The Pleime campaign ended.

- On October 26, a conference was held at II Corps TOC with the presence of US advisors and unit commanders. II Corps Command decided to exploit the results of the first phase and to pursue the enemy. This decision was fully concurred by the US military authorities and an agreement was reached to establish a close cooperation in operational activities. The US 1st Air Cavalry would be the main effort with the Long Reach Operation and the ARVN Airborne Brigade would act as reserve, ready to participate on Corps order.

- On October 31, the Americans started the search and destroy operation with a first drop at Plei Ia Prieng, Quynh Kla and Ia Mo stream.

- Beginning of November, General Chu Huy May presided a meeting to assess the result of phase 1 of Pleime battle and to draw up a plan to face the counteroffensive of US 1st Air Cavalry and NVA general reserved forces.

- Around that time, facing a food shortage crisis, General Chu Huy Man was compelled to go to Darlac province to make arrangement to ship back food for the three NVA regiments, 320th, 33rd and 66th, and appointed Colonel Nguyen Huu An B3 Field Front Forward Commander with the Command Post located at Chu Pong Massif.

- Also around that time, NVA 24th Regiment belonging to 304th Division was ordered to enter South Vietnam.

- At that point in time, troops of NVA 66th Regiment was still at 20 day march's distance from the battleground and received order to speed up their steps. In order to lighten their loads, the troops discarded their bayonets. When he got wind of this, Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Nam Khanh, 304th Division's Political Deputy Commissar, "had to recruit and organize a group of political cadres together with the transport unit to recuperate the bayonets from route 9 to B3."

- On November 10, 66th Regiment was met by officers of 304th Division and of B3 Field Front was lead to the area of Chu Pong Massif, and set camp in the vicinity of B3 Field Front Forward Command Post.

- In the morning of November 11, the commanding officers of 66th Regiment went to B3 Field Front Forward Command for a meeting discussing about the coming plan of a second round of attack on camp Pleime. D-day was set for November 16.

- While awaiting, "3 infantry companies (1st Company of 7th Bataillon and 2nd Company of 8th Bataillon, 66th Regiment)...comprising troops with great determination and resolve to defeat the Americans...were psyched up, thoroughly trained in the use of bayonets, close combat and speed racing, under enemy fire-power in order to engage at close range with the American target."

- Early morning of November 14, around 4:30 am, US 1st Air Cavalry intercepted signals indicating the presence of NVA 9th Infantry Battalion belonging to 66th Regiment at the foot of Chu Pong Massif. At 11:00 am, US 7th Air Cavalry Regiment jumped down X-Ray landing zone and took by surprise NVA 9th Infantry Battalion, while its troops were about to cook rice for lunch. The fighting lasted for the next two days.

- At 1600 hours, B-52 struck the positions of 32nd and 33rd Regiments. This airstrike carried on the next day.

- By noon November 17, B-52 struck the LZ X-Ray itself aiming at the 66th Regiment. The airstrike operational continued until November 20.

- By noon November 17, the fighting switched to Albany landing zone.

- On Novmeber 18, Ia Drang battle ended after a squirmish at Columbus landing zone.

- On November 20 an November 24, ARVN Airborne Brigade engaged a blocking attack with NVA 635th Infantry Battalion and NVA 334th Infantry Battalion, respectively, both belonging to 320th Regiment in the Duc Co area at the border of Cambodia. The Winter Spring campaign was broken.

- By end of December, B3 Field Front consolidated its forces into 2 Divisions, 1st and 6th. NVA 1st Division comprised 320th, 33rd and 66th Regiments - also called Le Loi Division. The newly arrived NVA 24th Regiment in Kontum area was incorporated in the NVA 6th Division newly formed. Around that time, the US 1st Air Cavalry finished settling in Western Highlands to reinforce II Corps. The North Vietnamese Communists failed in its troop build up race to slice South Vietnam in two in 1965.

- Around April 1966, units of NVA Le Loi Division started to reappear in the Chu Pong-Ia Drang complex and fought with units of US 1st Air Cavalry and of ARVN II Corps through various operations - Paul Revere I (10/5-31/7), Thần Phong 14 (10/5-11/6), Paul Revere II (1/8-25/8), Thần Phong 17 (6/8-14/8) and̀ Thần Phong 18 (21/8-28/8) with huge losses.

Conclusion:

Pribbenow commented that North Vietnamese Communist authors' and historians' accounts of Ia Drang battle were "heavily colored by communist hagiography and propaganda", like blurred by the "fog" (the Fog of War) that blocks a clear view of what really happened in that battle. After a thorough analysis and examination of the various documents, I hope that I have succeed in dissipating the fog in resolving the contradictions that existed in them and in presenting a clear and balanced perspective of this battle.


Reference
- Vĩnh Lộc, Why Pleime, 1966.
- Vĩnh Lộc, Pleime, Trận Chiến Lịch Sử
- J2/MACV, Intelligence Aspects at Pleime_Chupong Campaign
- Shelby Stanton, Vietnam Order of Battle, 1986.
- John Hay, Jr., Tactical and Materiel Innovations, 1989.
- Nguyễn Huy Toàn và Phạm Quang Định, Sư Đoàn 304, tập II, 1990
- Harold Moore và Joseph Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once...and Young, 1993.
- Merle Pribbenow, The Fog of War, 2001.
- Nguyễn Nam Khánh, Chiến Thắng Plâyme-Ia Đrăng, 2005.
- Đặng Vũ Hiệp, Người Chính Ủy Trong Trận Đầu Thắng Mỹ ở Tây Nguyên, 2006.

Nguyen Van Tin
18 January 2007
Updated on 9/24/2014

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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