Dân Thắng 21
VC Intentions and Planning
Among the four battlefronts launched by the VC in September and October 1965 in Binh Dinh, Pleiku, Phu Yen and Quang Duc of the Military Region 2 territory, Pleime was the main one while the others were merely of diversionary or coordinate nature.
This assessment had been confirmed by testimonies of interrogated VC prisoners and ralliers who revealed more details concerning the preparation of this battlefront.
In terms of location, the Pleime camp although was only 40 km from the Pleiku City and 20 km from the District town of Phu Nhon, it was not easily accessible, and therefore was situated at a remote and distant location. The surrounding terrain was dense, rendering the camp to appear like “an egg offered up front”.
But it was due to this “inherent contradiction” of Pleime that it was the reason for the VC to select this place as their objective. Because the enemy can with a more numerous and stronger force attack suddenly and overrun the camp before we can intervene and rescue. If we use the land, the VC would ambush, if we use the air, the VC could position anti-aircraft guns from the Chu Ho hill to easily shoot down the airplanes. After overrunning the camp, the retreat route is also guaranteed by a wide and dense terrain and if they intend to make one further step then the roads to Pleiku and Phu Nhon as stated above are not that far away. Consequently to threaten Pleime means to threaten Pleiku which was the central nerve of the MR2 and of the Highlands!
Not only the location of Pleime was that attractive, its environment was also advantageous. Cambodia and the Chu Pong base were at equal distance to Pleiku allowing for a movement of troops for an attack to remain secret and a withdrawal smooth, unless the opponent opts to carry on in pursuit.
Therefore both the location of Pleime and its terrain had determined the VC in choosing the Pleime battleground as the “Point”.
This battlefield promised a lot of pluses and few minuses. Furthermore it easily created an impact and any impact would always propagate rapidly and widely. The objective of “annihilating our vital strength” and of creating a political impact could be attained. The VC’s victory at Pleime would mean a total annihilation of the MR2 in the eyes of the national and international public.
In order to secure this result, the engaged force must be superior in manpower and firepower. And this was also the opportunity to experience and to learn the conduct of a wide scale attack. The forces allotted comprised the two 32nd and 33rd Regiments.
The 32nd Regiment had been in South Vietnam since 1-1965 and having participated in the attacks at Daksut, Yali of Kontum (2-65 to 4-65), Lę̣ Thanh, Đức Cơ, Quốc Lộ 19, Quốc Lộ 14 in Pleiku (5-65 to 8-65), had more combat experienced in the South and its experience in the Lure and Ambush tactic would be used accordingly.
The 33rd Regiment (also called 101B, 325) had arrived in the South only recently in 9-1965 and still lacked in experience and was assigned the siege of the Pleime camp.
This arrangement demonstrated the VC were very thorough and meticulous in the maneuvering, coordination and distribution of forces.
However as previously mentioned, the enemy’s plan did not only aim at attacking the camp and ambushing the rescue force at Pleime, but also to exploit the military result if winning. The discovery in the second phase and third phase of a military hospital, a weapon cache, a newly infiltrated Regiment in the beginning of 11-65 (the 66th Regiment) along with various big logistic bases in Chu Pong demonstrated that the enemy had made pre-arrangements to go further than Pleime.
Although this “huge” plan did not get the chance to materialize since “the three step plan” had been overturned and failed, a third plan had been advanced by the Field Front Command known to the VC prisoners as “phase 2”. This “phase 2” aimed at attacking and ambushing Pleime a second time with the participation of the two 32nd and 33rd Regiments with the intention of overrunning immediately the camp, instead of making the foolish mistake of prolonging the siege and failing as the previous time.
If we did not pursue the enemy to the very end, perhaps this “phase 2” might have taken place on 11-16-65, as recorded in captured VC documents. And this second attack of Pleime might have been very fierce because the firepower would be reinforced with one battalion of heavy 120 mm mortars and one battalion of 14.5mm twin-barrel anti-aircraft guns. The VC captured on 11-11-65 revealed that these two units had recently infiltrated and were positioned in the Cambodian territory waiting to participate in the second phase of a decisive battle that the VC had planned to create a psychological and political shock among the general public opinion.
On 10.15.65 the VC troops move to attack and occupied the battlefield within 5 days prior to open fire. On 9.27.65, intelligence indicated there were signs of the presence of a VC battalion sized at the area 10 km north and northwest of Pleime camp. By mid 10-65, news received revealed again the enemy was about to attack Pleime.
However, our intelligence also frequently intercepted other news about the enemy’s planning to attack other Special Forces camps in the Special Zone 24 (comprising the Kontum District Sector and Pleiku). In the particular case of the Pleime camp, although frequent operations were conducted, those activities did not record significant engagements with the enemy since 6-65. Despite of this fact, in order to verify the above mentioned news, a company of the camp was tasked to operate in search of the enemy (Operation Chương Dương 40) in the area north of the camp beginning in the morning of 10-17-65 and scheduled to last 6 days. In the 3 first days until 10-19-65 still nothing happened.
Because of that, when the enemy opened fire with 82mm mortars falling into the camp by 23 hours on 10-19-65, the camp reported enemy troops were estimated about a battalion. The locations of the enemy were at the north and southwest of the camp. After the first waves of firepower, the enemy continued to fire mortars along with machine guns and automatic rifles until the early morning, with two probing assaults. With the benefits of a network of trenches and foxholes, the combatants in the camp riposted fiercely and repulsed the two above mentioned assaults and an all out assault by 0500 hours. The enemy had dug trenches up close to the inner fence of the camp, at some spots only 50 meters. The situation of the camp was pathetic at that moment, in particular the lookout outpost at Chu Ho hill had been overrun. However, the enemy scouting assaults were stopped by the fierce reaction of the combatants in the camp and by the firepower of the air force which intervened on time. The enemy was forced to withdraw but did not abandon the battlefield.
And counting from the morning of 10.20.65, a battle had started, lasting almost 40 days with the characteristics of a campaign unfolding through three phases:
- phase 1: from 10.20.65 to 10.26.65 with Operation Dân Thắng 21 organized by II Corps Command to rescue and relieve the Pleime camp.
- phase 2: from 10.27.65 to 11.17.65 with Operation Long Reach assumed by the 1st Air Cavalry Division to pursue the enemy from Pleime to Chu Pong.
- phase 3: from 11.18.65 to 11.26.65 with Operation Thần Phong 7 organized by II Corps Command and coordinated between Airborne-VN and 1ACD-US to finish off the VC remnant troops on retreat to Cambodia.
This is the first time that a big operation, coordinated between two forces was developed and also from this moment a foundation had been established for future coordinated operations between the ARVN and the allies based on common planning, common intelligence, common support and separate commands.
Operation Dân Thắng 21
When the VC began their attack against Pleime, the Commanding General of II Corps and his tactical CP were in Binh Din to directly conduct the Than Phong 6 operation. Immediately after the lifts of heliborne troops into suspect enemy concentrations south of the District of Hoai An, the Commanding General of II Corps got back to Pleiku in the afternoon of October 20, 1965, and a meeting was convened at the Operational Center of II Corps to assess the situation and devise counter measures.
The violent enemy assault at dawn had been repelled and broken by timely and accurate airstrikes but air supply missions and medical evacuation by helicopter still encountered intense anti-aircraft fire. The VC although having suffered heavy casualties persisted to remain in the vicinity of the Camp and instead of one single battalion, their strength was rather of regimental size. In addition to the threat of an enemy superior in number, other difficulties assailed the garrison whose air supply of food and ammunition and evacuation of wounded was hindered by the incessant mortar shelling of the airstrip and the helipad.
It appeared that this time, the enemy did not hurry to act quickly as in previous "hit and run" attacks, although they were capable to do so and had positioned carefully and adequately anti-aircraft guns.
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.
Once again, II Corps Commander decided to play the enemy's game. Since the VC expected to successively eliminate our forces the scheme of maneuver had to make the best use of the factor TIME and to exploit the inherent weaknesses of the enemy troop disposition.
Right in the afternoon of 10.20, an Armored Task Force comprising one Armored Squadron, one APC Company (M 113) and one Ranger Battalion was dispatched from Pleiku to the Phu My junction. It closed on its assembly area at 1800 hours, bivouacked for the night and impatiently prepared to go on further at dawn.
In the morning of 10.21. 1965 the 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. In the same morning, at 0930, two companies of the 91st ARVN Special Forces Rangers were heliborne to about 5 km North-East of the Camp. It appeared as if a link-up between the Task Force and these two companies were to take place in the very afternoon! But it was rather an action to meet an emergency situation: the garrison had fought for 36 hours to withstand a five-time-stronger enemy force.
As predicted by II Corps Command, throughout the second night, the Camp was harassed only by enemy mortars and sustained no attacks.
Convinced that the first part of their plan - to ambush the relief column - was about to take place, the VC Field Front ordered the 32nd Regiment to leave its assembly area
It would be interesting to mention that large-scale ambushes by the VC have been in recent past conducted within the frame of the tactics of the war of movement. They no longer exist as static waylays. Such a change in the enemy maneuver of forces is dictated by the following reasons:
In the battle of Duc Co (August 1965), the VC had suffered heavy losses during their first attempts. Thus, on 21 October, the following events occurred:
It turned out that the ambush that the VC anticipated did not occur. The only event in this day was an engagement between the 91st Battalion and the enemy force surrounding Pleime at 1030 hours. Results: killed and wounded an unknown number of VC and captured one 82m/m mortar, two 50 cal M.G., many Chicom sub-machine-guns and Russian rifles. This contact proved that around the Camp, the enemy had dispersed their troops to prevent being targets for friendly airstrikes and also to ambush our relief forces when they were heliborne in the vicinity.
As more intelligence was acquired about the enemy intentions and disposition, the VC themselves were also gradually aware of the friendly stratagem. They soon discover that all friendly activities thus far only aimed at alluring them to wait for the attack of the relief forces. If they hurried to destroy the camp, the opportunity, which they had longed for impatiently, would no longer take place.
That explained why during the third night, their pressure around the Camp was increased. The Camp was harassed by fire throughout the night but still no assault was conducted. By such action the enemy simply meant that unless relief forces were sent in, their troops would remain and tighten their hold.
On 22 October, the Armored Task Force kept on patrolling on the same itinerary and the 91st SF Ranger Battalion continued to advance in the direction of the Camp. The latter made two more contacts with the enemy and captured 4 heavy machine guns and many rifles. In the afternoon, with a strong air support, it came finally to destination to reinforce the Pleime Camp.
Three days and three nights had passed. The delaying activities had enabled II Corps Command to get more information about the enemy and to gain time. The "Than Phong 6" Operations were still going on (until 24 Oct), and on 22 October all available aircrafts were used to transport one battalion to reinforce Quang Duc. Besides the Armored Task Force, only remained at Pleiku a Ranger Battalion. Even if II Corps Command decided to engage its last unit, there would be no aircrafts at disposal because the 119th Helicopter battalion was still busy with the Than Phong 6 Operations. On the other hand, the foggy weather over the Mang pass and An Khe did not allow any air moves to take place.
During the fourth night, the reinforcement by the 91st battalion had somewhat reassured the garrison. But it was by this time that difficulties arose. For four days the V.C. dense fire-power had prevented the Camp to get their supply of water at a stream in the vicinity.
In addition to that critical shortage, the main radio antenna was broken by enemy fire at 0510 hours.
Early in the morning of 10.23 as soon as report from the Camp reached II Corps Command, decision was immediately taken to push the relief column to Pleime without delay and at any costs.
At 1000 hours, the 1/42 ARVN battalion was air lifted from Kontum to Pleiku, conveyed to Phu My upon arrival and attached to the Armored Task Force. The 22nd ARVN Ranger battalion - the last unit to remain in Pleiku - was ordered to standby for a helilift at 1400 hours. The strength of all the above outfits, including the Armored Task Force amounts to about 1000 troops. It was still inferior to an enemy force of regimental size well entrenched in their ambush positions but the fact is that there did not remain any other ARVN fighting units in Pleiku. To meet all contingencies, II Corps Command requested US Task Force Alpha (Major General Stanley R. Larsen, HQS Nha Trang) to temporarily assume the security of the Pleiku Airfield and Pleiku city and at 1300 hours, Task Force Ingram composed of one infantry battalion and one battery belonging to the 1st US air Cavalry Division came as scheduled.
At 1400 hours, the 22nd ARVN Ranger battalion was heliborne into a landing zone on the Western side of Provincial route #5, 10 km North of Pleime, with the mission to:
At the same hour, the Armor-Infantry Task Force departed from Phu My and attacked along the provincial route #5 axis to relieve the Camp of Pleime.
At 1750 hours, while progressing on an ascending slope and narrow path with dense vegetation on both sides, the TF suddenly encountered violent fire from the South and East. Simultaneously, the enemy assaulted the rear of the column which included the combat trains..
The terrain was completely favorable to the enemy and their heavy fire carefully distributed. But the quick reaction of friendly troops, amply supported by the guns and machine guns of the tanks and the APC's as well as the almost instantaneous intervention of the Air Force, all had contributed to make an effective barrage against the successive waves of enemy attacks. Sporadic fire lasted until darkness fell over the battlefield. The Task Force rapidly reorganized its positions because the enemy would certainly resume their activities at night. They did as expected at 0315 hours but did not succeed in making any penetration into the friendly positions. As in the afternoon, the Air Force once again gave an outstanding show of effective and accurate fire.
In the morning 24 October, while resupply and medical evacuation were carried out, patrols were sent out by the TF around the battlefield. 120 VC dead bodies remained on the ground, 75 crew-served and individual weapons were captured with some prisoners. This prisoner stated that the last night attack was intended to evacuated corpses and wounded VC in the afternoon to hide the casualties. In the diary of a VC named Nguyen Dinh Can, - a remnant of the battle in question the following lines have been written in souvenir of the 23 October:
Throughout 24 October, the situation remained completely quiet. Even so, Task Force Ingram(1) had moved from Pleiku Airfield to position at 10 km South of Phu My in order to provide artillery fire support to the Armor-Infantry Task Force when necessary. The VC failure in carrying out the first part of their plan also doomed their tentative to destroy the Camp of Pleime. The 32nd Regiment was ordered to withdraw instead of joining the 33rd Regiment which was surrounding the Camp. The Camp sustained only some enemy mortar shelling at 0150 hours that night. At 1300 hours 25 October, the Armor-Infantry Task Force resumed advancing toward Pleime. After 5 km, the APC's moving ahead of the column encountered enemy fire which was quickly repressed by friendly artillery. The TF arrived at Pleime at dusk. The camp was tranquil throughout that night.
A sweep of the surroundings of the Camp was immediately conducted in the morning 26 October. Elephant grass was all over around. At 1015 hours, while the TF was deploying South of the Camp, a violent enemy fire suddenly broke out. By fear of being run over by the heavy tanks and APC's, the VC had striven to get the upper hand by an improvised ambush but unfortunately, they were in a too disadvantageous position, concealed but not covered against the intense combined fire from the Armored vehicles, the Artillery and the Air Force. When the skirmish was over, other 140 VC lay dead on the ground, 5 were captured and at least 100 others wounded, with more than 20 crew-served weapons.
The sweep lasted until noon 27 October. Down south the Camp, in the vicinity of the famous hill of Chu-Ho, more enemy corpses and weapons were discovered. Some dead VC gunners were found chained to their anti-aircraft heavy machine guns to force them not to abandon their positions and to fight back as well as to endure our air attacks (a total of 695 sorties during phase 1).
The Task force was ordered to leave Pleime and return to Pleiku on 28 October, as no enemy presence was registered and the surroundings of the Camp thoroughly swept. To secure Provincial route #5 for the withdrawal of the TF, the Vietnamese Marine Alpha Task Force had been air-lifted from Banme-thuot and on their way back, the Armor-Infantry TF encountered no opposition but 6 anti-tank mines which were recovered.
The Dan Thang 21 Operations so ended with about 400 casualties on the enemy side. But the threat from an enemy reprisal still hung over the Camp of Pleime as long as the remnants of the 32d and 33d NVA Regiments were not pursued. This consideration has let II Corps Command to take a decision which will be presented in the following chapter.
The battle from phase 2 to phase 3 was also characterized by a unique aspect in which over the last 20 years, during the Vietnamese-French war, rarely a pursuit had been mentioned after each appearance and even in the case it was done then it would achieve any significant result. Therefore the determination not to let the enemy slip away this time around, coupled with the possession of a solid grasp of the enemy military situation had allowed the battle to unfold to the fullest along with great military exploits never achieved before by the ARVN and its Allies.
(1) Reinforced with one more battery. The 1st Brigade of the 1st US Air Cavalry Division was moved to the Pleiku Airfield at 2400 hours 24 October, right after the Operations in Vinh Thanh valley (Binh Dinh) were over.
Colonel Nguyen Van Hieu